From my article in The Sociological Quarterly‘s new special issue on Occupy Wall Street:
Public Performance and Backstage
We know that Rosa Parks was not merely tired when she refused to give up her bus seat. She was acting with agency, and the appearance of spontaneity was part of an intentional performance designed for strategic effect (Polletta 2006). It was fine—intended even—for most people to see and sympathize with her as a tired woman who had simply had enough. It would not be fine, however, for students and strategists of social movements to take her performance at face value. We must also look behind the scenes.
Accordingly, it behooves us to explore Occupy Wall Street’s (OWS’s) backstage and not take its bountiful public performances at face value when assessing the movement (Goffman 1954). What complicates matters is that what we might usually think of as a movement’s backstage—for example, decision-making processes, general meetings, working groups, planning, and so on—is not really behind the scenes with OWS. It is all part of the public performance. To many OWS participants, internal democratic processes were often indistinguishable from external messages. To me OWS’s hyperdemocratic process was an important part of the public message. General Assemblies at Zuccotti Park in New York City operated as a brilliant theater, dramatically juxtaposing a visibly participatory people’s movement against what OWS participants and sympathizers perceived to be a rotted political system that has effectively disenfranchised most Americans. The downside is that General Assemblies were not functional forums for actual decision making. Because they were so cumbersome and easily derailed, many of the most active OWS organizers, myself included, eventually stopped going to them. Thus, much of the real decision making was pushed back-backstage into underground centers of informal power…
by: Jonathan Matthew Smucker, Joshua Kahn Russell, and Zack Malitz
Sometimes activists will take an action without much thought to how others receive it, or what precisely the action will achieve. Many people participate in actions because it’s meaningful to them, or simply because it feels good to do the right thing. We call this the expressive part of an action. Expressive actions come from the heart and the gut — whether or not our “heads” calculate the specific outcome.
“Taking the street” during a march is a perfect example. Sure, it feels good to march un-permitted in the street. You and your comrades bravely disobey police orders and, all together, walk out into traffic. You can practically smell the group cohesion in the air. It’s intoxicating. It’s also usually inconsequentialin terms of broader social movement objectives. Still, how many times have you heard someone say a march was “bad” simply because it stayed on the sidewalk? When someone says this, it may be because their goals are primarily expressive; affecting social change is of secondary importance.
Most trained organizers think on another level: regardless of the self-expressive value for those involved, we ask “what is this action actually achieving for our issue, cause, movement, or campaign?” We call this the instrumental value of an action.
When disagreeing with someone else’s ideas, it can be tempting to engage in narrative attack; to make a direct attack on one narrative from the vantage point, and in the language, of your opposing narrative. For example, when someone wraps climate change-denial views in the rhetoric of creationist beliefs, it is tempting to directly attack the climate change denier’s whole belief system. Once a narrative attack is made, persuasion becomes nearly impossible because the attacked person feels that their whole belief system is under siege. Change becomes impossible.
A narrative insurgency approach, on the other hand, examines the other’s narrative framework, learning the component parts and looking for points of connection. Rather than directly attack a creationist’s whole belief system, for instance, a “narrative insurgent” looks to foment home-grown insurgency against the most problematic beliefs by identifying ally beliefs and seeking to reinforce them. When speaking to creationists about environmental issues, for example, emphasizing humanity’s mandate to care for God’s creation can be an effective point of entry.
If we are to transform the political culture, we need to think not in terms of attacking opponents’ views head-on, but rather in terms of fomenting homegrown insurgency. The root of the word insurgency is “rise up.” Insurgencies rise up from within. Narrative insurgency rises up from within a cultural narrative, transforming that culture from the inside out.
There is a tendency within highly cohesive political groups to want to turn up the heat. It seems to be written into the social DNA of oppositional political groups: when group members’ level of commitment increases, they want to go further. They want to be a little more hardcore. This tendency toward escalation and increased militancy can be a good thing — but not inevitably. It all depends on how hardcore is defined within the culture of the group. It can either move a cause forward — or send it into a dangerous or dysfunctional downward spiral.
Compare the trajectories of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — two of the most important radical youth organizations of the 1960s. Students for a Democratic Society imploded in 1969 and the Weather Underground was born because some leaders succeeded in defining hardcore to mean immediate armed guerrilla struggle against the U.S. government — an absurd prospect for their context. In the case of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), on the other hand, some very astute leaders defined hardcore to mean acts such as going into the most segregated areas in the south and organizing some of the poorest, least educated, and most disenfranchised people in the entire country. SNCC engaged in other more visible “hardcore” tactics as well.
In both cases, hardcore really was HARDCORE. (You can’t satiate the desire for hardcore with anything less!) Members of both groups demonstrated overwhelming levels of commitment to the values of the groups they belonged to. Members of both groups risked their lives, were imprisoned and brutalized, and some lost their lives. But hardcore was defined strategically in the case of SNCC, and tragically in the case of the Weather Underground.
Good leaders anticipate the emergent desire for hardcore—for escalation—and they own it. They model it themselves. And they make sure that the expression of hardcore is designed to strengthen bonds between the group’s core members and its broader political base. It should feel hardcore to the participants, and it should look like moral leadership to the political base and to a broader public.
This is one of several pieces by Jonathan Matthew Smucker published in the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd, the book includes short concept pieces about grassroots action, activism and organizing, contributed by more than 70 authors. Order it here!
It’s out! And there’s a party tonight (April 5th)!
After months of sweat and tears, Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution has hit the shelves! Huge props to Andrew Boyd for herding about 70 cats into writing a whole lot of short, outstanding essays about activism, organizing, creative action, and social change. Beautiful Trouble is “a book & web toolbox that puts the best ideas and tactics of creative action in the hands of the next generation of change-makers, connecting the accumulated wisdom of decades of creative protest to the popular outrage of the current political moment…”
It’s a great book! Order it here!
AND NOW IT’S TIME TO PARTY — TONIGHT (April 5)
Come party with us TONIGHT (Thurs. April 5th, 7pm) in Dumbo (Brooklyn, NY). Click here for details.
I had the good pleasure of participating in three exhilarating book sprint weekends in NYC. And then, in the midst of Occupy Wall Street, Mr. Boyd pushed me over the finish line on the essays that I contributed to the book. Check back — I’ll be posting my pieces here at BeyondtheChoir.org over the next few weeks.
Participating in this project has been delightful. Beyond the Choir collaborated with Agit-Pop, The Other 98%, Yes Lab, smartMeme, Center for Artistic Activism, Ruckus Society, Waging Nonviolence, Nonviolence International, Codepink, and Alliance of Community Trainers — fantastic folks!
Many of them will be there tonight — hopefully you’ll be there too!
The Occupy Wall Street movement claims to be a movement of “the 99%”, challenging the extreme consolidation of wealth and political power by the top one percent. Our opponents, however, claim that the 99% movement is just a bunch of fringe radicals who are out of touch with mainstream America.
They’re not 100% wrong about us being radicals. Young radicals played pivotal roles in initiating Occupy Wall Street. And radicals continue to pour an enormous amount of time, energy, creativity, and strategic thinking into this burgeoning movement.
What our opponents are wrong about is the equation of radical with fringe. The word radical literally means going to the root of something. Establishment forces use the label radical interchangeably with the disparaging label extremist. But clearly the radicals did something right here. They’ve flipped the script by framing the top one percent as the real extremists — as the people who are truly out of touch. By striking at the root of the problem and naming the primary culprit in our economic and democratic crises — by creating a defiant symbol on Wall Street’s doorstep — a new generation of young radicals has struck a chord with mainstream America. A movement that started as an audacious act by a committed band of radicals is growing broader and more diverse by the day.
Radicals will continue to play a crucial role in this movement. Throughout history the “radicals” have tended to be among those who give the most of their time and energy to movements for change. They tend to make up a large part of the movement’s core. As such, their contributions are absolutely indispensible.
However, successful movements need a lot more than a radical core. For every core participant who gives nearly everything of herself or himself, you need at least a hundred people in the next tier of participation — folks who are contributing something, while balancing other commitments in their lives. If we are to effectively challenge the most powerful institutions in the world, we will need the active involvement of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people — folks who are willing to give something. If the core fails to involve a big enough “next tier” of participants, it will certainly fail to effectively engage the broader society. These “next tier” participants are not even the base, but rather the start of the base needed to accomplish our aims.
The past ten days have been amazing. I took the train down to NYC last Wednesday, to see if I might lend a hand to the Wall Street occupation for a few days. There is so much going on. I don’t even know how many working groups there are, but today I heard that there are at least a few dozen. There are so many moving parts. I feel like a pebble in a volcanic eruption, and it’s a wonderful feeling.
Before coming down, I had talked with some friends here on the ground who I used to work with back during the global justice movement days (aka “antiglobalization movement”). They encouraged me to get involved with the press working group and the training working group. Sh!t hit the fan the day after I arrived with Bloomberg’s backhanded eviction attempt, and so I’ve been doing much more press work than training. The press work has mostly been helping to write and edit press releases, helping to prepare folks for interviews (to get their message out through the filters of the mainstream corporate media), helping reporters find the folks they want to interview, and I’ve done a handful of interviews myself too. Here’s one from NY Daily News:
A longer print version of the interview can be read here.
I’ve decided to stay a while longer — probably at least a few more weeks. I’m hoping to stay involved in the press working group, but to concentrate more of my time on training and leadership development. It’s amazing how many new folks are pouring into this social change effort right now. It’s hard on the ground to not to get caught up in almost continuous crisis/triage mode, but it’s so important that we seize this moment to help some of these great young folks become long-term leaders.
I’m trying to carve out a little time each day to write up or adapt a new one-pager covering a particular #occupy-related skill or strategy concept. Two days ago I set up a basic Wordpress site called #occupyWINNING (@occupyWINNING on Twitter), which will house this project. I plan to format most of the materials into PDFs too, so that people can easily print and distribute at occupations if they find any of the tools useful. I’ll be cross-posting everything here too.
In addition to what I post at #occupyWINNING, I’m hoping to soon start collaborating with other trainers.
I’m excited and grateful to be here.
Three Tips for Plugging People In
Bringing in new participants and volunteers is essential to an occupation-or any group or organization-that wants to grow in size and capacity. The momentum of the Occupy Wall Street movement has quickly attracted a lot of people to occupations across the United States and around the world. But attracting or recruiting new people to your occupation or group is only the first step. Getting them to stick around is a much bigger challenge.
The good news is that there are tried-and-true methods you can use to plug new participants and volunteers into tasks and roles that will build their investment and leadership in the collective effort, and will increase what you all are capable of achieving together.
1. Greet and get to know newcomers.
When someone shows up at your occupation, march, rally, or action, they are indicating an interest. Greet them! Find out about them! And don’t just invite them to come to your next meeting. Even the most welcoming and inclusive groups tend to develop their own meeting culture that can unintentionally make new folks feel like outsiders. To increase your new participant retention rates, take a few minutes to stop and talk with new folks. Get to know the person. Find out about what attracted them to your effort. You might ask about what kinds of tasks they enjoy doing, what they are good at, etc. If that goes well, you might ask them how much time they have. You can tell them more about what’s going on with the effort – and discuss with them what their involvement could look like. While this level of orientation requires some time in the short-term, it saves you time in the long-term – because more people will plug into the work faster, and stick around longer. It may make sense a working group to take on the ongoing task of greeting, welcoming, and orienting new folks.
2. Accommodate multiple levels of participation.
In short, some people can give a lot of time, and some can give a little. Organizers with more time on their hands should avoid projecting their own availability as an expectation onto others. A foolproof way to drive new folks away from your occupation or group is to consistently ask them to give more time than they are able to give. Instead learn what kind of time commitment is realistic and sustainable for them. Help them plug into tasks and roles that suit their availability. Check in with them about how it’s going. Are they feeling overextended, or would they like to take on more? Take responsibility for helping new folks avoid over-commitment and burnout.
3. Make people feel valued and appreciated.
If you want to inspire people to stick with this burgeoning movement for the long haul, make them feel valued and appreciated. It’s basic. People like to be around people who respect them, and who are nice! If we want to compete with the myriad of often more appealing options for people’s free time, then we have to treat each other well and take care of each other. Notice and acknowledge new folks’ contributions, however small. Make time to check in with them outside of meetings. Ask their opinions often: What did they think about the meeting? the event? the action? Bounce your ideas off of them and ask for their feedback.
Occupation of a space is itself a tactic. It is an action intended to help us build momentum and to move us a step closer toward our goals. And it’s been wildly successful so far!
But an ongoing occupation of space is also more than a tactic. An occupation serves as a base camp from which we launch many different tactics. Right now occupation movement participants are deploying different actions and making complex tactical decisions every day.
Choosing or inventing a successful tactic typically involves some intuition and guesswork – and always risk. But the more we think critically about our particular contexts, the better we can become at judging how to act strategically. Projecting and measuring our success is complex, but we shouldn’t let the murkiness of these waters deter us from diving in. Patterns do emerge. We can learn a great deal from our experiences when we critically analyze them. This tactic star (see PDF) names some key factors that change agents can consider when determining tactics. The same tool can be used to evaluate actions together after they have been carried out.
A week into the Occupy Wall Street actions in New York, I wrote a short article with perhaps an overly harsh title, Occupy Wall Street: Convergence of a Radical Fringe. I have to admit that I was not very hopeful about the prospects of this mobilization. The rhetoric of the initial call to action seemed out of touch (except for reaching radicals). As inspired by the Arab Spring as I have been this year, I didn’t think—and still don’t think—you can neatly transplant a tactic from one context to a radically different context. Indeed, history is littered with tragically failed attempts to do so. More to the point though, it looked to me like the brave radicals who kicked this thing off were doing the usual thing of putting their counter-cultural foot forward first, and dooming the action to be locked onto that lonely path, where so many Americans who agree with our populist sentiments are inoculated against us as the messengers.
But grassroots movements for change are more often than not rife with all kinds of clumsy missteps. And thankfully the factors that I pointed to have not been enough to stop the growth of this audacious and persistent movement.
This weekend House Majority Leader Eric Cantor decried the “growing mob” of Wall Street protesters, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi expressed her support, and the New York Times also endorsed the protest. Overnight, a political force is being born; one that has the potential to frame the national debate and finally create real populist pressure, a counter force to the formidable power of conservatives and big money.
This thing has, no doubt, gone big. It needs to go bigger. And it needs all of us who are sympathetic to help it to go bigger. If you’re waiting to join the perfect action, where you have no critique of any of the visible actors, you will wait forever. History will pass you by. Social change is a messy enterprise. Now is the time to dive into the wonderful mess. Bring your skills, your time, your money — even your critiques.
Most importantly, bring the people you know — not just the “activists” you know. These issues resonate with most Americans. So let’s challenge ourselves to have uncomfortable, unpredictable conversations with the people we know, from our workplaces, our families, our places of worship, our neighborhoods — not just the self-selectors who we meet in explicitly “activist” spaces.
It’s up to us to make sure Occupy Wall Street’s growth trajectory continues. See you in the streets.