This is a Singular Moment – Two Earlier Movements Offer Encouragement and Risk
We Have Been Here Before – or Have We?
As Condoleezza Rice recently noted,
“In the wake of Floyd’s death, Americans and people around the world are experiencing shock, grief, outrage — a set of emotions that too often are repeated. If the past is a guide, these feelings will fade, and we will return to our lives. But something tells me — not this time. Floyd’s horrific death should be enough to finally move us to positive action.”
Maybe. This really does look and feel like a turning point in many ways and in many places. A moment like this is full of potential. It is also fraught with risk and holds always the potential to sputter out and accomplish little. Two movements in the recent past offer clear examples of what can happen with a movement, based on many variables, but mostly on vision and leadership, real organizing skills and the willingness to stick it out.
A Hopeful Model
The women’s resistance movement started officially for most of us the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration is the first example. It started in much the same way as the current movement. It was angry, it was spontaneous, it spanned society, and it was focused. Leaders rose up around the country and got busy with turning the energy that was afield into something lasting. Local groups were organized, a necessary organizational structure was developed, plans and goals were laid out.
What took place in the months that followed were not nearly as neat and straight forward as the above paragraph would lead you to believe, but they got the essence right. There were false starts, bad actors, prima donnas – all the problems one would expect. But leadership was developed, focus was maintained, and roots took hold. From this foundation came things like the Me, Too movement and the most women this country has ever seen in Congress and in elected office all across the country, at every political level.
Even as you read this, what comes from all this is changing the country every day. Mostly in a good way, I would venture to say. In some ways, that movement helped prepare the ground in some ways for what is going on today. There will be case studies about that movement for a long time to come in many disciplines.
Lost Opportunities, Wasted Commitments
The other movement is a cautionary tale. The Occupy Wall Street movement came at the right time, raising many of the right issues, for the right reasons. Then they squandered it. Remember that movement? At one time it seemed poised to change America. But when I began thinking about it today, I had to Google it to come up with the name. That’s how far it had faded in my memory. Same for most Americans I would bet.
Occupy Wall Street started out just as it should have. It was spontaneous for the most part and it hit a nerve across a wide part of American society. The issues were real. The complaints were valid. The calls for change found an audience. But the occupy movement, in my view, got fascinated with the shiny object of its own initial success. Before long it was obvious that those who started the movement imagined some sort of extended Woodstock. They felt they did not need any serious, sustaining organization.
Everything was a group decision; leaders were not needed. In fact, they were discouraged as a bad thing. I remember so clearly beginning to worry that this thing would run aground when one day, the proof arrived. John Lewis, an authentic American hero came to see them in New York. Lewis had paid more dues than anyone in that movement could even imagine. And he knew a thing or two about organizing national movements.
A Sign of Terminal Immaturity
Lewis had come to pay his respects and wish them well. He asked if he might address the crowd. He was told no he could not, because no one is more important than anyone else and since he was not a part of this movement, they would not hear him. I knew then this thing was dead. A very few months later, it was. By that point, not many people even bothered to read the obituary. It simply ran out of gas; There was no real vision of what came next. There was no will to do the hard work of building a national movement. This had become a side-show of squalid squatter camps.
Think where we might be today if that had not been the case. Inequality in this country today is worse than at any time since the great depression. By any number of measurements, a child born in poverty in any number of countries stands a better chance of breaking out of that cycle than does a similar American child.
I read this week that a black male child born into a poor family in America has a shorter life span than such a child in Bangladesh. How can that be possible? Would we be saying that if Occupy Wall Street had grown up and answered history’s call? We will never know, but we should be haunted at the memory of lost opportunity.
This is Not Easy – Movements Often Fail
Powerful social movements are one part history, one part sociological, one part political, and one part magic. With dashes of many more components. Those who find themselves leading such movements carry awesome responsibilities. Most of the rest of us provide support, energy, resources. We can fill the streets and speak out for what is needed. But if the leadership fails, everyone goes down with the ship.
It’s a lot to ask, often of young people. But there it is. No one gets a pass once the train starts running. Let’s hope this movement has what it takes. An awful lot rides on this one. If we are all still having this conversation, perhaps we will look back on this moment early next year and see what has been wrought in our name.
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