Movements Take Infrastructure, Not Simply Communication

Community Organizing Organizing

getting_in_car_jpgDelhi   Maybe someone out there is hearing our tired, old, boring message:  organizing takes hard work!  Yes, I’ve said it now, but it was never a secret despite the flutter of excitement about the mirage of so-called Twitter and Facebook “revolutions.

            In two very interesting pieces, one “After the Protests” by Zeynep Tufekci in the Times and “Does a Growing Youth Population Fuel Political Unrest” in the Guardian by Patrick Kingsley, very different perspectives converge on the conclusion that, if you want change, the anger matters, but it has to be matched with the work.

            Tufekci confronts directly the confusion the means, specifically the excitement about the tools of social media, being insufficient to achieve the ends.  Essentially, they can communicate, but they can’t organize.  He cites the sudden uprising of 100,000 people in Istanbul recently to protest the death of a 15-year old hit by a tear gas canister in protests last year around the square.   They came, they marched, and then, it was over.  Or as he correctly observes:

Yet often these huge mobilizations of citizens inexplicably wither away without the impact on policy you might expect from their scale.  This muted effect is not because social media isn’t good at what it does, but, in a way, because it’s very good at what it does. Digital tools make it much easier to build up movements quickly, and they greatly lower coordination costs. This seems like a good thing at first, but it often results in an unanticipated weakness: Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment.

            After noting the lack of change that protest movements from those in Turkey to Occupy Wall Street to the now mourned Egyptian revolution and the huge, but ultimately ineffective actions against austerity mounted by the Indignados in Spain, he reminds people about the infrastructure it took to organize something more sustained like the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955.

Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College, and a few students sneaked into the duplicating room and worked all night to secretly mimeograph 52,000 leaflets to be distributed by hand with the help of 68 African-American political, religious, educational and labor organizations throughout the city. Even mundane tasks like coordinating car pools (in an era before there were spreadsheets) required endless hours of collaborative work.

            Kingsley’s point comes from another direction.  He sees a wide generational gap between the huge, majority young populations in many developing countries in Africa, whether Egypt, Yemen, or Nigeria, and Latin America, yet wonders essentially why there isn’t more action.  He sees the anger, but wonders whether it is about finding a place or about change.  Without exactly saying so, he wonders if this is about middle-class entitlements and grievances, or about something different.

            Both are raising important, “about time” kind of questions that need to be part of the debate everywhere that people have who care about justice and equality.  There are no simple answers, and you certainly won’t get them here.  All of these movements were courageous, inspired, and people gave everything they could to make them happen and win when the opportunity arose.  Nonetheless, it also does seem obvious no matter which way you look at the question, there are no short cuts to social change:  you have to do the organizing work.