Parsing Demonstrations to Movements to Organizations

Community Organizing Organizing

Santa Cruz      Let’s give a “A” for effort on this paper, regardless of quibbles about content.  At least Beverly Gage, a Yale history professor, writing for the New York Times Magazine in a piece entitled “Cause and Effort” gave some props to social change and tried to introduce some of the problems and potential of organizing to a larger audience of the cognoscenti who might have made it through the magazine on a Sunday.  The question she takes for herself has been the subject of constant discussion and debate among generations of organizers who understand why movements are so important, and that is “…how and when do we decide that a movement actually exists?”

In some ways the answer is simpler and more obtuse.  It’s a little bit like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography which often boils down to “I’ll know it when I see it.”  When a movement “actually exists” there is no longer any reason for deciding or speculating, it is as obvious and moving as the roar of an incoming tide.  Any time someone must ask whether something is really a movement or simply claiming the mantle of a movement, the answer is demonstrably, “No, it’s not a movement.”  Everyone can recognize a movement when it is in full force and flower.  You can also tell there is a movement as much by its opponents as by its adherents.  In times of real movement, how to act and react to change is on everyone’s lips and in everyone’s minds.

In trying to help a mass readership get their arms around the existence of a movement, Gage works her way through some false dichotomies that are less than helpful.  On one hand she underplays movements in comparison to “something disciplined, tactically savvy and in for the long haul,” as if, by definition, those elements would not or could not normally be part of a movement.  She also wants movements to have clear leaders to make it easier to identify and positions this as a modern problem of “leaderless movements,” yet genuine movements have always been marked by their ability to move people into action, regardless of leaders.  Often in movements the so-called “leaders” are externally identified or internally ambitious and racing to stay even and ahead of real movements demands for change.  Surfers riding the wave are not the ocean.  She also wants numbers to be a gateway to recognizing a movement and tries to make some curious points about demonstrations and how they happen, then and now.

The most curious point Gage makes is about whether the short shelf life of many, perhaps all, movements is a sign of success.  Often it is more about the dynamics of change and the constant pressures on people to deal with the rest of their lives.  Some people can be in motion all the time and make issues, change, organizations and the search for movement their entire life, but most people respond to the surge of a movement as they rise up and act, and then settle down with the change that is made and go on with the struggles of their regular lives.

Gage ends well though pointing out that in “social activism …nobody can ever really predict when, where, how or why any given issue will change from a lost cause to a cause celebre.”  She then quotes a colleague reminding students that “ambitious goals have usually been ‘impossible’ until they were achieved, at which point they suddenly become ‘inevitable,’ a matter of simple justice and common sense.  The movement is what happens in between.”  Those are very helpful points, though when we look at the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the labor movement, the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, and many others, we still seem not to have come to the clear, high ground where these issues are now “a matter of simple justice and common sense.”