If a progressive mass movement is to be built in this era of sprawl and locked down media monopolies, organizers must develop and deploy alternative communications strategies to get and keep the movement’s message into a sufficient number of ears to sustain its influence and momentum.
No mass without masses and no movement without youth
Mass movements don’t happen without masses. A mass movement whose organizers cannot fill rooms and streets, and sometimes jails on short notice with ordinarily non-political people in support of political demands is no mass movement at all. Organizers and those who judge the work of organizers must learn to count.
A progressive mass movement is inconceivable without a prominent place for the energy and creativity of youth. The finest young people of every generation have the least patience with injustice. SNCC was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, after all, and included high school and college students across the South. The average age of rank and file members of the Black Panther Party was 17 to 19. SCLC’s leading ministers in the early 60s were mostly under 30. The 1960s movement for civil and human rights was spearheaded, and often led by young people. Neither Martin Luther King nor Malcolm X lived to be forty. Fred Hampton was only 21.
Any mass movement aiming at social transformation must capture the enthusiasm and energy of youth, including the willingness of young people to engage in personally risky behavior.
What is a mass movement?
Mass movements are creations of the political moment, rooted in the shared values of their core constituencies, nurtured by dense communications networks among a supportive population. They are sustained by aggressive leadership, and youthful enthusiasm. Mass movements inevitably employ civil disobedience, and the civilly disobedient components of mass movements must be carefully calculated in such a way as to maintain support from broad sectors of the population it aims to mobilize, and to increase support if they are violently repressed.
"The finest young people of every generation have the least patience with injustice."
To enumerate some of the typical qualities of mass movements:
Mass movements have political demands anchored in the deeply shared values of their core constituencies.
Mass movements look to themselves and their shared values for legitimacy, not to courts, laws or elected officials. A mass movement consciously aims to lead politicians, not to be led by them.
Mass movements are civilly disobedient, and continually maintain the credible threat of civil disobedience.
Mass movements are supported by lots of vertical and horizontal communication which reinforces the core values of the constituency and emboldens large numbers of ordinarily nonpolitical souls to engage in personally risky behavior in support of the movement's political demands.
Mass movements capture the energy, enthusiasm and risk taking spirit of youth. Nobody ever heard of a mass movement of old or even middle aged people.
In the absence of any of these characteristics, no mass movement can be said to exist.
Applying the mass movement yardstick to real-life cases
Reparations? The reparations movement undoubtedly speaks to widespread beliefs among African Americans. But the last big reparations demonstration in Washington, DC might not have drawn ten thousand souls. A mass movement should be able to fill rooms in neighborhoods, not just in whole cities. With no broad masses in motion over reparations, no civil disobedience, and not much traction among black youth, it’s safe to say that there is no mass movement for reparations.
"Nobody ever heard of a mass movement of old or even middle aged people."
The anti-war movement? With the ability to put hundreds of thousands in the streets several times a year in New York City, in DC, and the Bay Area, one to twenty thousands in scores of other US cities and towns, and hundreds more vigils, demos and meetings still happening each week the antiwar movement passes the numbers test. But in contrast to a generation ago, today’s antiwar movement has so little respect for itself and so much reverence for the two-party system that it practically shut down months before the presidential election to allow most of its leading lights to actively campaign for a pro-war candidate. There is not much evidence of broadly popular antiwar civil disobedience yet, either.
When the antiwar movement loses its reverence for judges and elected officials, and discovers some creative and popular ways to break the law, it will be a mass movement.
The Million Man March and the Millions More Movement?
While certainly big enough, the 1995 MMM was only a single day’s event. Although the still-existing policy of selective mass incarceration of black men was in full swing, the MMM made absolutely no demands for the transformation of society. It was, its leader said, all about “atonement.” There was no civil disobedience, and no intent to sustain any militant action. Organizers of the MMM remembered to collect money, but somehow neglected to pass around a signup sheet, something even the most amateurish organizer knows must be done. What an organizing tool a million man mailing list might have been!
The organizers of the 1995 affair who are driving the bus again this year, haven’t criticized themselves for not taking attendance, or for coming to Washington to ignore political issues like health care, voting rights and mass incarceration, or for excluding gays and women. What kind of mass movement excludes women? Neither version of the MMM looks like a mass movement.
Labor? Union rights, pensions, Social Security and health benefits were won by a struggle with all the hallmarks of a mass movement. But that was two or three generations ago. Today’s labor movement isn’t capturing youth, doesn’t do civil disobedience, is unsure of what its core values are, and collects dues to give to the “least worst” politician instead of trying to make politicians follow its lead. Whatever else it is, labor is not a mass movement any more.
The women’s movement, pre-Roe v. Wade
Both in 1970 and a hundred years ago, this had all the characteristics of a mass movement. Political demands, big numbers, leaders not afraid to call politicians to account, and a fair amount of public, popular civil disobedience. They eventually forced courts and politicians to follow them rather than the other way around, and with some of their key demands met, creative civil disobedience ceased, replaced by reliance on courts, elected officials and corporate sponsorship. Right now, there is no mass movement for the full equality of women. A new Supreme Court, if it overthrows Roe v. Wade will make the re-emergence of such a movement much more likely.
The religious right
The religious right possesses a mass base, along with ambitious and profoundly scary leaders. With corporate support it has been successful in building its own communications networks and influencing or seizing outright control over many civilian and military institutions. The religious right does not follow politicians. Politicians pander to it. Whenever the religious right starts being civilly disobedient, we will see a mass movement with the potential to take us far down the road toward fascism.
The Black Consensus, the next progressive mass movement, and Gary
There is only one place America’s next progressive mass movement can come from. There is only one identifiable constituency with a bedrock majority of its citizens in long term historical opposition to our nation’s imperial adventures overseas. This is America’s black one-eighth. While majorities of all Americans do believe in universal health care, the right to organize unions, high quality public education, a living wage, and that retirement security available to everyone ought to be government policy, and many even believe America is locking up too many people for too long, support for these propositions is virtually unanimous among African Americans.
"The religious right does not follow politicians. Politicians pander to it."
More than two years ago, Black Commentator named this phenomenon the “Black Consensus”:
The original article, from which the above paragraph is lifted, is well worth reviewing in its entirety. It is the statistical persistence of the Black Consensus over decades of polling data and across classes, generations and regions which marks out America’s black one-eighth as the likely origin, and the first indispensable core constituency of any progressive mass movement to transform American society. If such a mass movement is to succeed, it must not allow itself to be contained within the black community. But that’s where it has to begin, around the core political demands of the Black Consensus.
Hence African American elected officials and candidates for office on every level, from the Congressional Black Caucus to local sheriffs and prosecutors must be forced to address themselves to the Black Consensus. They must be summarily judged for their positions on such issues as racially selective mass incarceration, the unjust war in Iraq, American complicity in the apartheid-like policies of Israel, universal health care, equality of educational opportunity, and voting rights, and these judgments made to stick. Mass movements do not and cannot follow political office holders. A mass movement is an assertion of popular leadership by the people themselves. It makes politicians into followers.