This Is An Uprising
Do you remember the protest at Standing Rock? The thousands of arrests in front of the White House over the Keystone XL pipeline? The energy in the air, the sense that this was a revolution, that this time something was really happening? The videos of the water hoses in below-freezing weather, the snarling dogs? The flash-bang grenades that hit people directly, blowing huge holes in their bodies?
Did you know that in July 2020, a judge shut down the Dakota Access pipeline? Did you hear that Biden plans to nix the Keystone XL pipeline on his first day in office?
The tension between the momentum that rises in an opportune moment, a perfect storm--and the letdown, the lag before we see any results, has often made me feel like activism is useless. Like that Vonnegut quote: "During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a step ladder six feet high."
How would you feel if you knew that that feeling of failure is something that almost every single successful nonviolent uprising has in common? That it's a sign of success?
I've been recommending this book to everyone I know. I got it from the library, then halfway through I ordered myself a paper copy, because I know I'm going to want to read it again and make notes in the margins.
Half of what I found appealing in THIS IS AN UPRISING has to do with my motive for reading it. I'm writing a novel that involves a nonviolent revolution, and while I didn't want to pattern it on any specific real-world example, I do want it to be grounded in real history. The multiplicity of real world examples plus insightful analysis made this book the perfect resource for my purposes.
The other half of what I love is the way this book illuminates the social movements I've been a part of. A lot of the frustrations I have with activism are essential parts of the analysis the Englers make here: the pessimism of long-term organizers, the self-sabotaging of leftist organizations, the insular 'lifestyle activism' of (some) leftists that makes it seem like they don't actually *want* to accomplish anything big, the unpredictability of the next big wave of action. When you can fit all those things into a pattern of activism that actually does accomplish things in spite of itself, I think it's easier to find grace for other activists. Which is a good thing.
Anyway, if you read any non-fiction book this year, make it this one. Just this morning twitter informed me that Biden plans to wipe out the Keystone XL pipeline with an executive order on his first day in office. It is the magic of nonviolent uprisings that once they achieve their aims their fervency--the very thing that made them effective--seems so unnecessary that it's a little ridiculous.
From the conclusion:
"Momentum-driven organizing uses the tools of civil resistance to consciously spark, amplify, and harness mass protest. It highlights the importance of hybrid organizations, such as Otpor [in Serbia] and SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference], which can build decentralized networks to sustain protest mobilizations through multiple waves of activity. It goes beyond transactional goals by also advancing a transformational agenda, and it wins by swaying public opinion and pulling the pillars of support. It is attentive to the symbolic properties of campaigns, showing how these can sometimes be just as important as instrumental demands, if not more so. It uses disruption, sacrifice, and escalation to build tension and bring overlooked issues into the public spotlight. It aspires, at its peak, to create moments of the whirlwind, when outbreaks of decentralized action extend far outside the institutional limits of any one organization. It is willing to polarize public opinion and risk controversy with bold protests, but it maintains nonviolent discipline to ensure that it does not undermine broad-based support for its cause. And it is conscious of the need to work with other organizing traditions in order to institutionalize gains and foster alternative communities that can sustain resistance over the long term.
In advancing all of these ideas, momentum-driven organizing contends that the study of mass mobilization has been too often neglected and that reversing this neglect can be essential to the success of future social movements in the United States and beyond. Many different kinds of activity are needed for citizens to provoke, secure, and sustain social progress. The point of momentum-driven organizing is not to deny the contributions of other approaches. But it is to suggest a simple and urgent idea: that uprising can be a craft, and that this craft can change our world.
Those who practice it tell us that outbreaks of widespread disruption, although commonly misunderstood, are neither flukes nor fleeting failures. Rather, they are forces that can be guided with the exercise of conscious and careful effort. Indeed, if the growing legion of these practitioners is right, few forces will have as significant a role in shaping the contours of public life in the years to come."