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Moving from protest to power

Now that the National Guard and the national media have left, Ferguson, Missouri is faced with questions about how to heal the sharp power inequities that the tragic death of Michael Brown has made so visible. How can the majority black protestors translate their protests into political power in a town that currently has a virtually all-white power structure?

Recent experiences demonstrate that moving from protest to power is no easy task. For 18 days in 2011, hundreds of thousands of protestors filled Tahrir Square in Egypt to bring down the government of Hosni Mubarak, but three years later, the Egyptian military is back in power. Hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protestors encamped in Zucotti Park for 60 days in the fall of 2011, but few policies resulted that help ameliorate the income inequality they protested. Both of these movements, and many others like them — from Gezi Park in Turkey to the Indignados in Spain — were able to draw hundreds or thousands of people to the streets in a moment of outrage, but lacked the infrastructure to harness that outrage into durable political change.

Protestors in Ferguson risk the same fizzle unless they can build — and maintain — a base of engaged activists and leaders who will persist even after the cameras leave. Transformation of entrenched power structures like a military regime in Egypt, or structures of inequality and state-sanctioned police force in the United States happens only when there is a counterbalancing base of power. That counterbalancing base of power, has to come from the people.

How do people, in these instances, become power? Research shows that building collective power among people depends on transforming people so that they develop their own capacity as leaders to act on injustices they face. Transforming protest into power, in other words, starts with transforming people.

"Howard University Ferguson Protest" by Debra Sweet. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
“Howard University Ferguson Protest” by Debra Sweet. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

So how are people transformed? Research shows that 79% of activists in the United States report becoming engaged through a civic organization. Every day, thousands of civic organizations across the country, from the NAACP to the Tea Party, work to transform people into activists to win the victories they want.

Yet many of these organizations are still unsure of the best way to build the kind of long-term activist base needed in Ferguson. Many organizations know how to craft messages or leverage big data to find people who will show up for a rally or one event. Few organizations know how to take the people who show up, and transform some of them into citizen leaders who will become the infrastructure that harnesses energy from a week of protest into real change.

I spent two years comparing organizations with strong records of ongoing activism to those with weaker records to try to understand what they do differently. I found that it comes down to their investment in building the motivation, knowledge, and skills of their members. Turning protest into power begins with creating opportunities for people like the residents of Ferguson to exercise their own leadership.

Consider Priscilla, a young organizer working in the rural South to engage people around shutting down coal. When she first started organizing, Priscilla spent all of her time finding people who would show up for town halls, public meetings, and press events. She devoted hours to writing catchy messages and scripts that would get people’s attention, and asked her volunteers, mostly older retirees, to read these routinized scripts into the voicemail of a long list of phone numbers.

After several months of this work, Priscilla was exhausted. She wanted something different. An experienced organizer told her to invest time in developing the leadership of a cadre of volunteers, instead of spending all her time trying to get people to show up to events. Others scoffed at this advice: volunteers don’t want to take on leadership, they said. They want to take action that is easy, makes them feel good, and doesn’t take any time.

"Occupy Wall Street" by Aaron Bauer. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
“Occupy Wall Street” by Aaron Bauer. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Priscilla decided to give it a try. She reached out to a group of likely volunteers to ask them to coffee. She began to get to know them as people. When some agreed to volunteer, she sat them down and explained the larger strategy behind the town hall meeting they were planning, instead of handing them a long list of phone numbers to call. Then, she asked the volunteers what piece of the planning they wanted to be responsible for.

Priscilla started spending her time training and supporting these volunteers in the tasks they’d chosen to oversee. With her help, these volunteers developed their own strategies for getting media for the event, identifying a program of speakers, and leveraging their own social networks to generate turnout. When the big day arrived, more people showed up than Priscilla would have been able to get on her own. More importantly, after the event was over, she also had a group of volunteer leaders exhilarated by their experience running a town hall and eager to do more.

Instead of just getting bodies to fill a room, Priscilla had begun the process of developing leaders. Instead of just coming to one rally, those leaders stayed with and built the campaign that eventually shut down the coal plant in their community.

There are talented organizers on the ground in Ferguson trying to do just what Priscilla did: give residents opportunities to develop the skills and motivation they need to make the change they want. Only by developing those kinds of leaders will organizations in Ferguson develop the infrastructure they need to turn the protest into real power for the residents who feel disconnected from it now.

When Alexis de Tocqueville observed America in the 1830s, he famously wrote that civic organizations are the backbone of our nation because they act as “schools of democracy,” teaching people how to work collectively with others to advance their interests. De Tocqueville is as right today as he was 174 years ago. We have always known that people power democracy. What protests from Occupy to the Arab Spring to Ferguson are teaching us is that democracy can also power people.

Headline image credit: “Occupy Wall Street” by Darwin Yamamoto. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

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  1. […] many different implications for activism, democratic theory, and civic engagement (see here and here for a description of the difference between the […]

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