December 10, 2014
Why are some protests ignored and forgotten while others explode, dominating the news cycle for weeks and becoming touchstones in political life?
For all of those seeking to promote change, this is a critical question. And it was a particularly pressing concern after the financial meltdown of 2008.
In the years following the crash, America entered into its worst economic crisis in three quarters of a century. The unemployment rate reached into double digits, something that had not happened in the lifetimes of more than a third of all Americans. State governments reported record demand for food stamps. And yet, debate in Washington, D.C. — influenced by the activism of the insurgent Tea Party — revolved around cutting the budget and trimming social programs. “We were basically having an insane national discussion,” remarked economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.
It took an outburst of popular action to change this. And that outburst came in an unexpected form.
By the fall of 2011, three years after the economic downturn had begun, political observers such as Krugman had long wondered when worsening conditions would result in public demonstrations against joblessness and foreclosures. Labor unions and major nonprofit organizations had attempted to build mass movement energy around these very issues. In the fall of 2010, the “One Nation Working Together” march — initiated primarily by the AFL-CIO and the NAACP — drew more than 175,000 people to Washington, D.C., with demands to combat runaway inequality. The next year, long-time organizer and charismatic former White House staffer Van Jones launched Rebuild the Dream, a major drive to form a progressive alternative to the Tea Party.
According to the rules of conventional organizing, these efforts did everything right. They rallied significant resources, they drew on the strength of organizations with robust membership bases, they came up with sophisticated policy demands, and they forged impressive coalitions. And yet, they made little headway. Even their largest mobilizations attracted only modest press attention and quickly faded from popular political memory.
What worked was something different. “A group of people started camping out in Zuccotti Park,” Krugman explained just weeks after Occupy burst into the national consciousness, “and all of a sudden the conversation has changed significantly towards being about the right things.”
“It’s kind of a miracle,” he added.
For those who study the use of strategic nonviolent conflict, the abrupt rise of Occupy Wall Street was certainly impressive, but its emergence was not a product of miraculous, otherworldly intervention. Instead, it was an example of two powerful forces working in tandem: namely, disruption and sacrifice.
The haphazard assembly of activists who came together under the Occupy banner did not follow the time-honored rules of community organizing. But they were willing to risk actions that were highly disruptive, and they put on display a high level of sacrifice among participants. Each of these contributed momentum to their escalating drive, allowing a loose and underfunded collection of protesters to alter the terms of national debate in ways that those with far greater organizational might had been unable to manage.
Time and again, in uprisings that steal the spotlight and shine light on injustices that are otherwise ignored, we see these two elements — disruption and sacrifice — combining in forceful ways. Examining their strange alchemy yields many intriguing lessons.Read more at