Building Protest Campaigns: Structure and Movement in “Outside-Inside” Strategies

SNCC members at lunch counter sit-in, 1960. U.S. Dept. of State archive

This is my first review post of This Is an Uprising, an important book by Mark and Paul Engler published in 2016 by Nation Books. Important because it offers insights from many countries that social justice, environmental, and other movements can learn from and apply to their struggles.

In a chapter called “Structure and Movement” early in the book the authors talk about two models for promoting political change and the actions that correspond to each.

Before getting into those approaches, it’s important to emphasize that both–let’s call them “outside politics”–are different from what could be called “normal politics” (or “inside politics”). In normal politics, organized groups and individuals work through formal political institutions to elect their preferred candidates and build power in the executive branch, Congress, state houses, and at the local level.

In outside politics, groups and individuals build power and influence in society largely outside of formal political institutions. The ultimate aim is to build power in a way that influences those formal institutions but in an indirect way.

To explain the distinction between inside politics and outside politics, suppose you call your Senator or Representative to urge that he or she vote a certain way on a bill. Think of that as inside politics. It’s all about influencing the formal political process.

Now suppose, you join a demonstration such as the Women’s March or the March for Science. By taking this action, you are not attempting to influence specific elements of the formal political process, at least not directly. Instead, marches, demonstrations, and other tactics used by social movements aim to influence public opinion and shape the political landscape indirectly.

In building social power outside of formal political institutions, the civil rights, AIDS, and gay rights movements scored impressive political victories by changing public opinion, which led to changes in legislation, executive branch policies, and even Supreme Court decisions.

Let’s now turn to the two models of outside power building as described by the Englers.

The structure approach to political change is exemplified by Saul Alinsky and his allies, which first gained prominence in Chicago in the mid-20th Century.  [For more on Alinsky, see his Rules for Radicals.] Alinsky stated as a point of departure that significant social change organically grew out of organization building. His activities along with those of his collaborators met people “where they were” in their communities and made those people part of the process. New local-level organizations were created and carefully nurtured to grow in numbers and strength in the communities where they existed. As they grew, they were able to solve some problems on their own, but–critically–had increasing influence with local authorities that helped them get public benefits or recognition.

To Alinsky, this incremental building of influence based on communities was the way to go. The alternative of bringing people out into the streets in an attempt to push massive change was full of uncertainty and even where gains could be made, they were likely to unravel as energy couldn’t be sustained and there was no structure–no institutional presence–to support the new state of things.

Alinsky’s approach led to two types of change. First, the change tended to be local as it was grounded in communities. Local level organizations were developed to create centers of power that could advocate for local issues. Second, change was very slow. The Englers describe it as generational.

The other approach or model is described by the Englers as the “movement” approach. It refers to social protest movements that might arise spontaneously and bring sweeping changes as they catch on and change the terms of debate in society, perhaps even overthrowing a government or leader as in Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab spring. The most prominent early supporter of this view was Francis Fox Piven, who with her husband Richard Cloward wrote Poor People’s Movements back in the 1970s. In her view, organizations, although having some value, tended to become static and even supporters of the status quo as their focus was primarily on building themselves and less on transforming society. Because of this static approach, they were inclined to miss opportunities for rapid, transformative change when they presented themselves. Piven criticized some unions for adopting this kind of politics.

More generally, given that normal political institutions and power relations were stacked in favor of the elite and against those with minimal power, Piven and like-minded thinkers held that there was minimal prospect of bringing about significant change through the existing system. The generational nature of organization-building, which Alinsky and his adherents saw as a strength, was seen as a weakness by this school of thought.

Given their lack of resources and political power, how do poor and weak people bring about transformational change? The answer lies in poor people’s numbers, which can be used to disrupt everyday activities and the status quo. Given that the ability to get people out in the streets–especially on a sustained basis–is very difficult and the ability to sustain such actions may be limited, such movements need to recognize opportunities and strike quickly with determination if they are to have a chance at success. This appears to be what happened in Tunisia and Egypt in 2010-2011 when large uprisings were able to overthrow entrenched authoritarian elites.

In the United States, the civil rights, ActUP for AIDS, and gay rights movements showed how protests could change public opinion and bring about change in a relatively short timeframe.

It is interesting that the split between the structure-based organizing and protest movements was played out in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. While Martin Luther King was known for swooping into a location with his group of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organizers to mount a strike or march, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), let by Stokely Carmichael was often present in those places long before and after the prominent boycotts, marches, and other events King led. And the two groups did not always work that easily together because they had different approaches. The Englers cite a telling comment from Carmichael’s autobiography.

“Here comes the SCLC talking about mobilizing another two-week campaign, using our base and the magic of Dr. King’s name. They are going to bring in the cameras, the media, prominent people, politicians…turn the place upside down, and split.” [Englers p. 48]

What can we conclude about these two different approaches? The most important point is that both were critical in waging what ultimately was an effective struggle for civil rights for African Americans. Without structure–the already-existing infrastructure, political influence, and political participation of the local community–it would have been difficult for King and his colleagues to mount the kind of actions they did. At the same time, without those actions–movement–the harsh repression they provoked, and the national backlash against that repression, progress would have been much slower. More generally, both structure and movement are essential components of sustainable, effective protest campaigns. Local organizing and street actions reinforce each other in the outside part of outside-inside politics.

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