Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Protest movements are SO not now.

Today on my way somewhere else, I stopped by the Climate Crisis Action day in DC. This is the crowd by 11:00am.


It was a little disappointing. And my mom , who actually went to the rally, felt unsatisified. The march was boring, basically. Like all the others I've been to, everybody stands around trying to hear somebody talking about politics through a sound system that does more harm than good. Its no wonder that many of my friends look down on protest events. "They never accomplish anything" goes the complaint.

But there are many examples of very successful protest movements. The 1963 March on Washington brought the Civil Rights movement to the forefront of American politics. Optor! is a student protest movement credited with bringing to an end to Slobodan Milisovec's rule. Duncan Watts (whose excellent book, Six Degrees I just finished reading today) also mentions "thirteen sensational weeks in 1989" when thousands of residents of Leipzig, Germany took the streets in the hundreds of thousands and led to the demise of the Berlin Wall.

The lesson I take is that there is more to the story of protest movements than "they don't work". There has been a lot of research into this already, which I'd like to find out more about. And I also had an idea from Watts' book. He talked about how innovations and diseases spread throughout a whole society by first coming to dominate a "percolating cluster". Percolation theory is a whole field of study, it turns out. In the model, a new idea or disease won't spread unless it finds a kind of home-base mini-network to propogate it throughout the rest of the system. Once the percolating cluster has been dominated, the rest of the network is sure to follow.

Maybe protest movements are most effective because of their role as a "percolating cluster" for social change. I'd like to find out more about the theory, but it seems to make sense on face value.

If this is true, the goal of a protest movement is NOT to win a single policy goal - rather it is to build a densely connected network of individuals sharing a particular attitude towards a kind of policy issue. This attitude, nurtured by this rich community, then can tumble out and infect the rest of society.

I think this suggests a few strategies for protest movements. But all this deserves more organized consideration and broader discussion, so I'll leave it here for now. Maybe I'll do a few posts about in a series?

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