Rally to the Flag
What animal activists can learn from Rosa Parks and the Arab Spring. (See Part I: The Roadmap to Animal Liberation here.)
by Wayne Hsiung
On January 18, 2011, days after being assaulted by the police, a 26-year-old Egyptian woman by the name of Asmaa Manfouz posted a video on YouTube with a call to action:
As long as you say there is no hope, then there will be no hope. But if you go down and take a stance, then there will be hope. Come with me on 25 January.
The video immediately went viral. Within days, millions streamed out into the streets and ousted a dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for three decades. Activists celebrated across the nation.
But five years later, the movement has fallen apart. A military strongman has replaced the newly-elected President in a coup d’etat. And many of the protesters who risked their lives to bring freedom to Egypt are in a state of despair.
“We’re back to square one,” said one.
“It’s worse than square one,” said another.
Sixty years earlier, another woman put out a call to action. Unlike Asmaa Mahfouz, this woman didn’t have Twitter or YouTube. And it took a year for her campaign to fully mobilize.
But Rosa Parks’ act of defiance in Montgomery - refusing to give up her seat to a white man - had a very different result. Parks triggered a movement that is widely seen as one of the most effective in history.
Both Parks and Mahfouz inspired mass demonstrations. But two weeks into their protest, no one would have guessed that it would be Parks, and not Mahfouz, who would be remembered so fondly by history.
How did Parks succeed?
The answer is that Parks, unlike Mahfouz, was part of what sociologist Aldon Morris calls a movement center -- a dense geographic cluster of organizations, coalitions, and protest. Morris writes of Parks:
Most accounts, consistent with the view that social movements arise spontaneously, describe Mrs. Parks as a quiet, dignified older lady who, on that fateful day, spontaneously refused to move from her seat because she "had had enough.” This account is as mistaken as it is popular. Mrs. Parks was deeply rooted in the black protest tradition. Indeed, in the 1940s Mrs. Parks had refused several times to comply with segregation rules on the buses. In the early 1940s Mrs. Parks was ejected from a bus for failing to comply. The very same bus driver who ejected her that time was the one who had her arrested on December 1, 1955.
Parks was the secretary of the local NAACP chapter. She had close ties to civic organizations such as the Women’s Political Council. And she was anchored in the Black church as a steward in the St. Paul AME Church. All of these institutions developed in her the strength to protest. And when the call went out for mass direct action in response to Parks’ arrest, all of these institutions came together powerfully in a new coalition called the Montgomery Improvement Association, headed by a 26-year-old minister by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In short, Parks succeeded not just because of her own bravery and initiative but because of the movement center she was embedded in.
In contrast, modern social movements are too often collections of dispersed and disconnected strangers, with no history, relationships,or capacity to make decisions together. Modern movements have no ability to rally activists behind a common flag. Zeynep Tufekci uses the recent Gezi Park movement in her native Turkey as an example of what happens when coordination fails:
Toward the end of the Gezi Park protests, the government requested a delegation to negotiate on behalf of the protesters. However, the park had no formal leadership mechanism that was universally recognized by all protesters. A loose coordinating committee had taken to running many aspects of the movement, but lacking formal recognition, it also lacked formal legitimacy. There was much contestation over who should serve as delegates, and it ended up being the government that, on two occasions, invited different cohorts of delegates to represent the park…. [T]he Gezi Park movement broke up into small groups to discuss the matter, which took many hours. This caused even more confusion, and the government moved in shortly after with a massive police presence and disbanded the camp by force.
This is a common refrain one hears in the stories and scholarship of social movements: Movements fail because they don't hold the center. They don’t rally to the flag. They work in a thousand different directions, often pulling in opposite directions. Their activists are dispersed geographically and disconnected socially. The result is that our movements dissipate into nothing, like a generator without a battery to store its energy.
When we rally to the flag and build a movement center, in contrast, we can build the strength to create real change. This happens for three primary reasons.
First, movements centers provide activist support and connection. Parks had more help than she needed when she was arrested in 1955 because she had a true community to back her. Local activists shared her story far and wide, and it inspired over 90 percent of her local community to join the protest campaign. But when the weight of state repression came down on the Arab Spring, activists in Egypt quickly dispersed because they had no movement center to hold them together.
Second, movement centers give legitimacy to collective decisions. A grassroots movement’s greatest strength -- a passionate mass of diverse activists -- becomes its greatest weakness when decisions become impossible. The Gezi Park protests in Turkey collapsed when they couldn’t choose who should represent them to the government. But in movement centers such as Montgomery in the 1950s, community organizations (such as the Black church) provided both the culture and processes to make decisions with legitimacy. This allowed the movement to adapt to new challenges, such as the need to arrange carpools for thousands of protesters.
Third, movement centers help us resolve conflict. Infighting has been a major obstacle -- perhaps the major obstacle -- in every movement in history. Occupy Wall Street, for example, was torn apart by ruthless attacks by activists against one another. But when activists live and operate in the same community, as Parks did in Montgomery, resolving conflict becomes a part of everyday practice. Despite some initial disagreements, the Montgomery activists were able to quickly form a coalition and a leader to represent them. That allowed them to harness the energy created by Parks’ protest into a sustainable movement to end segregation.
DxE’s Roadmap to Animal Liberation makes social, political, and geographic convergence central to our strategy because we understand that a bold vision, while necessary, is not sufficient. We can’t just plant the flag. We have to rally to it. Because it is only when we rally under the same flag that we have the motivation to build a mass movement, the patience to make decisions collectively, and the tenacity to push forward in the face of obstacles and conflict.
Every aspect of DxE’s Roadmap reflects the importance of movement centers. We opened the Berkeley Animal Rights Center to create a physical space where activists could get support and solve the “lonely protester” problem identified by Aldon Morris. We have bylaws that provide for democratic decision-making on key strategic issues, giving the community as a whole ownership over our activism. Finally, we have a strong culture of calling-in, rather than calling out, to ensure that the inevitable conflicts are addressed fairly and don’t tear the movement apart.
In short, we are well on our way to building a real movement center for animals in Berkeley, and cultivating more such centers in cities across the world.
What that means is that, when the right flashpoint triggers a mass mobilization on the streets of Berkeley, we won’t be caught unprepared. We’ve learned from the stories of Parks and Mahfouz. We’re building the infrastructure to use the momentum generated by protest to sustain a movement for change. And we will take the change we create in movement centers like Berkeley and bring it to the world.
Want to read more about DxE's strategic vision? Stay tuned for Part III of this three part series: Flight for the Flag.
Want more details on the Roadmap? Check out the full version of our Forty Year Strategic Roadmap to Animal Liberation. We want your comments!
Want to get involved? DxE is a grassroots network focused on empowering you to be the best activist you can be. Here are some steps you can take.