Why New Social Movements Are Different

By Eve Ottenberg
The American Prospect
April 6th, 2018

A new book from social reformer Jai Sen explores the international age of protest

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Protesters march at Oceti Sakowin camp, where people have gathered to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline, in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on December 4, 2016.

In mid-March, a Canadian alliance of First Nation tribes led protests in British Columbia over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. This action followed other indigenous protests in Canada and the United States over the past few years, over Keystone XL, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and the Bayou Bridge. One of the most widely covered of these protests, the anti-DAPL demonstrations at Standing Rock, was led by the Standing Rock Sioux, which unfolded in tandem with their lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers. Under President Obama, the Corps finally denied an easement for the construction of the pipeline. With little apparent care for the Sioux’s concerns, President Trump promptly reversed that move.

But one defeat could not stop indigenous protesters. From Alaska and Canada to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, from the Lacandon jungle in Chiapas, Mexico, to the Ogoni tribes fighting Shell in Nigeria, indigenous people have become a force to be reckoned with worldwide—one, more often than not, allied with environmental advocates and climate change activists. The essays in the recently published The Movements of Movements: Part 1: What Makes Us Move?, edited by Jai Sen, a long-time organizer of the World Social Forum, demonstrate that indigenous peoples in India, Latin America, and Africa are confronting the neoliberal order of austerity, privatization, social-welfare program evisceration, and elite privilege for multinational corporations that sustain global capitalism. Indigenous movements are tenacious. That resilience probably has something to do with so many of their struggles being environmental ones, over their own lands or lands stolen from them.

Indigenous movements are tenacious. That resilience probably has something to do with so many of their struggles being environmental ones, over their own lands or lands stolen from them. Environmental struggles almost always involve challenging capitalism—not in a theoretical way, but where corporations really hate it: in their profits. To endure for any length of time, such challenges require that the protesters be tough as nails. Occupy Wall Street challenged capitalism, too, in its heart, and the message was a protest against our new gilded-age inequality. But a park in lower Manhattan is not a tribe’s sacred ancestral land, which could be polluted by thousands of gallons of oil if a pipeline ever ruptures.

The Movements of Movements: Part 1: What Makes Us Move?

“There are approximately 350 million Indigenous peoples situated in some 70 countries around the world,” according to Taiaiake Alfred, the head of Indigenous People’s Research at the University of Victoria, and his colleague, Jeff Corntassel, in their essay “Being Indigenous: Resurgences Against Contemporary Colonialism.” Everywhere, their land and cultures are under attack. But the Standing Rock Sioux protesters were unique, since their struggle protecting their land and waterways against the Dakota Access Pipeline, captured international attention. The attack dogs set upon them were viewed by millions, as were the armed soldiers and police in riot gear who cleared their camp. So was police use of water cannons in freezing weather. But this concerted counterattack did not banish this indigenous movement; on the contrary, the water protesters gained the public’s sympathy, as millions of horrified viewers witnessed their abuse.

Other movements espousing radical change explored in this collection include third-wave feminism, neo-Zapatistas of Mexico, and localism, “which rejects the movement of goods and capital as dictated by contemporary globalization.” The survey ends in 2010: This is the first of two volumes and so more recent movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter are not covered here.

What all these movements share is the virulence of the corporate and governmental counterattack, which singles such left-leaning movements out for special repression. Case in point: Recently, the overjoyed fans of the Philadelphia Eagles celebrated their team’s Super Bowl win with what was essentially a large-scale riot—one that police tolerated and with which they largely did not interfere. A double standard is at work here: Leftist social or political protests are crushed by police violence, but other equally explosive mass demonstrations are not. The reason is obvious: A movement that challenges government or corporate control of its citizens is dangerous. A mass of rioting sports fans? So what if they smash a few windshields? They’re just giddy football lovers, celebrating.

Lately, however, with the noticeable increase of armed white supremacists on the political scene, this abiding double standard has taken on a more sinister cast. Months ago, when white supremacists gathered in Boston, police protected them, as they also did in Washington, D.C., escorting them to the Metro, away from large groups of nonviolent counter-protesters. Similarly, in Charlottesville last summer, when Antifa groups confronted white supremacists, one person responded by driving his vehicle into a crowd and killing counter-protester Heather Heyer.

Though that driver was charged with murder, several African American counter-protesters, whose only crime was self-defense, were charged by Charlottesville police with assault—despite the initial attacks on them being videotaped. One of the two accused, DeAndre Harris, who was attacked by white supremacists, was found not guilty on March 16, while the other still awaits trial. The police, unfortunately, took their cue from Trump, who referred to neo-Nazis as “fine people” and who, on camera, demonized anti-fascists. 

One feature distinguishing many of the movements in Jai Sen’s book from those of the past is the use of social media—a feature that is front and center in Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas. This book analyzes more recent movements such as Occupy and BLM. (There is, however, overlap between the two books in Tufekci’s coverage of the Arab Spring. She also focuses on Occupy and Gezi Park in Istanbul, which are not covered in Sen’s book.) Certainly, the movements discussed in both books deploy social media and exhibit similar structures—horizontality and what Tufekci calls “adhocism.”

But why have these protests—the Arab Spring, Occupy—faded away? The answer is, partly, organization. Twitter and Tear Gas contrasts these movements that disintegrated with others that did not, such as the indignados in Spain, who persevered by becoming a political party, Podemos, as well as the Greek protests that morphed into the left political party Syriza. She also examines the civil rights movement in the United States, comparing that struggle to the digital organization of contemporary protests.

“The minor organizing tasks that necessitated months of tedious work for earlier generations of protesters also helped them learn to resolve the thorny issues of decision making, tactical shifts and delegation,” Tufekci writes; “technology can lead to movements that scale up while missing essential pillars of support.”

This situation—an explosion of protest, magnified by Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and ubiquitous cell phones—often leads to a “tactical freeze,” not being able to “advance a next-phase agenda,” once the protests die out or are forcibly expelled. Exceptions are those movements that organize into political parties. Indeed, as she observes, many Occupy activists later found their way to Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.

Tufekci also scrutinizes a reactionary movement—the Tea Party, which focused relentlessly on elections. “Occupy and the Tea Party were both organized without formal structures and neither had official leadership. Occupy, however, was composed of people who were thoroughly disillusioned with the electoral process. … Tea Party patriots wanted policymakers to represent them.” Another difference, of course, is that the Tea Party, being quite right-wing, was well funded.          Facing such intense repression, not surprisingly, many of these left movements ebb quickly—though part of that impression is the mainstream media’s decision to change the subject.

Facing such intense repression, not surprisingly, many of these left movements ebb quickly—though part of that impression is the mainstream media’s decision to change the subject. The Movements of Movements documents Mexico’s neo-Zapatistas bursting on the scene in 1994, gaining worldwide attention, and starting “a wave of social justice movements.” Later, media interest waned, but the neo-Zapatistas are still there. So are their grievances. “They don’t care that we have nothing,” the Zapatistas said of Mexico’s elite at the very start, “absolutely nothing, not even a roof over our heads, no land, no work, no health care, no food or education, not the right to freely and democratically elect our political representatives, nor independence from foreigners.”

Repression takes many forms. Governments have adapted. This shape-shifting is on display in Turkey and in many Arab countries. They saw what happened in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011 with the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak and are not about to stand idly by and let that happen again. “Attention, not information per se, is the most crucial resource for a social movement,” Tufekci writes. Repressive governments deny that attention to social movements by creating a social media “glut of mashed-up truth and falsehood to foment confusion and distraction.”

As social activists Ashok Choudhary and Roma point out in The Movements of Movements, this reaction does not mean that the powerful have dropped old-fashioned smears and repression, as the reaction to the continuing rebellion of India’s forest indigenous peoples has shown. Interestingly, in India, it is not the Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) but the forest people whose movement challenges neoliberalism’s tenets. According to Choudhary and Roma, the forest people “regard what dominant society calls ‘natural resources’ as their habitat and heritage,” while the building of the modern Indian state has displaced “more than seventy million people from their livelihood resources,” among them the forest people.

In activist Anand Teltumbde’s eye-opening essay, “imperialism and Brahminism are the same” and “caste is the issue.” So why have the Dalits not organized, when they could be such a powerful force and when they have the example of the forest people right in front of them? The reasons are complex, historical, and unique to India, but there is also the undeniable fact that the Indian left has simply been inexplicably slow to organize the millions of people at the bottom of the caste system.

Like the successful 2006 struggle in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to deprivatize the water supply, other movements—the indignados of Spain, the Zapatistas of Chiapas, the forest people of India—saw the mobilization of “thousands upon thousands of oppressed people,” as York University in Toronto political science professor David McNally writes in his essay, “although these movements have been much more effective at resisting than overcoming.”

But that possibility remains. Citizens in the leading countries of the industrialized world have banded together around issues like health care. Two leading figures of the left, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom and Bernie Sanders in the United States, have long embraced this issue, and both have deep organizational roots in electoral politics. The American movement for single-payer health care and the British effort to preserve the benefits of the social welfare state are only going to grow stronger. Can indigenous protest translate into progressive politics, too? The good news is yes. One need only look to Bolivia, where in 2006, the indigenous Movimento al Socialismo (MAS) came into power with its leader, Evo Morales, ascending to the presidency. The possibility of social movements uniting with a political party and not just resisting, but actually overcoming, no longer seems so remote.

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