“Beautiful Trouble is essential reading for the socially engaged artist.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
To pressure a corporate or government target with a mass of people in the street telling a unified story.
Everyone’s felt the irresistible people-power of a large march or rally. When a crowd is fired up by great musicians or fiery speakers it can rock. There is real strength in numbers. Most of us have also been inspired by a great nonviolent direct action. When individuals or small teams decide to creatively throw themselves upon the gears of the machine, it can detonate powerful mind bombs in our psyches.
But when you bring the two together, and thousands of folks from all walks of life collaborate in a mass street action, that’s when magic and movements happen. Movements do mass actions. And you need a highly functioning and energized movement in order to repeatedly pull off smart mass actions in an escalating struggle for change.
In the spring of 2011, a million Egyptians took to the streets, occupied Tahrir Square, fought off wave after wave of security forces, and after eighteen eventful and often bloody days, forced President Hosni Mubarak from office. In 1999, 70,000 took to the streets of Seattle and nonviolently shut down the WTO Ministerial meeting, the world’s largest business meeting. In 2010, 3,000 trade unionists and their allies formed a “Citizens’ Posse” and encircled a downtown D.C. hotel full of insurance industry lobbyists for a day in a show of force during the closing weeks of America’s epic health care reform fight.
In spite of the differences here in scale, duration, political importance, targets and tactics, all three of these mass street actions succeeded in their goals because they all shared a few key ingredients:
• they disrupted business as usual;
• they had a clear motive and story;
• they used disciplined nonviolence and focused militancy;
• and they offered an easy way for individuals to participate.
A mass street action can’t really be choreographed; it’s too big to direct by shouting through a megaphone — instead, it needs to be largely self-organizing. To work, though, it needs a shared framework, mode of action or rough script to both facilitate self-organizing and maintain the coherence of the overall action see PRINCIPLE: Simple rules can have grand results.
Tahrir didn’t need a script. It needed a call to congregate in public spaces.
The movement that shut down the WTO was built around a loose coalition, held together by a horizontally democratic spokescouncil. It agreed on a broad messaging frame and laid down some tactical ground rules (e.g. an agreement on nonviolence, specific responsibilities for each cluster of affinity groups, etc.). It was not choreographed, it was chaotic; decentralized but connected.
The Citizens’ Posse action was tightly scripted. Coalition partners designed and agreed on the action frame up front. It needed a tighter script because the action relied more on theater and story than on an actual shutdown of the target. Even though it was primarily a communicative action, it felt like a concrete one because the theater itself was militant, and participants were given a powerful role to play in it see PRINCIPLE: Make your actions both concrete and communicative.
Actions speak louder than words. The best mass street actions put a problem on the map by mobilizing thousands of people from all walks of life to congregate and confront a shared injustice. Hopefully you can gather right at the scene of the crime or an iconic location of symbolic power and literally show your adversaries (and yourselves) that the people united will never be defeated.
At their best, mass street actions make for beautiful organized chaos. But provocateurs (theirs or ours) can easily tip the fragile balance toward a nightmarish battle between cops and protesters. Unless this is your agreed-upon goal, you have to have strong agreements, principles, and preparation to ensure the safety of those who have picked up your call to action.