Protests in Perspective: Civil Disobedience & Activism Today, with Erica Chenoweth & Deva Woodly
November 16, 2020
TING TING CHENG: Hello, and welcome to everyone joining us today from across the globe. Our topic of discussion is "Protests in Perspective: Civil Disobedience & Activism Today."
My name is Ting Ting Cheng, and I am a civil rights attorney with Legal Momentum, the women's legal defense and education fund, where I engage in impact litigation, policy advocacy, and education to advance gender justice issues. I am also an activist. I was the legal director of the 2017 Women's March on Washington. Since then I have been engaged in a number of grassroots gender justice issues across the country.
It has been a long year, a long month, and an even longer week, and we are undoubtedly living in a fraught and tumultuous time. Yet we have also seen an unprecedented groundswell of civic engagement and social activism, providing movements of hope, changing the public discourse around racial justice, gender equality, and immigrant rights, among many other issues, and it is extremely heartening to see the resilience of organizing as a political phenomenon and as an essential tool to building lasting political power.
We have also seen our movements in the United States grow from homegrown movements into widespread mass-mobilization efforts taking on a global nature, some through the efforts of concerted planning, like the Women's Marches, and others quite spontaneous, like the global protests in response to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, among others.
In this discussion we will be discussing in depth both the current landscape and the antecedents to the current social movements. We will be talking about successes and failures and the measures which we use to judge the efficacy of different movements. We will look at the characteristics of their governance and who should or shouldn't be leading them. We will also be assessing the near-term and long-term tactics of social movements and the conflict between the two and I am sure various other topics that are going to come up.
I want to note that for students participating today some of you will perhaps be the leaders and drivers of these social movements for the coming decades, so I encourage you to treat this like an open dialogue, to submit your questions in the Chat box at any time, and we will focus on them after the speakers' comments in the last 30 minutes.
Now it is my pleasure to introduce our featured speakers. Our first speaker is Dr. Deva Woodly. Dr. Woodly is an associate professor of politics at The New School and the author of The Politics of Common Sense: How Social Movements Use Public Discourse to Change Politics and Win Acceptance. Her research covers a variety of topics, from media and communications to social movements, race and imagination, and political understandings of economics. In each case, she focuses on the impact of public discourse on the political understanding of social and economic issues as well as how those common understandings change democratic practice and public policy. Her process of inquiry moves from concrete, real-world conditions to the conceptual implications of those realities. In all cases, she centers the perspective of ordinary citizens and political challengers with an eye toward how the demos impacts political action and shapes political possibilities.
Welcome, Dr. Woodly.
Our second featured speaker is Dr. Erica Chenoweth, the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and a Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Dr. Chenoweth directs the Nonviolent Action Lab at Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, where they study political violence and its alternatives. Dr. Chenoweth's forthcoming book, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know, explores what civil resistance is, how it works, why it sometimes fails, how violence and repression affect it, and the long-term impacts of such resistance.
To start, I would like to invite our speakers to offer initial thoughts about how we should understand the connection between protest and democracy, and what the relationship is between resistance movements and successful progressive reform.
Dr. Woodly, I would like to ask you to lead this discussion.
DEVA WOODLY: Thank you so much, Ting.
I have so much to say about recent events. Of course, I am sure that we all do. The thing that I want to start out with is an overarching observation, which is part of the argument that I make in my forthcoming book, which is called Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements. The main argument of this book is that we have been thinking about social movements in the wrong way in democratic theory and political science more generally. That is to say that social movements are not interruptions in democracy but are instead the things that allow democracy to remain itself. Social movements are a feature and not a bug of democracy, and they are actually a part of the regular functioning of democracy.
There is a reason why every moment in history when we have had democratic governance we have also had social movements, and it is because as Max Weber said with his argument about the iron cage, any kind of large institution over time will tend to serve itself as an institution rather than serve the mission for which it was built, and that includes democratic institutions, no matter how well designed. The good thing is that in democracies what happens is that people believe the hype about democracy being a system of governance where it is actually the people governing themselves, a system of self-governance. So they can withdraw their authority—they are the "authors" of democratic governance—from their governors and demand to be responded to, demand a reckoning, in terms of how governance will be carried out.
That is the first thing. Social movements are necessary for democracy. They are not incidental. They are not interruptions. They are not fugitive forms of democracy. They are democracy itself.
I think that we see that happening in the U.S. case but also around the world today. When we enter periods like this period—and I think we have been in a period like this since the beginning of the 21st century, what Sidney Tarrow calls a "contentious cycle," and that means there is a proliferation of social movements all around the world that overlap and interconnect in various kinds of ways—because at the end of the 20th century we had in most democracies a narrative about liberalism and development, that we were at the end of history, and that our well-designed institutions would carry us forward indefinitely into the future in an upward spiral of increasing tolerance and prosperity.
Well, reality had something to say about that. It actually has not been empirically the case that we have had increasing development in countries around the world and even in countries that are considered "developed," where soaring inequality has put much of the populations behind their expectations, and we certainly have not had increasing tolerance around the world in any kind of uniform fashion.
This is something that we might have predicted. American pragmatists like John Dewey and others have always said—and there have been many thinkers who have made the point—that regression is just as likely as progression in any kind of political situation. So we always have to keep our hands on the plow, as it were.
That is what people have been learning in the 21st century, that the arc of the moral universe actually does not bend toward justice unless we bend it. The way that we do that is through political organizing, participation, and education, and these things lead to increased political action and efficacy. It is an efficacious and participating public that makes a democracy.
People get into—and people in the U.S. case have gotten into—participating in politics in part because we had been suffering from what I call a "politics of despair." This politics of despair is not about a mood in terms of people's affect toward politics, at least not by itself. It is actually a sense of decreasing trust in institutions, decreasing trust in leadership, observations that representation of the populace has become less and less frequent, more unresponsive, at least to large segments of the population, and ends up in a belief that participating in politics does not make any difference. This is a democratic despair, which corresponds with but is not synonymous with, a kind of affective despair. We have been suffering from that at the beginning of the 21st century. It lingers and has been going on and on.
But what combats that despair, an antidote to that despair, is social movements. The thing that I want to say about the particular social movement that I focus on, the Movement for Black Lives, is that they, like other social movements, specialize in this political phenomenon called "organizing." Organizing is another phenomenon that has gotten short shrift in political science. We usually talk about mobilization, which is telling people who already have the requisite knowledge and skills to show up and do something, or we talk about activism, and activism means that you turn up in the streets outside regular institutions to demonstrate your dissatisfaction with or advocacy for some cause.
But activism is a relatively short-term process. It's a punctuated kind of action: You show up in the streets for that afternoon or even for that series of days, but you are not necessarily engaging in a process of analysis, education, and long-term collective work. Organizing is different from either mobilization or activism, although it can be coextensive with those for many people.
Political organizing is important because it takes place over time, and its constituent parts are meeting, engagement, education, analysis, collective identity, and action. This process of organizing I argue is a mechanism by which you increase people's political efficacy. We talk about the ways that efficacy matters. Political efficacy matters, and its absence can lead to negative effects for democracies.
But political organizing is one of the few things that actually increases people's political efficacy. Sometimes we talk about this in bland terms as "participation." We know that political participation and political education can increase political efficacy, but the way that this education and participation come together is through political organizing.
I should say that large demonstrations can be a part of organizing. Getting people out into the street as activists can be a gateway to political organizing, and we saw that in the U.S. case over the summer, when at least 26 million Americans poured out into the street in defense of Black lives. We don't have any kind of definitive studies yet, but so far it seems as though those instances were a major source of mobilization—voter registration, voter education, etc.—in the United States, that those huge protests helped the Democrats win national victory this election year.
On a smaller scale, we see the way that political organizing has changed politics, changed the composition of the electorate, and changed the items on the political agendas that we talk about in Georgia and Arizona, respectively. For example, in the state of Georgia, which for the first time in many years voted for a Democratic candidate for president—it went for Biden for president—we see that leaders there, Black women leaders there mostly, particularly obviously Stacey Abrams but also LaTosha Brown of Black Voters Matter and Nsé Ufot of the New Georgia Project had a multiyear plan of meeting, engaging with, educating, and serving people who had been previously disengaged from the political process.
This kind of political organizing has huge payoffs, but they take a long time. It's over time, and we see a similar process having gone on in Arizona and New Mexico among indigenous organizers. If you look at the voting returns in those states, it seems as though indigenous voters did a lot to flip, for example, Arizona blue, and there are organizations like the Tribal Organizing Campaign that serve as an umbrella group in those areas to make sure that people in the Hopi and Navajo nations among others were educated about the election and were able to turn out.
But it's not just electoral politics that are the object of organizing. This kind of organizing that folks in Georgia, Arizona, in the Midwest, and all over the United States have been doing is about meeting people where they are, with local concerns.
The other major point about political organizing is that it is an inductive form of doing politics. When I say "inductive," what I mean is that it goes from the particular to the general. It starts local—"What are the things that are problems for you in this moment? What are the things that we can talk about collectively solving in your neighborhood, in your county, in your municipality, and in your state?"—and then it builds from that kind of political engagement to engagement on larger regional, national, and even sometimes transnational levels.
This is a different approach than we have had in a lot of campaign-based democratic politics in which you ring people up a few weeks before the election and try to mobilize them—without engaging them—on a national platform, without engaging them about how that might relate to their local, everyday concerns.
For me the story of 2020 in the United States is a story about political organizing and a story about how democracy recalls itself and how democratic citizens are actually made. Because that's the thing about political organizing; it's not just teaching people to do a thing. Organizing can affect people's political subjectivity. So it is not just that folks are mobilized to vote or mobilized to show up at an action, but they start to think about themselves through the long-term process of organizing as the kind of people who can act. That is important because it creates a fund of democratic knowledge, engagement, and activity that can and will be applied in more than one area, in more than one instance. I think that is the story that we should keep our eye on going forward.
TING TING CHENG: So many topics we can dig deeper into, but right now we will turn it over to Dr. Chenoweth for her comments.
ERICA CHENOWETH: Thank you so much, and thanks to Professor Woodly for that excellent intro and I hope a sneak peek into your book Reckoning, which I hope is available for preorder because that's what I'll be doing right after this call.
Thanks so much to the organizers and for those who are participating today. What I wanted to do is just talk briefly a little bit about some of the patterns that we have been seeing worldwide in the relationship between what may be indeed a third wave of autocratization which we are seeing around the world right now; the way that ordinary people worldwide have been fighting back, what we should make of those attempts to push back, defend, and expand democracy; and how we should make sense of that in light of what was just shared as well about the 2020 election in the United States.
First, what has happened in the United States in the past four years and in particular in the last year is record-breaking in terms of the United States' own history of collective action. We have seen more mass mobilizations and mass demonstrations in the United States than in any other period of recorded history in the United States.
As Professor Woodly was saying, last summer's uprising or rebellion for Black lives was definitely the largest and broadest mobilization we have seen in the United States. It exceeded any other period in terms of the breadth, geographic scope, and numerical power that was on display between the end of May of 2020 and the end of July of 2020. And the United States is not alone in terms of episodes of mass mobilization being record breaking in the past decade. In fact, worldwide we have seen more mass mobilizations demanding democracy around the world than in any other period, at least in the last hundred years.
Part of the reason why we may be seeing this is in fact because people are expressing an urgent concern about the state of democracy around the world. That is to say, countries have been experiencing both within established democracies regressions toward autocracy or expansions of autocracy within some democracies, as may be the case in the United States. In other countries that were transitioning toward democracy we have started to see them backslide significantly.
All around the world scholars of comparative politics over the past 15 years have been raising alarm bells about the fragile state of the democratic nature of global governance with regard to these key states tipping back over. If we think about places like Turkey, Poland, Hungary, India, the United States, Brazil, and many, many of the different countries around the world that many people pointed to as hopeful beacons of progress and governments' responsiveness to their own citizens are now considered cautionary tales and indeed places where, as I mentioned, people have been trying to rise up and fight back with varying levels of success.
Another issue that is important to our time is the rise of digital authoritarianism. The reason this is important for movements is because in the past one of the ways that social movements and mass mobilizations have been able to dramatize their claims and create that sense of urgency and unity has been exactly because their governments in cracking down on them have made major missteps, and in doing so the movements were able to shore up more popular support and demonstrate the legitimacy of their claims. For example, brute-force crackdowns against unarmed demonstrators in places like East Germany or Poland were used in fact to express more clearly the demands of the population that the government had overstepped its rights and authorities and that the people had a real claim to justice.
The difference now is that many different authoritarian regimes are much more savvy and capable in the way that they suppress popular dissent. They exploit digital platforms for much more focused surveillance, focused forms of repression that are much more selective and so don't alienate all of their supporters.
They also use these digital platforms to mobilize their own counter-protesters and counter-mobilizations, which makes it look like they too share popular claims of legitimacy. Indeed they are able to use digital platforms to locate and arrest, harass, or terrorize particular people that they find as increasingly important within the movements. So, even though there have been regimes in which there was a great deal of control over the information environment in which movements have been operating in the past, the scope and scale of the challenges that movements face in maintaining control over the information environment in which they operate is perhaps unparalleled today.
I will move forward into the question of: How do we know when these mass mobilizations are having a good chance of success or are likely to succeed? Charles Tilly used to put forward a four-pronged criteria, which you can remember because it's a funny acronym, WUNC—worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. What he argued was basically that movements that were able to score well on all four of those criteria were much more likely to be enduring and much more likely to genuinely change the balance of power in a society.
My own criterion is fourfold as well, although it's not totally unrelated to Tilly's. The first is definitely numbers. If we look at the 627 mass mobilizations that have occurred around the world from 1900 to 2019—that is, movements with at least a thousand people calling for the overthrow of a regime, pro-democracy, territorial independence, or liberation—those that had the highest numbers of people participating in peak moments were definitely the most likely to achieve success. Part of the reason is that very large numbers are often correlated with a high degree of diversity. That is, the movements also are able to elicit the participation of people cutting across a huge range of locations in the society, social status, and political and economic positions.
What does that do for the movement? It gives it really important social power, which can translate into political leverage at key moments and in some cases economic coercion and economic leverage.
So, very large numbers with diverse participants make the movement more likely to create the second important factor, which is defections from the opponent. For example, in South Africa one of the most important factors that led to the fall of the legal apartheid regime was the fact that Black-led boycotts of white-owned businesses—massive organizing that took place in the townships that then blockaded the economic potential of white-owned businesses—essentially created this international momentum that so isolated South Africa from the rest of the global economy that reformists within the ruling party put direct pressure on party leaders to start to negotiate with and remove the ban on the African National Congress and everything. It was basically that people power that began to create shifts within the pillars of support that were propping up apartheid, in this case economic pillars.
In other contexts, for example, in Serbia when there was movement to overthrow Slobodan Milošević in 2000 and initiate a democratic transition there, the key pillar that was propping up Milošević was not really economic elites, it was the security forces. So the movement expanded its numbers and its social power to the extent that when hundreds of thousands of people descended on Belgrade to demand that Slobodan Milošević leave office after he stole elections there were people within the security forces who recognized their own children in the crowd. Here you can see the effects of that social power on initiating a key moment in the minds of security forces that they actually don't want to go along with repressing the event and firing on the demonstrators with live fire, but rather they will just pretend they didn't hear the order. Security forces pretending they don't hear the order is defection, and that is enough to win the day for many movements.
So we have large numbers that are very representative of the population; we have the creation of defections within key pillars of the opponent's support base. Those pillars can be security forces, economic elites, civil servants, people within the inner entourage, say, the Trump campaign's lawyers, and things like that, who are critical to holding out power when people are calling for change.
The third thing that successful movements do is they innovate new tactics. This is very important because movements that tend to over-rely on a single technique like protests, like demonstrating every Friday, something that becomes very routinized, end up succumbing much more quickly first of all to protester fatigue, but the second thing is they often subject their participants to a higher risk of repression or communal violence from opponents. So movements that are capable of having the capacity to shift to methods of dispersion, like stay-at-homes or strikes or forms of economic noncooperation, tend to be much more effective because they have the capability of maneuver when the state begins to ramp up violence against them.
The fourth important thing that successful movements do is they maintain discipline, even when repression does begin to escalate. What does this look like? It largely looks like they maintain fidelity to their own plan, that they don't get thrown off course but they actually expect and anticipate repression and then find a way to politically exploit it to their benefit. Not welcoming it; nobody is trying to get repressed, but if it happens, they try to document it and use it to create what Gene Sharp called "political jiu-jitsu," basically making the opponent look weak, unjust, and barbaric, and therefore amplify the claims of the movement.
The second thing that is required in discipline is narrative discipline, which is to say not being thrown off-course and distracted by counter-narratives that are coming in to attack the movement. Instead the movement sticks to its own narrative and keeps the focus on the core claim and the justification for the core claim.
Those are the four things—numbers, defections, tactical innovations, and discipline. What do we need for those things to happen? We need to organize. I think one of the key reasons why many movements have struggled around the world, including in the United States before now, is that there has been an overemphasis on mobilizing and less of an emphasis on organizing because to have the capacity to do these things skillfully means that there has to be a baseline level of trust, political education, collective identity, and also a sense that the struggle is longer than just the next event we have to plan to be in the streets, that the struggle is a long struggle, and even if there is one particular event that gets derailed, we are still in this, and it's a long-term kind of struggle. Movements that end up planning event to event or march to march or protest to protest are in much more danger of being thrown off-course and having these sort of demobilizational factors affect their long-term trajectories.
The final thing I will say is that I agree with Professor Woodly that there is nothing inevitable about democracy. In fact, if we look at the history of the world, democracy is the least common form of governance. It has had many different experiments over the millennia, and we are in the latest one. There is nothing inevitable about it lasting, and there is certainly nothing inevitable about it happening in the future.
We need look no further than cases like Poland, where in the 1990s it was held up as a beacon of how people power and solidarity and labor organizing could provide major democratic breakthroughs against the odds. In fact, after Solidarity came to power after the first democratic elections in that country, civil society remained rebellious and held Solidarity to account for the failures of a number of the different policies that it claimed it would put in place. That was 25, 30 years ago.
Today Poland is one of the cases that people cite as a cautionary tale, a place where democratic backsliding has taken place, and a major autocratic breakthrough has come to pass. There is a far-right party in power. That party has assaulted judicial independence. It has passed incredibly harsh laws against LGBTQ people and has recently passed laws that roll back reproductive rights in major ways. Today nobody would hold up Poland as a beacon of democratic progress. Even in such a case we can see how backsliding is part of the story.
Here I would point again to the promise of the way that organizing linked with mobilizational capacity can provide us ways to prevent democracy from collapsing altogether. In their study of 76 countries in which democratic backsliding had taken place, the political scientists Robert Kauffman and Stephan Haggard argued that basically once institutions are corrupted and once norms have been shattered there is nothing that saves democratic systems except for a mobilized civil society. If civil society is mobilized, we can pull ourselves back from the brink. But if not, basically in every single case autocracies or dictatorships consolidated their power.
So nobody is going to save us. It is up to us, and the way that we structure our civil society in relationship to one another with capacities for organization and capacities for mass mobilization to protect democracy when necessary are both part of that story.
TING TING CHENG: Thank you. Those are such rich and important comments.
I wanted to follow up with you guys about this idea of timing and pace. Dr. Woodly talked about how lasting change through mobilization and organizing through social movements can take generations and centuries even; it is not the result of one action or one event.
But at the same time, we have seen with this pandemic, COVID-19 is like an accelerator. People in the beginning thought it was going to be the great equalizer, and it hasn't been. It is a revealer. It is something that completely reveals deep and historic and systemic inequalities, and that seems to be something that has connected all of us globally, this kind of global outrage to state-sanctioned violence and to inequality in the medical system. So it's not just a medical crisis, it's something much deeper than that, and it has really bound us together and seemed to have accelerated and propelled these social movements forward.
I suppose a related thing that is always on my mind is the tools of changing technologies and the rise of social media and how that impacts social movements. Are these game changers? Do they provide a new set of tools for organizing in the future, or are we still talking about the same tactics and strategies that movements have always employed? What are the opportunities of this kind of acceleration moving forward with the future of social movements?
Why don't we start with you, Erica?
ERICA CHENOWETH: Sure. A couple of things about digital media. I think about 15 years ago it would be easier to argue that social media and digital platforms more generally were giving the edge to activists, because when the technology was coming through it seemed like it was creating kind of an alternate public sphere where people could communicate and organize in ways that weren't available to them in closed systems. Particularly in authoritarian regimes there were some real tactical and strategic benefits of these technologies being available.
Today I think basically it is the reverse. I think the technologies have created many, many challenges, not just because of what I mentioned about surveillance and the ability to counter-mobilize protesters who are in favor of the incumbent, but I also think the nature of the information environment now is so segmented that there is a real risk if people over-rely on the information that they get from social media and their own self-selected information silos that they in fact are overconfident about how many people agree with them, and so when they go into a political contest they don't have good information about how committed the opposition is, and vice versa. It does complicate the nature of the information landscape and how that can be used to inform strategy and organizing.
I think it is true that many of the changes that we see are long-term and that many of the different breakthroughs that we saw this year in the United States have come after decades or generations of organizing and mass mobilization capacity in the United States against authoritarianism in various different forms. So to some extent the United States has only really been a democracy since 1965, if that, if only legally and not in the quality of democracy as people like Vesla Weaver and Robert Mickey have pointed out with enclaves of authoritarianism. We haven't even had the full breakthrough yet in this country, and the degree to which social media can solve that problem I think is just a much longer term struggle that is underway.
DEVA WOODLY: I would say that although political organizing and its payoffs can take generations, in terms of particular protest cycles or agenda-setting change the scope of time is a little bit shorter. I think we are talking in terms of years and perhaps a decade for particular outcomes to happen rather than across generations. To achieve democracy in its largest sense is certainly a multigenerational process that may never resolve, which is okay, because that's what politics is. Politics is an iterative process. But I would say that there are definitely distinct outcomes that we can see over the course of a period of years and certainly by the end of a decade, like a 10-year period, where you can measure empirically the difference that political organizing has made. That is one thing that I would say.
People go in with plans. They go in with a plan, like how long might it take us to do this thing? Stacey Abrams went to the Democratic National Committee 10 years ago with her plan for how to flip Georgia blue, and it was a 10-year plan.
We do see moments where we can measure outcomes in a scope of time that is shorter than a generation. But still that's a multi-year process. That is not like every two years or every four years. That's the time scale I think that we're thinking about.
I really loved Dr. Chenoweth's comment—and I really want the citation for that study—about organized civil society and how it takes us back from the brink because I think that is something that today's organizers and activists have come to understand. In the Movement for Black Lives, for example, colloquially there is a saying, "We're all we've got," that means that they operate with the understanding that an organized civil society is the only thing that is going to help people to achieve their goals but also just basically keep people safe and preserve people's lives. The institutions are not going to do that on their own. We already know empirically that the institutions are not serving that function for the entire population and indeed are counterproductive in a lot of instances for Black and brown folks in the U.S. case and with minorities all over the world in different global contexts.
I would say that movements operating today understand that the process of political education that they are facilitating, that they are catalyzing, is one that is going to have victories in their lifetime, and they are willing to celebrate those victories, with the understanding, though, that the work is long, that the process of getting free is one that is ongoing, and I think it is because they have a notion of freedom that is closer to what Neil Roberts calls "freedom as marronage," which is to say that there is not a binary—freedom and un-freedom. Instead what we have is a process of getting free, and that process is ongoing because things always change. Exogenous factors, material factors, people's attitudes, and people's needs all change. We have to be in the habit of getting free in order to keep ourselves safe and to meet our goals over time.
About social media I definitely agree with Erica that it has pluses and minuses and is definitely not a cure-all for anything, but I should say that activists and organizers operating today in the Movement for Black Lives have learned how to use social media to its best good as far as they can, and that is basically as a forum not only for mobilization but for political education. There is so much political education that goes on online from social movements, and it is a way for them to exercise that narrative discipline that Dr. Chenoweth was talking about that is necessary for successful movements.
This movement has done that while maintaining contentious positions and insisting on those positions and educating the populace about why those positions are worth supporting, why they're worthy. We can see this in the debate about Black Lives Matter (BLM) versus "all lives matter" which took place in 2015. We can even see this ongoing right now in the debate about the slogan "defund the police." I'll betcha how that's going to turn out. This is because they have such narrative discipline and are able to control their message online and also engage in back-and-forth, engage in dialogue. So there is a deliberative democracy that does take place online.
Of course, that is not all that takes place online. There are a lot of other things—surveillance, harassment, violence, and all of these downsides—but I should say that the movement is very aware of the tool that online organizing can be when combined with face-to-face organizing, community building, convenings, etc.
TING TING CHENG: Thank you for that.
Deva, I have always had a question about the governance of social movements and the profound spontaneous nature of the protests this summer for the Movement for Black Lives. Can you talk a little bit about the lack of centralized leadership within the movement? What are the things that spur the movement forward or hold it back in that way of governance?
DEVA WOODLY: Sure. The leadership question is one of my favorite ones.
The idea that we have protests, particularly enormous ones like we saw this summer, being spontaneous is wrong. Which is not to say that people did not pour into the streets spontaneously in Minneapolis on May 26, the day after George Floyd was murdered and the video of his murder by a police officer went viral. People did pour into the streets spontaneously, but in order to maintain and increase that level of engagement required organizing and mobilization.
What you had was a movement apparatus that had experience with mass mobilization from uprisings all over the country since 2014 but especially from the Ferguson uprising that took place. They understood how to increase the number of demonstrations and protests that were going on, to support the organizations and people who were already in the streets, and also to spread the methodology of how to create a protest in your town.
It is estimated that 40 percent of American counties, that is, municipalities, had protests in defense of Black lives, and that is blue counties and red counties. Something like 8 percent of people according to New York Times data claim to have participated in a BLM protest over this summer. That did not happen spontaneously. That happened with a lot of support. There were a lot of toolkits shared online—"How do you do a protest in your own area? How do you keep people safe? How do you make sure that people are masked? How do you make sure that people have access to water? How do you make sure that there are medics on hand in case people are tear-gassed or sprayed?" It requires an enormous amount of coordination.
The question of how do you do that coordination if you don't have centralized leadership is that the Movement for Black Lives has a semi-federated kind of leadership, which means that the title "Movement for Black Lives" is a name for an umbrella organization that includes dozens and dozens of autonomous local groups that run their own show where they are. They have their own campaigns, their own interests. You have Southerners on New Ground, which is an LGBTQ multiracial organization that operates in the Southern region; you have Dream Defenders, which is based on college campuses in Florida; you have Byp100, which is a Black youth organization based in Chicago; you have Black Lives Matter Global Network, which is over in Oakland. You have all of these completely autonomous organizations that work on their own stuff in their own area.
But they come together at topically organized tables under the rubric of the Movement for Black Lives. You have a media and communications table, an organizing table, and a policy table. Representatives from these organizations come together in tables under the rubric of Movement for Black Lives, and then they coordinate activity based on expertise, and they decide when they are going to have national campaigns, they decide how to distribute resources for large actions, etc.
The movement takes a federated approach so it gets the kind of coordinating capacity that you get from a large organization while not getting the detriments of a large organization, which is stagnation, being slow to act, and having people at the top of the organization who can be "decapitated"—I think that is the term of art in the international relations literature—basically taken out, co-opted, arrested, etc. Whereas the movement has this idea, which is an idea that in political theory we can think comes from Deleuze, which is that they want to be a network. They want to be like ginger in the ground; you can cut it off anywhere and then plant it anywhere, and it will sprout back up.
There are movement philosophers who talk about this in different ways. For example, Adrienne Maree Brown talks about emergent strategy, and it is all about this, that you want to create a movement—and this has deep roots in Black feminist thought, by the way; this is Ella Baker also from the American Civil Rights Movement—that can be plopped down anywhere and do the work that needs to be done. That is what I would say.
This movement is very highly adaptive and is very attentive to the history of movements, so it is no mistake that they have this form. They are studied and are very interested in how you have the coordinating capacity of a large organization without being stultified the way that a large organization can become.
ERICA CHENOWETH: I will add just a little bit to that.
I think all of that is exactly right. I just want to point out one other quick detail. In research that I have done with Jeremy Pressman and Kanisha Bond, and Jenna Arnold, the mass mobilization that was the largest in terms of locations before this past summer was in [April] of 2018, a month after the shooting at Parkland High School in Florida, when over 4,400 schools experienced walkouts over the lack of gun controls; 4,400 separate locations around the United States. That is by far the most large-scale simultaneous single-day demonstration in terms of numerical locations. There were 12 home schools in the database of people who walked out on their parents. There were 150 kindergartens. There were elementary schools, there were middles schools, high schools, and colleges and universities that participated in this.
What does that mean? That means that two years ago youth led and organized an uprising and demanded that adults begin to implement major change around gun control.
Who were the youth? They were the most diverse cohort of youth that this country has ever seen. Much of the organizing was done by Black and brown and indigenous youth in collaboration with one another, and what we saw this summer, at least in the state of Pennsylvania, is that school districts in which there had been youth-led "march for our lives" uprisings in 2018 were much more likely to have also organized a Movement for Black Lives or Black Lives Matters-associated racial justice protest this past summer.
What did they do in between? They learned how to organize.
DEVA WOODLY: That's right.
ERICA CHENOWETH: I think that this is powerful in showing the trajectory of learning, innovation, communication, and engagement, and youth groups now are on the leading edge of these organizing and mobilization efforts.
DEVA WOODLY: Absolutely. I should say there is direct collaboration between youth groups and the Movement for Black Lives, which is also a lot of youth. Dream Defenders, March for Our Lives, Sunrise Movement—there is a lot of overlap there, so a lot of knowledge is shared between all of these movements.
TING TING CHENG: Yes, and similarly the overlap is there too with the women's movement and the youth movement as well—
DEVA WOODLY: And the Women's March.
I feel like we should talk about the election very quickly before we open it up for the Q&A section. This question has to do with the kind of tension between short-term and long-term organizing goals and strategies. Biden and Harris prevailed in the election, and yet the Democrats lost seats in Congress, where they were expected to gain them. Now we have centrist Democrats blaming the party's progressive members and also these progressive ideas that they support, like the movement to defund the police, for these losses.
Can you two discuss the tension that exists there on the one hand of having important, visible, effective progressive allies in the government now who are directly aligned with these movements more so than ever before in talking about universal equality, yet at the same time having these concepts being blamed for the failure of the Democratic Party to fully consolidate power at this very important moment, where it would influence the degree to which Joe Biden can have a truly progressive agenda in the next four years during his presidency? Can you guys go into that a little bit, the tension that exists right now within the Democratic Party?
DEVA WOODLY: My answer to that would be that people in the streets, ordinary citizens, are not the only ones who require democratic education. I would say that it is less a question of ideology than it is philosophy of how you conduct democracy.
In the post-mortems of the election by folks who were actually running for national legislative seats, like Doug Jones, who lost his seat in Alabama; and like Beto O'Rourke, who was not running for office but was coordinating campaigns in Texas; and by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won her seat; what you see is a combination—each one of them has put out statements for why they think Democrats lost seats, and they are across the ideological spectrum in the Democratic Party, and each one has noticed some commonalities.
The commonalities that they noticed are where people were organizing they won their seats, and where they weren't they didn't, regardless of ideology. That is the empirical fact so far. And when I say "organizing," I mean in places where activists continued to knock on doors when the Democratic Party stopped knocking on doors because of the pandemic, where there were organizations outside the party that were registering voters, where demonstrations took place, and where people were being politically engaged around issues broader than the election, the folks in those places won their seats, and the folks in places where that didn't happen lost their seats. I think that is the lesson more than any other kind of ideological lesson.
Beyond that, in terms of the vilification of slogans like "defund the police," again I would turn to empirics. It is true that the slogan "defund the police" does not poll at a majority level of popularity. But in terms of social movements it polls around the level of 38 to 40 percent support, which is pretty high for social movements. We should remember that in the mid-20th century the Civil Rights Movement at the peak of its power was only polling at about 33 or 36 percent approval.
That is the other thing, that social movements are pushing the discourse forward. They are not campaigns. They are not interested in poll-tested things. They are interested in actually moving what people call the "Overton window," that is, the list of subjects that we talk about as politically possible, desirable, and necessary. And this movement is doing that.
Besides the phrase "defund," that slogan, not being popular with the majority of the electorate, the things that defund the police actually means, which is reallocating funds from policing to mental health services and social support services, are very popular, and it is only because of the discourse of "defund" that we are even having a conversation about those other things, and at least 11 municipalities around the country have already started defunding processes. But they are not all going apace. Some of them have started them and then been blocked, for example, in Minneapolis.
But they have started those processes, and others are doing a lot of experiments in terms of when people call 911 for nonviolent things, perhaps we should send in an emergency medical technician and a social worker instead of an armed policeman. Those kinds of pilot programs have been started in municipalities all over the country as well. All of that is wins for Movement but also wins for people, for individuals around the country who are now being served in a different way, and it also has expanded our thinking about what safety is and what safety means, and that matters.
ERICA CHENOWETH: My first reaction to your question was that I do want to push back a little bit on the idea that the election was a downer for the Democratic Party.
First of all, there was record-shattering turnout at least for the past hundred years. The margin of victory is larger than all but three other presidents that have ever been elected in terms of popular vote for Joe Biden. The Electoral College vote is now totally decisive. He is on-track to flip numerous states and congressional districts.
By the way, the ticket included the first-ever Black woman vice president. The population elected a Black woman to the White House. Six years ago people were saying one of the major downsides for Hillary was that she was a woman and that sexism was literally the only thing that could never be shattered in this country, and that has changed this year.
It was the first ever presidential victory address that was trans-inclusive in terms of its language, and we are up for what could potentially be the most diverse cabinet and principal political appointee process that we have ever seen. So I think this needs to be celebrated before being critiqued just on those terms.
It is not an unfamiliar problem that movements always have to navigate the inside-outside game. This is just part of the nature that politics emerges from cycles in which there has been collaboration for the purposes of electoral mobilization, and then there is something of a fragmentation that comes, where people have to reposition themselves. Some choose to go and belong to the inside game, and some remain on the outside game, and then it is a creative process of trying to hold political leaders and public officials to account.
I think one of the things that is important about this is recognizing that elections can sometimes suppress mobilization because there is so much energy that goes into the election itself and then people need a break and they want to rest. The thing is that social movements are always operating in what is called the "political opportunity structure," that is, the institutions and the political winds in which they have to operate. Elections are basically the only time when movements can significantly have an impact on what their political opportunity structure is going to look like in the next few years.
In this instance, from the movement's perspective, the main goal is to favorably set up an opportunity structure that will allow the movement to have more influence on the inside game than it did before. I would say that they have done that. Does that mean they are going to get everything that they want? No. But they definitely have a much more favorable kind of political opportunity environment in which they will now be operating with a lot more promise for making serious gains.
The one other cautionary that many people have said a lot is about the fact that there was also very high voter turnout and enthusiasm for Trump voters. I would say that one of the most important things to keep an eye out on is counter-mobilization and that that is going to be part of our country going forward, and the degree to which movements navigate and negotiate the fact that some of the primary protesters in this country right now might be against Biden for other reasons than progressive movements might be against him is actually a major struggle and a challenge and has to be thought through strategically for those who want to pressure him but without completely undermining his position vis-à-vis a much more fierce opposition on the right.
TING TING CHENG: Thank you for the pragmatism and the cautionary tale.
I want to note that it is past the hour, so I will be turning things over to Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council, who will be managing the Q&A Chat box.
ALEX WOODSON: Thanks, Ting Ting.
The first question is from Billy. The question is: "There is a portion of the American population that believes the 2020 protests for Black lives were solely dangerous riots. Can you discuss the role that the media plays in framing protests as riots and how we can overcome this mischaracterization?"
ERICA CHENOWETH: I can speak to this. We know there is a very well documented set of media biases in general. The first is an urban bias, the second is an official bias, and the third is a violence bias.
The urban bias is that media tend to report more on what goes on in cities than on what goes on in suburbs or outside of cities.
The second is official bias, which means that journalists tend to call up their local police department or city official to ask for a spokesperson to make a comment before they go out and talk to ordinary people who were there, to get their official take on what happened.
The third thing is that there is a violence bias, which means that any time there is word of something becoming tense or "clashes" that they tend to over-report and over-represent those events relative to what else is going on.
The other thing is that that is overlaid with other ways of framing and depicting people who are protesting as transgressive and criminal, and there is a sort of modal reaction that they were troublemakers and that if they were not troublemakers nothing would have gone wrong. The blame attribution is often on people who are protesting rather than on agents of the state, who are the most common sources of violence.
One thing I will say too about this is that the way that media often depict clashes that may happen is that they tend to depict them in an ambiguous light. They will say, "Police and protesters clash," when actually it was police beating protesters, or they will say, "Violent protests break out," when in fact there was no violence by protesters; there was violence by police or counter-protesters or there might have been some vandalism that then gets caught up in the headline as violence, which most people who study these things agree is not violence.
The way that media frame these events does often have an effect on public opinion of these events, so when you have media reporting in ambiguous terms or without responsible techniques of validating information then you can get a situation in which movements are falsely depicted as violent riots. In research that Jeremy Pressman and I did on all of the episodes of the Movement for Black Lives this past summer and other affiliated racial justice protests, we found that 97.7 percent of the events took place without any property destruction or any violence by protestors. The violence that did take place was almost always initiated by police or by counter-protesters, and we can see that in the video representations of it that have been collected by many different people.
If you think about that and you think about, as Professor Woodly said, we are talking about 8 percent of the U.S. population having participated in this movement. That is probably 25 or 26 million people in this country having participated in this movement, and you can then look at the fact that there was such a tiny, tiny shred of any kind of incident that could warrant criminal charges by anybody affiliated with or participating in the movement is a truly staggering achievement, particularly given what this movement was up against, that they were able to maintain such strict discipline.
DEVA WOODLY: Yes. I want to underscore everything Dr. Chenoweth said but also say that it's actually a relatively small proportion of people who believe that the demonstrations this summer were riots. That narrative is one that has never reached majority support. Most people understand, perhaps because so many people participated themselves or knew people who had participated, that violence was not a predominant factor or even a very frequent factor in protests this summer.
That is partly a red herring. I think that is a worry that we have from the past that is not one that is predominant today among most people. Now partisans who are predisposed to have a negative opinion about the protests in the first place may say that these protests were mostly riots, but most people don't believe that according to public opinion polling.
I think that the Movement has done an extremely good job mostly through its regular political education, communication, and reach in terms of the diversity of people who are participating—something that Professor Chenoweth has also talked about—to neutralize that narrative as much as they can so far. Going forward, we will have to see what happens.
Also according to preliminary exit polls the whole framing of law and order that was supposed to be against these riots fell completely flat. Even among Republicans it was not their top issue. So I think we should worry less about that and worry more about pushing progressive agendas forward.
ALEX WOODSON: We will go to Bard College's Jonathan Becker for the next question: "You have spoken about movements in different countries and, Deva, about the Movement for Black Lives, but how about transnational movements and the linking of movements? How do we see the Movement for Black Lives as a global movement? How about the resistance to rising authoritarianism in Poland, Hungary, and the United States? Cooperate and learn and unite."
DEVA WOODLY: For my part, the Movement for Black Lives is a global movement. Protests in defense of Black lives took place in more than 60 countries and on every continent except Antarctica, so it is a transnational movement already. It was conceived that way on purpose.
From 2015 one of the first things that the Movement for Black Lives did once it became the Movement for Black Lives was to send delegations to different parts of the world to figure out what people were considered "Black," a global color line, how they were organizing, what their issues were, where the overlaps were, and what the differences were, so delegations were sent to South Africa, Brazil, Australia, and Palestine to get an idea of how this movement could be transnational, how perhaps this kind of communication and sharing of tactics, strategies, innovations, and information toolkits—toolkits are huge in the movement—could happen. That's what I would say.
In terms of pro-democracy struggles that are not necessarily related and how could they make connections, I'm not sure. Perhaps Dr. Chenoweth will have more to say about how folks in Hungary and Poland and Turkey, what kind of connections could be made there.
ERICA CHENOWETH: Thank you for the question. The only thing that I would add to what Professor Woodly has said so well is just that there are many movements now who have taken inspiration from the Movement for Black Lives with regard to police brutality and the claims the population can make expressly about defunding or abolishing abusive police forces. Notably one right now that is ongoing in Nigeria is the End SARS movement, which is explicitly seeing itself in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives and movements against the abuse of power by repressive agents of the state.
That is linked I think to this second part of the question about movements that are fighting against authoritarianism. One of the patterns that is quite notable is that movements that start out, for example, calling for economic reforms or to protest a particular policy change like the removal of a food subsidy or something like that, often escalate into movements demanding the overthrow of the government or regime change or democracy when those initial protests are met with police brutality.
Most of the movements that we are seeing all around the world today, whether they are in Hong Kong, India, the United States, Belarus, and Nigeria, wherever we find them, one of the core claims is that they want justice for police brutality. I think that is one of the most commonly shared concerns around the world today perhaps because of the nature of the militarization of police forces worldwide and the fact that militarized police forces seem themselves to be in solidarity with one another, so they are learning from one another, they are training together, and people around the world have now taken it upon themselves to begin to question and push back on that, seeing these as civil servants, public servants, and not as repressive agents of the state, that need to be held accountable as well.
In terms of ways that these movements can connect and learn from one another, this is one of the biggest questions that is out there. There is a very well documented global right wing, for example. Evangelical groups, far right groups, and even ordinary conservative groups have invested a lot into developing transnational, agenda-setting power, and the ability to organize communities all over the world to push for more conservative policies and public narratives and norms. Why the left has not been able to establish and sustain a similar transnational solidarity network in the past 30 years is a big open question.
In the meantime there are some interesting developments around the expansion of groups of activists who are willing to train other activists from similar settings. There are groups like the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, like Nonviolence International, like the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, RISE (Resist. Inspire. Speak. Empower.), even some groups affiliated with unarmed peacekeeping teams like Nonviolent Peaceforce or the Christian Peacemaker Teams and Peace Brigades International and things like this are willing to offer trainings to people based on their own learnings from their own contexts about how to fight back against authoritarianism.
But these movements and groups do not have a ton of resources behind them, not anywhere near the scale of what the global right wing has been able to invest in its transnational work, so I think that is going to be a major challenge: Where do you even convene these people? How do you start? How do you support their work? How do you make sure that they are connected with those who have the skill sets and knowhow that they need?
DEVA WOODLY: I will say that I do think people are thinking through those questions right now, that it has become clear that that is something that is necessary going forward because so many of these problems are common globally.
But I should also say that in the case of the right wing they have invested a ton of resources in creating this international infrastructure, but that is also in part because religious institutions, which were not always considered right wing, were ceded to the right wing ideologically in the middle of the last century, so there was already a ready network of institutions in which to organize people and that you could pour resources into. There are religious left movements, but unless they are able to funnel resources to those institutions they are going to have to create their own institutions that are not preexisting, and that's a pretty heavy lift, although it is one that people are seeking to undertake.
ALEX WOODSON: I think I will ask two questions together, and then we can wrap up, if that works for everyone. These questions are somewhat related.
The first is from Carnegie Council's Grady Jacobsen: "Dr. Woodly spoke about the advantage of a federalized movement like the Movement for Black Lives, but how do social movements deal with the potential for splintering of their group or message if there are disagreements about organizing strategy and tactics? The divergence between the approaches of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and other Black leaders during the Civil Rights Movement comes to mind as a possible example."
Teresa Geidel asks: "As for the disciplined narrative of movements, apart from disregarding counter-narratives, what do you think about getting sidetracked as a movement by wanting to include more and more issues that align with the movement's values but are not the initial narrower focus?"
DEVA WOODLY: In terms of splintering, again remember that the Movement for Black Lives is a very studious movement, and there are people who are living who participated in the movements of the 1960s. They have learned lots of things from previous Black liberation movements but also feminist, queer, and disability movements about the dangers of splintering. That is part of the reason they have the structure they have, that it is federated, so that people can maintain autonomous space instead of centralized.
The other thing is that the Movement for Black Lives is also an abolitionist movement, which means that central to relating interpersonally in organizations but also between organizations and hopefully in society is a politics of care, and that means that they are interested in mediation, in seeking justice that is restorative rather than about retribution, and that means including inside their own organization.
Inside most organizations of the Movement for Black Lives you have officers or committees or councils on healing justice which are responsible for resolving disputes both within those organizations and between organizations in the Movement. So you have a strong culture of mediation and restoration rather than retribution and exile, although some people are removed from the communities.
I don't mean that all of this functions completely seamlessly, but I do mean that people in movement are very aware of the fact that interpersonal splintering or a disagreement on tactics can destroy movement organizations. It is not something that they don't know. They work very hard to prevent that and so far have been very successful.
That is also partly because they are united in terms of some very basic beliefs in the empirical world, which keeps giving us instances of Black people being murdered by police and vigilantes. That's one thing.
Let me give you a quick anecdote from the movement. In 2015 there was a convening, and out of this convening would come the birth of the actual organization Movement for Black Lives. This was the spring after the Ferguson uprising. All kinds of organizations and individuals came there. You had a broad, diverse swath of activists from the Christian tradition, religious activists, queer activists, people who were interested in immigration, Black maternal mortality, all kinds of activists came together.
This convening was about—and this was their slogan—turning this moment into a movement. So they were trying to develop a way to get together, to coordinate activity, what kind of organization they would have, but it was a pretty contentious process. People had a lot of disagreements about strategy, tactics, focus, and leadership, and the organizers of this were a little bit afraid that nothing good was going to come out of it. This was in Cleveland, Ohio, by the way.
Then, on the last day of the event, when people were leaving to go back to their home institutions and it was somewhat ambiguous what was going to come out of the event, the police detained a 14-year-old Black boy on the street right in the neighborhood where the convening was happening. They said that they were detaining him because he was drinking in public. The boy said that he had not been drinking in public and did not know why he was being detained.
All of these different factions—the church ladies, the queer folks, the healers, the trans folks—who had just been fighting banded together to un-arrest this little boy and get him back to his mother, and they did this successfully. They were able to surround the child and get information about how to contact his mother. The police lied to them and said that they were arresting this boy on the request of his parent, which they absolutely were not.
ERICA CHENOWETH: One of the things the question about having a range of goals and whether that undermines the movement's primary message and effectiveness reminded me of is an article by Mary Elizabeth King, who was one of the field secretaries for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the national campaigns in the 1950s and 1960. She was responding to critiques about the Occupy movement at the time having been too abstract and having advanced too many different claims and demands and it being disorganized and having different claims coming from different cities and the like. She was saying that one of the common misconceptions when we look retrospectively at movements like the Civil Rights Movement, for example, is that they had agreement about a singular goal and that when that goal came through they felt they had succeeded.
She said that there was a great deal of argument and disagreement and ongoing contention within the Civil Rights Movement throughout its history about what the movement ought to be prioritizing, who should be prioritizing it, who should be saying what, what kinds of policy outcomes would be considered a win, etc., and that what we remember when we look back are the few things that were breakthrough moments like the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, and we think, Well, any movement today should just have a very clear policy platform and goal, and then they will get it.
She said that that is not true at all. It is very natural for movements to be having these ongoing deliberations throughout their cycle because things change and all of these ideas are coming together and they are all having various influences on the agenda and the types of conversations and types of policies that are considered.
So yes, there are clear platforms that are put forward, things like the BREATHE Act, that emerge out of some of these conversations, but that doesn't mean that there are not disagreements and that there are not new claims and new narratives that emerge along the way, and that is fine and healthy. It represents an adaptive movement, and there is nothing wrong with that per se, although it is definitely the case that having some single unifying commitment is helpful to avoid some of the fragmentation and splintering.
Unfortunately, when it is a life-and-death matter it makes it easier for people to stay united in the face of great opposition and setbacks. To some extent, it is easier for more reformist movements to splinter and to come up with factional fights where there are people trying to out-radicalize one another, than it is for movements that consider their goals a life-and-death matter, and movements that prioritize that single purpose, as Professor Woodly was saying, of "defense of Black life," are at less risk perhaps of fragmenting than movements that are expressing goals that feel less urgent to those who are affected by them.
DEVA WOODLY: I will say just one thing in terms of framing to add on to what Dr. Chenoweth has said. If you have a strong overarching frame like Black Lives Matter, you can nest a lot of ideas underneath that frame that people can then index to that frame, especially if you have good message discipline, and that is indeed what has happened, and that is intentional on the part of the Movement, who has not only legislation like the BREATHE Act, but also has a literal party platform that you can look up online at movementforblacklives.org.
TING TING CHENG: Just to follow up on this thread, Dr. Chenoweth, I know that you are working on a new book about women's participation in the outcomes of mass movements.
To me a critical issue within the women's movement and overlapping with the Movement for Black Lives is this idea of the fraught history of the women's movement being non-inclusive, especially with the alignment with criminal justice. The women's movement a long time ago chose to align with the victims' rights movement, advocating for the recognition of domestic violence as a crime and very much leaning on using the criminal justice system for police intervention, prosecution, and harsher penalties, which obviously disproportionately impact women of color and women in over-policed communities. Even though Black women and women of color have opposed placing the accountability on victims solely in the hands of law enforcement, I think their voices were ignored throughout this evolution.
I don't know if you want to share any of your research on that or if your book touches on that.
ERICA CHENOWETH: Sure, yes. Thanks for the question.
This is related to a project I am collaborating on with Zoe Marks. Basically what we find is that among the 627 mass mobilizations that I mentioned that have taken place between 1900 and 2020 is that those in which at least half of the people visible on the frontlines of the peak mobilizations in those movements are women from what we can tell those movements have a much higher chance of succeeding and a much higher chance in fact of initiating a kind of democratic transition that leads to more egalitarian democracy, meaning a type of democracy where also resources are more even distributed across different social groups. It raises the question of why. What is it about women's frontline participation that leads to that kind of "raising of all boats" effect?
The answer is that first of all movements that exclude women are excluding 50 percent of the population. The second is that they are excluding a major wealth of knowledge when it comes to social power and potential tactical innovations. Women are often situated such that wherever they are positioned in society they have good access to knowledge about how to withdraw cooperation and withhold economic power in order to put pressure on the opponent and its pillars of support in very meaningful ways. Some of the most important tactics that have been innovated over the past 120 years have been innovated by women's organizations and women's groups, for example the boycott, which is the product of the Ladies' Land League in Ireland learning how to make it very unpleasant and near impossible for British absentee landlords to come back to Ireland and extract rents from their tenants.
There are lots of different examples of this, and what your question reminds me of, Ting, is the fact that we still need to keep an intersectional lens when we are talking about that, that when we have women at the frontlines it doesn't necessarily mean that the structures of oppression that women are fighting against are affecting all of those women equally.
One of the things that is so powerful about many of the movements around the world right now is that there is more that is known about the way that the intersecting nature of oppression affects people differently, and therefore why it is so important to bring the margins to the center and to center those who are closest to the pain such that if they are doing well, we know that everyone else will be doing well too. I think that is one of the most important insights that particularly Black feminists have brought into actually the now mainstream public discourse over the past couple of generations.
TING TING CHENG: Thank you. I want to note the time here. We should wrap up.
Dr. Woodly, do you have any concluding thoughts before we wrap up?
DEVA WOODLY: I just want to say that I think this period of tumult, while it is somewhat excruciating to live through, is also a period of immense possibility. It is a period of immense possibility because a lot of the assumptions that characterize mainstream discourse and even scholarly discourse at the end of the last century have been upended. That gives us a chance to reimagine our community, this imagined community, and to implement changes that help our political philosophies align with material conditions in the world in a better way.
The one note of hope at the same time as the note of caution that Professor Chenoweth has put out that I want to say is that it is absolutely not a guarantee that things will go in the direction of more egalitarian justice, but this is a moment in which our ability to shape institutions and notions of common sense is greater than it normally is. The same kind of forces that allow folks to mobilize on the right among people with authoritarian tendencies to be post-truth or creating their own non-reality bubble also gives people who are in favor of egalitarianism and democracy the opportunity to reshape our notions of what counts as a well-functioning egalitarian polity, and that is an opportunity that we should absolutely take up and that people are taking up.
Again, political organizing is the way. Political organizing is what helps to shape us into democratic citizens who are capable of muscular self-governance. I find a lot of hope in the work that people are doing today on that account.
ERICA CHENOWETH: I will just quickly give an anecdote to illustrate what Professor Woodly has just said. This summer, when we were tallying protests that were related to racial justice, I knew that we were in a new world, a different world, when I was looking at an example where there was a town that was in a rural area, about 150 protesters, every last one of them white, but holding signs quoting Audre Lorde, saying, "Your silence will not protect you."
I knew that we were in a totally different frame of mind then than we were in 2015, where people still thought that saying "all lives matter" was a gesture of solidarity before it became totally co-opted. The fact that now we have moved to a place where youth organizers are leading us into excavating the roots of Black feminist liberation texts is showing us that we are in an exciting and creative process of transformation right now.
TING TING CHENG: Thank you. I love ending on this hopeful note.
We are going to wrap it up here. To conclude, I want to thank our tremendous speakers. Dr. Woodly and Dr. Chenoweth, thank you so much for sharing your expertise. I wish I could talk to you guys forever. Thank you to Joel Rosenthal and everyone at the Carnegie Council and the Open Society University Network for hosting this series on such a timely and important topic. And thank you to the participants for the lively debate.
To access the transcript and video recording of this event as well as additional resources, please visit carnegiecouncil.org.
Take care, everyone. Bye.