Social movements: Liberty, equality, accountability
The power of social movements lies in the fact that they have developed, over the course of centuries, a wide repertoire of peaceful, if disruptive, forms of mass direct action and civil disobedience aimed at standing up to injustice and seeking answers to all manner of social problems. Social movements and their non-violent tactics emerged together in history precisely as people sought alternative organizational means and methods for advancing campaigns for change that did not rely on force of arms. Social movements emerged in response to perceived wrongs of tyrannical rulers and the armies who enforced their will. If peoples’ grievances against those in power went unanswered, then people could not rely only on those same authorities to change their behavior and to remove the structural relations of inequality that constrained the freedom of citizens and commoners. People invented social movements to hold power to account.
For almost three weeks now, millions have daily poured into public squares and streets in protest. In the shock of the initial days, people in Minneapolis did burn down the police precinct of the officers who killed George Perry Floyd. The building didn’t burn itself down. But the building had already been evacuated by order of city officials, and no one was injured. Other protesters in other cities did also loot, mainly stealing essential items like food, shoes, and durables.
“Social movements are, very specifically, not armies. Social movement activists do not seek to be armies. If they did, then they would form or join militias, not social movements.”
But burning and looting did not become the general or preferred tactic of the global movement of social movements that began the day that George Floyd died. With apologies to John Lennon, imagine if the millions of people who have marched over the last weeks had come to the streets carrying guns or torches. To judge by the domineering response by police, one could be forgiven for thinking that the protesters might have done so. They did not. On the contrary, Mr. Floyd’s family in Houston, the activists of Minneapolis, and his mourners everywhere generalized peaceable assembly. In Minneapolis and many cities, activists stood up precisely to stop others’ lawbreaking, not only criminal acts by police but also by many of the looters in their neighbourhoods.
Social movements are, very specifically, not armies. Social movement activists do not seek to be armies. If they did, then they would form or join militias, not social movements. Social movements organize inclusive civic campaigns to address problems caused by or inadequately resolved within the other formal institutions and power centers of society (including the state, the private sector, police and militaries). For hundreds of years, social movements have filled a necessary niche, working together in public efforts to free and democratize their societies, striving to hold to account the powerful and to extend and protect the liberty, lives, and rights of all (Bragg, 2019).
Leigh Brownhill is a scholar focused on social movements and popular struggles for decolonization, ‘recommoning,’ and economic, social, and ecological justice. At Athabasca University, she teaches two online courses: SOCI 378/CMNS 385, Rebel with a Cause: Social Movements in History and Popular Culture, and SOCI 450, Environmental Sociology.