Book Review: This is an Uprisingby Mark Engler

AuthorMark Engler
TitleThis is an uprising : how nonviolent revolt is shaping the twenty-first century
Publication Info: New York : Nation Books, [2016]

This book is a comprehensive evaluation of the tools and strategies used in nonviolent movements, whether they be to overthrow dictators or to advance social change in representative democracies.  Much of this book is based on the work of Gene Sharp (who actually passed away during the time I was reading this), who published his theories on nonviolence in 1973’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Engler illustrates nonviolent movements in action through cases of the satyagraha movement that lead to India’s independence from Great Britain, and the tactics and campaigns of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Congress of Racial Equality, and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the American Civil Rights Movement.

Two other figures are also examined for their contributions to the theory and strategy of nonviolent movements.  The first is Saul Alinsky, whose book Rules for Radicals (1971), served as a guidebook for organizing community organizations along nonpartisan and ideologically diverse lines towards pragmatic results achieved over the long term.  A countering theory comes from France Fox Piven, who along with Richard A. Cloward published Poor People’s Movements (1977), which argues that the most vulnerable communities lack the resources to manage long-term campaigns or gain political influence without using disruptive tactics such as boycotts, sit-ins, traffic tie-ups, and strikes. From Piven’s point of view, the organizations created by Alinsky’s organizing can become too complacent or risk averse once they’ve established themselves and made ties with political leaders.  From Alinsky’s point of view, the disruptive movements championed by Piven often fail to make lasting social change and run out of steam.

There are obvious beneficial ideas and strategies that can be drawn from each theory, and Engler argues that a hybrid approach was successful in India, the Civil Rights Movement, and more recently by Otpor!, the Serbian resistance to the tyranny of Slobodan Milošević.  Otpor! was a decentralized movement which made it more difficult for the Milošević regime to target leaders for retribution, or for leaders to become too comfortably entangled in the government to the point that would not want to risk taking action.  Despite the decentralized approach, Otpor! maintained strict guidelines on action known as frontloading that helped maintain consistency on message and strategy.  Many Otpor! actions came in the form of satirical street theater performances which doubled as recruitment by inviting interested passersby to attend intensive training on nonviolence.

Engler also relates cases of how nonviolent movements are working in the contemporary United States.  Marriage equality became reality in the United States not because of a Supreme Court decision, but because an organized movement worked for decades to shift public opinion.  Movements can be divisive by design with ACT UP presented an example of a group who used provocative and polarizing  direct actions that brought attention to people suffering from AIDS that could not be achieved by more pragmatic organizations who feared losing the few gains already achieved by the LGBT community.

This is an important book that summarizes the history of nonviolent movements, breaks down key tactics and strategy, and serves as a blueprint for future nonviolent revolutions.  I think massive nonviolent movements will be vital to address the severe social and political issues we’re facing in the 21st century and recommend that everyone read this book to get a sense of what needs to be done.

Favorite Passages:

This book is concerned with a specific phenomenon: momentum-driven mass mobilization. It contends that those who have most carefully studied these mobilizations—examining how to construct and sustain scenarios of widespread protest—come out of a tradition of strategic nonviolence. It argues that political observers watching the democratic upheavals of the twenty-first century should incorporate this tradition’s insights into their understanding of how social transformation happens. Those wishing to bring such upheavals into existence, meanwhile, do well to marry these insights with their existing approaches to leveraging change. – p. 3

Nonviolence is often written off as obsolete, an idea that has been mostly forgotten and is largely irrelevant in global affairs. Yet, every time it is cast aside, strategic nonviolent action seems to reassert itself as a historic force. Without taking up weapons, and with little money and few traditional resources, people forming nonviolent movements succeed in upending the terms of public debate and shifting the direction of their countries’ politics. Nonviolence in this form is not passive. It is a strategy for confrontation. – p. 3

Gene Sharp documented how unarmed uprisings could produce remarkable and sometimes counterintuitive results. Whereas violent rebellions play to the strengths of dictatorships—which are deft at suppressing armed attacks and using security challenges to justify the creation of a police state—nonviolent action often catches these regimes off guard. Through what Sharp calls “political jiu-jitsu,” social movements can turn repression into a weakness for those in power. Violent crackdowns against unarmed protests end up exposing the brutality of a ruling force, undermining its legitimacy, and, in many cases, creating wider public unwillingness to cooperate with its mandates. – p. 6

Walker and Cotton were not trivializing the violence of the police dogs. They took the risks of the campaign very seriously. As King had contended, the point of creating a public crisis in Birmingham was not to introduce Connor or other authorities to violence. Rather, it was to expose the violence routinely inflicted upon the black community under Jim Crow segregation. “We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” King wrote. “We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”54 Walker and Cotton knew that the attacking police dogs would serve as a choice representation of the much more pervasive violence that flourished in the city. In his tactical foolishness, Bull Connor had become an ally in exposing the brutality of white supremacy. And he was just beginning. – p. 22

But in democratic countries with representative institutions, the conventional wisdom is that the process of altering the status quo looks very different. It means working through officials in high office. It requires prolonged and often painstaking back-room negotiations between various interest groups. And when reforms are achieved, they are never so stark or dramatic as a dictator’s fall. Or are they? As it turns out, this accepted vision of how political change occurs has serious flaws. At best, it presents an incomplete picture of how progress in our society is won. At worst, it is a wrong-headed story that stubbornly conceals the way in which many of the most significant gains of the past century have been secured, from women’s suffrage, to labor laws, to civil rights. It misses how people with few material resources and little access to conventional powerbrokers have sometimes been able to bring about transformations that mainstream politicians consider to be absurd and impractical—right up until the moment when these changes become common sense. – p. 87

In a democratic nation, monolithic thinking likewise trains citizens to focus on the top. The vast majority of people are taught early on to hold this view. Most history books chart the rise and fall of business tycoons and ambitious politicians. The message is further reinforced when the bulk of our political reporters spend their time writing about the activities of these same actors. Legislative victories are credited to the policymakers who sign the final bills into law rather than to any movements that might have made passage of the bills possible in the first place. The public absorbs this bias, conflating the process of democratic reform with the decisions of charismatic leaders who manipulate the course of the nation’s affairs. – p. 95

If there is a common trait in the most prominent movements of the past century—whether they involved efforts to end child labor, redefine the role of women in political life, or bring down an apartheid regime—it is that they took up causes that established powerbrokers regarded as sure losers and won them by creating possibilities that had not previously existed. As the pillars give way, barriers long seen as too daunting to be overcome suddenly appear surmountable. – p. 114

Momentum-driven organizing necessarily places a greater focus on the symbolic. In their mass mobilizations, activists in this tradition need not abandon a push for concrete gains entirely. But instead of measuring their results only by incremental wins at the bargaining table, they use other metrics as well: movement in opinion polls, growing numbers of active participants, the ability to generate resources through grassroots channels, and the responsiveness of different pillars of support to their mobilizations. Organizers of civil resistance cannot be content with empty declarations of victory or with merely “speaking truth to power.” They must be hard headed in assessing their progress in winning over advocates and sympathizers from outside their immediate networks, always guarding against tendencies to become insular “voices in the wilderness.” – p. 140

Practitioners of nonviolent conflict have regularly shown themselves willing to be intentionally divisive, making use of a complex yet critical phenomenon known as “polarization.” In doing this, they grapple with an undeniable tension: broad-based support is vital if campaigns of civil resistance are to prevail. And yet many of the tactics of nonviolent disruption tend to be unpopular. People prefer calm speech and reasoned dialogue to the ruckus of confrontational protest. In many cases, creating a galvanizing crisis around an issue involves inconveniencing members of the general public, potentially alienating the very people that advocates want to win over. Moreover, when a vocal minority speaks out, it can inspire its most ardent enemies to begin organizing in response. Notwithstanding these dangers, the experience of social movements—from the civil rights movement in the 1960s, to ACT UP in the 1980s and 1990s, to the immigrant rights movement in the new millennium—shows that polarization can also be a powerful friend. By taking an issue that is hidden from common view and putting it at the center of public debate, disruptive protest forces observers to decide which side they are on. This has three effects: First, it builds the base of a movement by creating an opportunity for large numbers of latent sympathizers to become dedicated activists. Second, even as it turns passive supporters into active ones, it engages members of the public who were previously uninformed, creating greater awareness even among those who do not care for activists’ confrontational approach. And third, it agitates the most extreme elements of the opposition, fueling a short-term backlash but isolating reactionaries from the public in the long run. – p. 199

With the passage of time, successful movements are often celebrated as heroic and noble. But, while they are still active, their tactics are never beloved by all. Accepting that reality is part of using conflict and disruption as tools for change. – p. 224

The need for disruptive movements to reignite on a persistent basis raises the question of how even very committed people can sustain their efforts over the course of decades and generations. One way to do this is to build communities that reach beyond the realm of traditional political struggle. Although the building of alternative communities and institutions can be a potent force in social movements, it can also present challenges. Activists have long debated the question: Should we fight the system or “be the change we wish to see”? Should we push for transformation within existing societal structures, or should we model in our own lives a different set of social and political relationships that might someday form the basis of a new society? Going back centuries, different movements have incorporated elements of each approach, sometimes in harmonious ways and other times in ways that create conflicts between groups. – p. 271

Recommended booksNobody by Marc Lamont Hill, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Do It Anyway by Courtney E. Martin, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, and Becoming a Citizen Activist by Nick Licata
Rating: *****


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