Why We Need to Shift from Protest Power to People Power

ACTIVISM, 12 Apr 2021

Stellan Vinthagen | Resistance Studies - TRANSCEND Media Service

Nonviolent movements must go beyond marching in the streets in order to build truly transformative change for a post-pandemic future.

Women in the Zapatista movement call for a radical reimagining of our societies.
(Flickr/Visual Research)

6 Apr 2021 – A year ago, it felt unreal with the shocking images on the news: hospitals surging with patients needing intubation, city streets empty of all pedestrians, societies virtually grounded to a sudden halt — this time a crisis that also affected affluent countries. Twelve months later, the vaccine rollout is underway, at least in the privileged parts of the world, and there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Still, important lessons for movement-building gained at the beginning of this pandemic seem more relevant now than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic and global lockdown to contain the spread of the virus is obviously a global crisis, most clearly a threat to public health. But it is also a threat that has reinforced injustices and stress on already marginalized communities, as well as an enforcement of an already-endemic system crisis.

The pandemic has revealed the naked collaboration between financial elites and governments in maintaining existing mega-corporations, all in the service of an economic system that benefits the wealthy, undermines our environment and exploits people. Furthermore, the pandemic has increased the threat of rising popular support for authoritarian state measures of mass surveillance, policing of the streets and closed borders keeping out migrant “others.”

And yet, the pandemic is also a possibility, forcing many of us to stop our everyday life, to read and reflect, to interact more in our local neighborhoods. At the same time, this global threat compels us to search for new ways of global cooperation. As such, like all crises, it brings the opportunity for change among activists, within societies and around the world. Economic crises, like the ones in Greece and Argentina, can sometimes give life to a revitalized, mass-mobilization of social justice activism, with new creative strategies. In a way, this is what we have seen with the extraordinary movement for Black lives in the United States during 2020. The same has been the case with the extraordinary uprisings in places like India and Poland. These are promising signs.

Let’s face it: The exploitative and destructive world economy was brought to a virtual standstill and recession when we stopped consuming things that are unessential. This accidental “consumer boycott” created perhaps the biggest crisis ever for capitalism. This sudden and dramatic change was initiated and coordinated by states, which — for once — prioritized the saving of lives when they forced businesses to close. Governments across the world have demonstrated that they are able to coordinate historically-large economic packages to support those who have lost their income, like the American Rescue Plan, which was just passed by the U.S. Congress. Thus, we were and are in a global crisis, and the politicians showed they were able to change our current system to meet the threat.

However, at the beginning of the pandemic much of this economic support was allocated almost exclusively to corporations. Like before, it was mostly provided without any conditions for a change to a more ecological, sustainable and fair economic system. Instead this economic support has preserved the problems we lived with before. Yet, with time and pressure, some demands have been raised from below, and conditions have been placed on corporations to move towards green solutions, livable pay and social responsibility. With time, some governments have taken on some social responsibility for their poorer citizens. Nevertheless, we can be sure that all governments are working to sustain the system and get us back to a new “normal,” and that corporations are trying to find business opportunities in the new situation.

Activists wearing masks while protesting police brutality in 2020. (Flickr/michael_swan)

As we look ahead to a society where many people are vaccinated and life can return to some degree of normalcy, we must commit ourselves to not go “back to normal,” because “normal” is the problem in the first place. This world system that creates an increasing climate crisis, environmental collapse and economic inequality, which brings people out in war against each other, maintains the privileges of a few and the poverty or exploitation of the majority. Now is the chance to transition into something else entirely. As several people have said, the pandemic is a “portal” to a new world. Now everyone, including those outside a radical activist minority, knows that this is possible if we want it.

You just download new programs, the state presses the stop button, and we restart, like any other computer. But do we have the new “programs” of a society formed by a just peace? The problem is that we who strive for radical change in society are skilled at mounting critique and analyzing oppression, domination and problems, but we lack the clear idea and attractive vision of an alternative. What exists beyond standing armies in nation states, counter-terrorism with the use of drones, racial apartheid of rights in the world, mass surveillance and the bombing of foreign countries, and the exploitative, environmentally destructive and inequality-generating world capitalism? If we cannot answer that, why should anyone listen to our critique?

To expand on the well-known maxim, the tragedy is that it is today easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, militarism, racism, patriarchy, colonialism, homophobia and nation states. Still, both the economic system and the political units that dominate the world today are historic products of struggles and ideas that emerged only some 400 years ago. Despite living in a world order that is destroying us and our planet’s future, few are developing our visions of a different way of living.

After the collapse of state socialism in 1989, which had already actually begun in 1968, the left has become afraid of all “utopian thinking,” scared to turn authoritarian. But nurturing visions is not authoritarian in itself, and might still celebrate diversity. Today we lack the radical imagination and the broad alliances among ordinary people that have made social movements powerful throughout history. This is what we need to focus on as we envision a post-pandemic future.

People power is fundamentally different than protest power.

We who work within the tradition of radical activism and social change have an advantage and, for many reasons, we have a situation now that is ripe for our initiative. To take this on, we must respond to the pandemic and the accompanying crisis wisely.

Ultimately, the leadership of such a mass mobilization needs to come from Black, Indigenous and People of Color — those most marginalized and exploited in our world, despite constituting the vast majority. Otherwise, we will just reproduce an unjust and violent world with a new version of that injustice and exploitation.

The future of the world order is non-white, that is certain, due to many reasons. But if people like me — who are born with privileges — do not see our ethical duty, if we do not also take our responsibility to be part of this wave by making ourselves ready for global justice and the human rights of everyone, there is very little chance the change will be a peaceful one. The current mobilization of broad alliances within the movement for Black lives shows hope here, as do some other initiatives that are currently active.

This can only happen by educating ourselves with the aim of nurturing thousands of skilled leaders at all levels of society and from all kinds of diverse communities; by broadening and consolidating our alliances with larger communities and movements in our societies, starting with a broad range of already concerned activists and marginalized groups; through developing creative and knowledge-based strategies for social change; and improving our ways of organizing with a combination of democratic participation, effective mobilization, flexibility and focus.

Thankfully, much work has already been done. Still, we are not utilizing popular education as earlier mass movements did. Instead, we are educating ourselves mainly through mainstream educational institutions, mass media and social media. We work in isolated silos while hardly networking across differences of identities, nationalities, religion, class and race.

We are reusing old strategies and fixed, ritualized tactics, despite the fact that they are again and again proven ineffective. We do this because we are familiar with these approaches and it is easier to stick with what you know. People have learned that this is how you work for change.

Meanwhile, we are stuck with old forms of organizing that were perhaps useful 100 years ago, but even then they did not work well. If they did, we would not be in this catastrophic situation that we are now in. There is a lot of work and rethinking to be done, both individually and together.

Protesters marched through the streets with signs that connect the U.S. civil rights movement to the current Movement for Black Lives. (Flickr/joepiette2)

Most movements today adopt an unarmed approach to their struggles for social change without much reflection on how nonviolent action can be used as a strategy for successful campaigns. When this is implicit, it seems to mostly become just a matter of “protest” or “demonstrations,” without much thought behind these methods, like the protests against government policies we see in so many countries over the last few years, or the global spread of the climate manifestations by Fridays For Future.

However, most people do not realize the ways that protests can strengthen the institutions of power and the existing system. When a protest fails to promote change, it can illustrate our powerlessness. When a protest succeeds, it does so by compelling leaders and regimes to act according to the will of the protesters, and thereby it can reinforce public sentiment that our political systems are fair and democratic, even when that is not the case. Thus, protests risk enforcing our dependence on political leaders. Therefore, I suggest that protest politics is a dead end — one that binds us to the system.

Those who adopt a more explicit connection to the tradition of “nonviolent action” from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Mohandas K. Gandhi, might instead practice “civil disobedience” or “nonviolent direct action,” like Greenpeace or the climate justice movement Extinction Rebellion. Here lies the potential of people power, one that is fundamentally different to protest power. Yet here the problem is that people tend to have a very superficial idea of what constitutes “people power,” even in self-declared “nonviolent action” movements. This superficial version transforms civil disobedience into a public activist ritual, and a different kind of “protest disobedience” that increases the chances to get media attention. This powerful weapon of the people is often diluted into just a creative way of protesting without using violence.

A nonviolent activist is in the middle of the storm, engaged with all aspects of the pandemic of violence.

At the same time, this superficial approach also reduces “violence” to its most obvious forms: murder, torture, rape and war. This also de-politicizes “nonviolence.” Since the point is to be non-violent in two ways — acting without violence in your struggle against violence — a radical understanding of nonviolent action takes the full extent of violence into account, as integrated in our societies. Therefore, radical nonviolence is also a critique of violence that challenges the structural, systemic, cultural and symbolic violence, which denies people the capacity to live life according to their full potential and in dignity. If we view nonviolence as such, then we will have to understand that we cannot really act without violence if we are not also trying to go beyond violence.

In this way, we have to try to use our radical imaginations of a future society liberated from violence. We might never get there, but reaching utopia is not really the point. We can, as Gandhi suggested, still work for the maximum, long-term reduction of violence. If we do, then we would also understand that we cannot really struggle against violence, if we do not at the same time have a relation with and live within violence.

As long as violence exists, we as nonviolent activists need to accept and willingly choose to be integrated into a society that is violent, engaged and linked to those forces that wage war and organize structural violence. To be a nonviolent activist is in this way the opposite of dropping out, and isolating yourself in the forest, living in a cabin, or otherwise trying to disconnect as an individual from the realities of violence, or being content with just struggling against the local and most spectacular eruptions of an inherently violent world. That kind of retreat from the violent systems is in fact just another word for privilege.

A nonviolent activist is in the middle of the storm, engaged with all aspects of the pandemic of violence, and trying to use their whole being to transform us to take another path.

Furthermore, nonviolence is an approach to be practiced both on a personal and collective level, since these phenomena are interwoven. Self-development is key to our ability to practice nonviolence in relationships with others, be that in our family and workplace, the neighborhood or within a social movement.

Fundamentally, nonviolence is a practice combining two paths generating its social change force: Building up and tearing down; saying “yes” and “no” in our actions; combining the creation of nonviolent alternatives and solutions with the resistance to violent systems.

I have real hopes for how we can apply this, by charting a way forward for a radical, nonviolent approach during and after this global pandemic.6 Apr 2021 – A year ago, it felt unreal with the shocking images on the news: hospitals surging with patients needing intubation, city streets empty of all pedestrians, societies virtually grounded to a sudden halt — this time a crisis that also affected affluent countries. Twelve months later, the vaccine rollout is underway, at least in the privileged parts of the world, and there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel.


Stellan Vinthagen is a professor of sociology, a scholar-activist, and the Inaugural Endowed Chair in the Study of Nonviolent Direct Action and Civil Resistance at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he directs the Resistance Studies Initiative.

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