On February 15th, 2003, millions of people from around the world took part in a series of coordinated protests against the impending war in Iraq. Although estimates of the number of participants ranged from six to thirty million, it was, without a doubt, the single largest protest event in human history to that date (BBC News 2003). Many scholars commented that the unprecedented level of successful global coordination against the war was made possible by the work of institutional leaders cooperating in large scale coalitions (Boekkooi, Klandermans, and van Stekelenburg 2011; Corrigall-Brown and Meyer 2010). These types of coalitions seemed indispensable for this level of mobilization. However, the recent success of the intentionally unorganized Occupy movement challenges us to reassess the necessity of formal coalitions between organizations and ask: in what contexts are formal coalitions needed for mass mobilization and how do formal organizational coalitions shape the nature of campaigns?
The anti-Iraq war campaign in general and the February 15th coordinated protests in particular were fundamentally tied to the work of professional organizations and coalitions. There were a number of such coalitions in the United States, including United for Peace and Justice (with over 650 groups), International ANSWER (with approximately 150 groups), and Not in Our Name (with approximately 100 groups). In our work on the anti-Iraq war movement, David Meyer and I examined Win Without War (WWW), a coalition of 41 groups who used a variety of tactics including advertising, press conferences, Internet organizing, and the virtual march on Washington (2005, 2010). We found that these coalitions often took advantage of existing social ties between leaders and these ties made later cooperation more likely. For example, 13 of the 41 groups from WWW later engaged in the 2008 Take Back America Conference. Other WWW member groups, such as the Fourth Freedom Forum and Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND), have become long-term institutional allies releasing joint briefing papers and working together at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame. The anti-Iraq war mobilization was based on the cooperation of professional activist leaders in large scale professional organizations who worked together in formal coalitions.
Eight years later we witnessed another large, widespread mobilization: the Occupy Movement. The movement was started by the Canadian activist group Adbusters and the first occupation took place in New York in September 2011. In the following months, the protest spread to over 95 cities across 82 countries (Thompson 2011). While many of the groups in WWW endorsed the Occupy Movement, the movement took an intentionally anti-elitist and anti-organizational stance. Yet this movement also led to large-scale and coordinated protest events, even while eschewing reliance on leaders or organizations to facilitate this coordination. Does this mean that formal coalitions and organizations are no longer necessary for the creation of large-scale coordinated protests or are they needed in some instances and not others? Do coalitions of professional organizations, such as were active in the anti-Iraq war movement, lead to different outcomes than looser grassroots campaigns, such as in Occupy?
While both the anti-Iraq war and Occupy movements successfully coordinated widespread, prolonged, international campaigns, there are other important differences in the outcomes of these two movements which are, in part, the result of their differential reliance on formal organizations and coalitions. Two primary ways that this shaped the resulting mobilizations were in the frames that the campaigns presented and the media response to the campaigns.
Because the foundation of the anti-Iraq war movement was formal organizations and coalitions, this movement, including WWW, was able to articulate a clear and focused message – No War Now. This message had to be formally agreed upon by all coalition members in long meetings. Because of the different orientations of the various groups, the frame had to be narrow and clear in order to maintain the cooperation of all groups over time. For example, the Quaker groups were uncomfortable with war for any reason at any time while many of the Veterans groups argued that war was acceptable under certain circumstances. While this process was long and painstaking, it rendered a clear frame. News coverage and public opinion was generally sympathetic.
Interestingly, the Occupy Movement also used a clear and concise frame – We are the 99%. However, agreement beyond this frame was difficult. The movement was based on decisions made through consensus in general assemblies using the methods of participatory democracy. This format was even more intensive and painstaking than the long meetings of the WWW coalition. And, while all groups at these rallies agreed with the 99% claim, other more diffuse campaign messages did not always coalesce. The media responded with confused and often unsympathetic coverage that mocked the perceived lack of focus of the Occupy activists.
Still, Occupy was able to diffuse their tactic of encampments and “We are the 99%” frame via new media technologies. These new media technologies spread images and ideas outside of traditional organizational channels, allowing protesters to broadcast their actions and tactics without needing large scale organizations or the mainstream media. Live streams of Occupy events and computer banks at protest sites allowed the activists to get their message out. While there were costs to this message democratization, in that there was a less clear set of issues at Occupy events, this facilitated widespread coordinated protest without formal coalitions.
The comparison between the anti-Iraq war movement and the Occupy campaign illustrates how the role of coalitions is dependent on the context and the resources available to activists. Coordinated widespread protest need not be reliant on established organizations, official leaders, or formal coalitions. However, campaigns structured around formal organizations, leaders, and coalitions can benefit from these resources by producing clearer frames and more targeted actions. These sorts of campaigns are often better understood by the media, who are used to talking with leaders and relying on organizations with media offices. However, there is a vibrancy and enthusiasm that comes with grassroots activism, such as the Occupy movement, that is difficult to replicate within large, formal coalitions.
Boekkooi, Marije, Bert Klandermans, and Jacqueline van Stekelenburg. 2011. “Quarrelling and Protesting: How Organizers Shape a Demonstration.” Mobilization. 16(2): 221-239.
Corrigall-Brown, Catherine and David S. Meyer. 2010. “The Pre-History of a Coalition: An Analysis of Win Without War” in Strategic Alliances. Edited by Nella Van Dyke and Holly McCammon. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Pp. 3-21.
Meyer, David S. and Catherine Corrigall-Brown. 2005. “Coalitions and political context: US movements against wars in Iraq.” Mobilization. 10: 327-344.
“Millions join anti-war protests worldwide”. BBC News Online. 2003-02-17. Retrieved January 4, 2010.
Thompson, Derek. “Occupy the World: The ’99 Percent’ Movement Goes Global”. The Atlantic. 2011-10-15. Retrieved October 15, 2011.
Van Dyke, Nella. 2003. “Crossing Movement Boundaries: Factors That Facilitate Coalition Protest by American College Students, 1930-1990.” Social Problems. 49: 497-520.