Occupy, The Civil Rights Movement, and Decentralization

Over at orgtheory.net, Fabio Rojas recently asked a good question: why has Occupy not followed the tactical and organizational choices made by the Civil Rights Movement. As Fabio points out, they share ideological similarities, yet Occupy has largely been a decentralized movement while the Civil Rights Movement favored large organizations and clearly defined goals. It’s a post that’s worth reading and mulling over in its entirety, and it’s generated some interesting conversation. I did, however, want to raise one point with regard to this question, though, that hasn’t been brought up (at least at the time I’m writing this) on the thread, which is that Francesca Polletta covered some of this in her piece “How Participatory Democracy Became White.

In that piece, Polletta explores the transition of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from an group that favored decentralization and participatory democracy to an organization that embraced hierarchy and stronger leadership. Polletta’s argument is that, as the title gives away, participatory democracy was increasingly seen as “white” in the wake of Freedom Summer and its adoption by movements such as the New Left and Student Movement. In the wake of this, frustrated, increasingly radical, African-American activists in SNCC, feeling like they were unable to generate new programs and projects, began to abandon their commitment to an organizational style they initially saw as spreading power around. Effectively, Polletta argues, participatory democracy went from being seen by SNCC as a way to ensure equal participation to a way to accomplish nothing concrete as people endless talked about their feelings and hangups. “Personal freedom” instead of “work,” in the words of a memo Polletta quotes in the piece.

While this doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, completely answer the question Fabio posed, it does provide a useful lens and starting point for thinking about it. Some of the tactical and organizational disputes we see carried out today were present in the Civil Rights Movement as well. The ultimate argument that we, as sociologists of social movements, need to think about the meaning of various tactics and styles, as well as their effectiveness.

1 Comment

Filed under Daily Disruption

One response to “Occupy, The Civil Rights Movement, and Decentralization

  1. Short answer: Occupy’s organic intellectuals (e.g. David Graeber) and participants rejected vertical structures. Occupy was a social moment, not a social movement.


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