By Erin Evans
This title is probably familiar to you. I think of Malcolm X at first. Ironically, I also think of some contemporary activists who use tactics like lobbying for policy reform or cooperating with their targets on compromises. These activists may have radical goals, like ending consumer capitalism or ending all animal use, but for a variety of reasons they use moderate tactics in pursuit of these radical ends. This month’s essay dialogue explores new definitions of “activism” and how changing conceptions of what it is to do “activism” influences our research on social movements. For researchers who focus much of their attention on activists who use “insider” tactics (Banaszak 2010, Epstein 1996) the debate on what qualifies as “activism” is especially important.
Scholars identified how the types of protest activities citizens use are largely guided by the political context (see Routing the Opposition for literature reviews). For instance, in a non-democratic state citizens do not have state mechanisms to address their grievances, and so they use extra-institutional, or “outsider,” tactics. In the U.S. many of these “outsider” tactics are sanctioned by constitutional design. Picket lines and boycotts and publicly defaming the state are the status quo. Think of San Francisco; demonstrations are a tourist attraction there. This makes using some forms of outsider tactics problematic if activists do not pay particular attention to exactly what they want the protest forms to achieve. Some activists find peaceful protest frustrating and ineffective.
In my research I conceptualize the pursuit of legal and policy change as a form of activism (Evans 2015). I interview activists and their targets to explore the effects of policies activists pursue. Activists often complain about ineffective protests and the self-congratulatory nature of using demonstrations against targets who easily ignore picket signs and home demonstrations. Many choose to focus on using laws and policies as tools, and even cooperating with people they find repugnant to induce change.
One activist I interviewed described how her organization, widely known as a militant and radical group, would never publicize that they cooperate with targets for small changes, but they do “because it’s all we can get right now.” Small gains can lead to more change. Some laws and policies activists lobby for can create inroads inside of targeted institutions, providing a foothold for more influence. This is especially true when the institutional target is more insulated from public scrutiny, like laboratory science. These in-roads represent one reason scholars should not ignore insider tactics as an element of “activism.” Indeed, these forms of institutional access can be important tools for activists.
“Insiders,” like administrators for the Environmental Protection Agency or inspectors for regulatory agencies, may indeed be performing their jobs with an undercurrent of “activism.” What I mean is that activists not only move between movements and organizations over time (Meyer and Whittier 1994, Corrigall-Brown 2012) they can move in and out of social movement roles all together due to burn-out, law enforcement concerns, or simply because they’ve grown out of screaming in bull-horns or office disruptions. This isn’t to say that screaming in bullhorns and militancy isn’t an important component of movement activity, but it is only one component. Because a person chooses moderate tactics, does this mean that person isn’t pursuing the same goals that activists pursue? Can’t this be considered part of what McCammon (2012) called “strategic adaption”?
These insiders may consider themselves activists and we should consider self-identity in our research. One of the personal consequences of participating movement activity is a lasting sense of being an activist (McAdam 1989). When a person participates in protesting, even just once a year, that person may have a feeling of involvement and investment that leads to feeling like an activist. Even during the labor uprisings of the early 20th century songs like “Union Maid” or “Which Side are You On?” exemplify the kind of identity work that was so important to maintaining solidarity against the owning class. Then, simply being a member of a union was “activism” that came with a sense of identity, or “class consciousness.” This is an important biographical consequence of participation with which researchers are still grappling. Movements such as Occupy seem like flashes in the pan, but perhaps this is because “seldom activists” are activated by something more linked to their sense of identity rather than the economy, or networks, or other triggers scholars have identified. Even some politicians participated in Occupy, or wanted to. Does this mean they are “activists” and that their participation is “activism”?
I can’t help but think of John Lewis, an organizer during the 1960s civil rights movement who spoke against compromise then, and is a Congressperson now. I think of John Lewis who wanted to participate and speak during Occupy Wall Street and was basically turned away. I also think of Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, who worked with an evolutionary biologist while in prison because he saw the academy as one route to understanding social injustice. And Bobby Seale, who co-founded the Black Panthers with Newton and said in a recent New York Times article “Political seats—you make the laws, you change the laws.” If radical activists of the 1960s shift their tactical priorities towards political intervention, does this mean they and their actions are not “activism”?
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t also do work exploring activists who reject the idea that the state provides small and slow change for social justice. The important question of whether the state coopts and silences activists can be lost when scholars see insider contentious politics as part of social movement activity. Instead of interrogating the ways that the state demobilizes activists by providing a guise of change, some scholars risk assuming that the concessions provided by the state are real and lead to more. Research exploring this question on when state concessions provide meaningful change and when they are purely symbolic is burgeoning. We would do movements research a disservice by ignoring “insider” activism because we think it doesn’t count.