The social movements field of scholarship no longer holds strain and breakdown theories in high regard when attempting to understand and explain mobilization emergence. However, as micromobilization theorist Aldon Morris explained in Frontiers in Social Movement Theory, collective action and social movement consciousness must be located within the systems of domination that oppress actors in a myriad of ways. It might be possible then to think of crises of capitalism and heightened periods of economic exploitation as an underlying factor that inflames simmering racial tensions and popular protests over scarce resources.
The wealth gap between the richest and poorest Americans is currently as wide as those seen during the 1920s Gilded Age. Divides in wealth are also increasing along racial and ethnic lines. As more and more wealth has funneled to the top 1% of American society, everyone else – particularly African Americans – have felt the sting of stagnant wages, re-segregation of schools, the undoing of the Voting Rights Act resulting in increased voter suppression, and the devastating effects of mass incarceration and de-industrialization. The year 2008 not only earmarked a global economic crisis but the election of the first U.S. president of African descent, Barack H. Obama. While many celebrated President Obama’s election as an unprecedented and nearly unfathomable moment of progress in American history, a virulent racial backlash fomented as membership in white supremacist groups spiked and filmed police killings of African Americans seemed to have done the same.
For example, the 2014 uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown prompted investigations into local law enforcement practices by the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOJ report exposed a systemic racial targeting of African Americans to create revenue for the city.
In addition to urban uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, #Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and Occupy Wall Street, we’ve seen the continuation of the post-2008 global crisis protest cycle: the Fight for $15; the Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina; the Standing Rock demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline; the Women’s March on Washington; and recent sit-ins at major U.S. airports opposed to the travel ban on flyers from seven majority-Muslim countries. These campaigns seem to answer calls for a “left wing Tea Party” to serve as the resistance to the Presidency of Donald Trump.
This isn’t necessarily the first time we as a nation have experienced such levels of social and economic inequality, as well as a variety of mobilization actions.
High levels of unemployment, housing crises, and labor fights across the nation also created the context for deeper contentious politics around race during the post-World War I era. The Ku Klux Klan was reinvigorated in the 1920s across the nation, gaining mainstream power through its middle-class members – many of whom were police officers, judges, and elected officials. Racial terrorism targeting African Americans reached its height during what was called the Red Summer of 1919, when anti-black race riots and lynchings bloodied the streets of Chicago, Washington DC, Charleston, Omaha, Knoxville, and other U.S. cities.
The post-War protest cycle included a plurality of political movements and radical ideologies of right-wing and leftist varieties such as labor movements, waves of nationalism, Marxism, and anarchists. Grassroots organizing in the black community flourished: the NAACP saw its membership surge, and Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association ballooned from its center in Harlem, New York to gain hundreds of chapters worldwide. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Southern Negro Youth Congress was organized to address needed economic recovery in the wake of the Great Depression, to investigate lynchings, and to push voting rights legislation.
What can present day social movement activists and scholars learn from past protest cycles to address racial and economic inequality? Sekou Franklin’s After the Rebellion: Black Youth, Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation (2014) argues organized black protest coupled with accompanying efforts through institutional channels is the only recourse for racial change in the U.S. Similarly, if a broad coalition “left-wing Tea Party” is to emerge and effectively influence policy, it must begin with reaching and empowering the most disenfranchised in society and taking those concerns to local political settings.