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When Does Anger Lead to Protest?

By Francesca Polletta

The insight that reoriented the study of social movements in the late 1970s was that people knew when they were oppressed. The relevant question was not, what led people to feel discontented enough to protest? (This was the question animating strain theories of collective action.) Instead, it was, when did people see themselves as able to act effectively on their discontent? Hence the causal importance attributed to external resources (by resource mobilization theorists) and to political opportunities, indigenous resources, and cognitive liberation (by political process theorists).

Doron Shultziner argues that the earlier question was the right one after all—and he does so in the context of the case that was supposed to have laid to rest accounts of mobilization based on discontent. Not only does discontent matter, he maintains; it may be all that matters. In short, none of the factors that have been used to account for protest generally, and the Montgomery bus boycott in particular, explain the decision of so many people to stay off Montgomery’s buses. No one from the outside injected resources, financial or otherwise. There were no political opportunities. To the contrary, after Brown v. Board, things got worse, not better, as a backlash against school integration swelled the ranks of the notorious White Citizens Council and amplified everyday white aggressions. There were black leadership structures in Montgomery, and they did play a role in the protest, but only after it had gotten underway. As for cognitive liberation, it is hard to imagine what would have led black citizens of Montgomery to feel that political change was newly within reach.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Origins of Social Movements