Contemporary movements across the world remind social movement scholars to rethink the role threat and grievances play in collective action. Recently, several movements have emerged in response to threats. From the occupy movement, and indigenous water rights mobilizations, to local environmental racism battles and immigrant rights social movements, marginalized and excluded social groups are mobilizing against increasing threats within their communities (Mora et al. 2017). Threats are defined as the negative conditions that inspire mobilization; although scholars have given more focus to political opportunities, threats were originally given the same weight as political opportunities (Tilly 1978). Some of the key threats that mobilize communities are environmental, economic, erosion of rights, and state repression (Almeida 2003; 2018). Continue reading →
Environmental problems have a long history of being difficult to resolve, from the frustrations of trying to manage collective resources (e.g., the tragedy of the commons) to environmental problems typically being ranked lower as national policy priorities relative to issues like the economy or terrorism, especially in the United States where there are strong partisan differences in environmental concern (Pew Research 2018). But with climate change’s global implications, the stakes have never been higher, and the irreversibility of a greenhouse gas build-up lends urgency to action. Despite this, inaction is stubbornly pervasive. Is there anything with the power to shake people out of complacency, resignation, or even denial? Continue reading →
Adrien Nemoz was 21 years old when his friends told him in horror that a stained-glass portrait of Marshal Pétain, the French Vichy regime’s authoritarian leader, was hanging in a chapel across the Fourvière Basilica. A tall, imposing Church overlooking Lyon, the Fourvière was seen by many as the moral center of the city. For Nemoz and his peers, it was unconscionable that a tribute to Pétain would hang in this holy place. After all, only several months earlier Pétain had agreed to an armistice with Hitler, resulting in the Nazi occupation of half of France. Something had to be done.
The usefulness of threat in understanding social movements has informed a wide range work on topics like labor strikes, anti-union policies, the creation of ex-gay “therapy” centers and same-sex marriage bans. Naturally, social movements can use actual threats as a powerful mechanism to support mobilization. Left unanswered though is this: can a social movement that has mobilized in response to threat continue to mobilize around it even as objective risk declines?
While grievances are common, collective mobilization to address them is rare. Take the case of Xiomara, whom I profile in my new book Immigrants Under Threat. An undocumented single mother of three sons, she fled her home state of Zacatecas, Mexico in 2001 and crossed the border without authorization to escape her abuser, to be nearer to her sisters in California, and to avail herself of the economic opportunities al norte. Shortly after Xiomara arrived to California’s Central Coast, she met a man and the abuse began anew. Too fearful that her undocumented status would land her in deportation proceedings, she called the police only when her abuser began threatening her young sons. Besieged by the legal violence of the deportation regime, on one side, and gender violence, on the other, Xiomara recalled the period as a dark one, one in which she felt immobilized, deeply fearful, and alone.
This is a special phase in the history of the United States, one characterized by threat. Yet, the dynamics of threat are playing out a bit differently now than in the recent past. How so? A short answer: it’s about a clear and focused target for mobilization. To elaborate on that, I will first briefly discuss the concept of threat with an emphasis on how we arrived here. Then, I will consider how threat is important for both activists and observers, how the Trump-era is changing our treatment of threat, and how a historical case from East Asia helps us understand the current situation in the U.S.
The enemy of my enemy, as the saying goes, is my friend. While we should probably be skeptical of this attitude toward friendship, it can help us understand why activists sometimes form short-term–or even seemingly paradoxical–alliances during times of threat.
The content of Mobilizing Ideas occurs in two threads. The Essay Dialogue is an exchange on a salient topic, featuring insights from scholars and activists, occurring over the course of two months. The Daily Disruption is a blog covering social movements news, from current events to new research by emerging movements scholars. Use the menu at the top or the links below to access either of these full threads.