Days of Rage: Is Ferguson spreading out or dissipating?

Inspired by the ongoing events in Ferguson, Anonymous has called for Days of Rage protests across the nation:


At least one part of the story here is the reasonably sophisticated use of social media, including Youtube above.  The description on Youtube includes a link to a list of events planned in more than 30 cities, so far.  Facebook is another site to find local information.

Poor policing, profiling, racism, and brutality are hardly problems limited to Ferguson, and some in Anonymous see the opportunity to fill the spotlight and press the issues.

Meanwhile, police in most of those cities are better trained, even better armed, and better prepared than those in Ferguson.  They are certainly monitoring the same social media sites as the activists.  Staging these events on such short notice will be the work of locals, not any kind of professionalized national group; expect the events–and the policing–to vary a lot.

There’s a question about whether diffusion, spreading the call around the country, or focus is the best strategy for this moment.  Multiplying fronts in the emerging battle runs the risk of losing control of the message and dissipating the efforts.  Until now, the focus on Ferguson has riveted media and popular attention on events across a few blocks.  For more than a week, it’s been clear that some large number of those in the streets–including the police–are not from Ferguson.  This has meant a willingness to trade peace in that tiny city for a vision of justice for Michael Brown and attention to larger issues.  This has meant a concentration of forces in a very small area.

The focus approach, mobilizing immense efforts in a limited site, has worked in the past.  Racism was also a nationwide problem in 1964, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee focused its summer project on Mississippi, and its efforts promoted a national response.  The old Days of Rage protests sponsored by the Weather Underground focused on Chicago in 1969, and a few hundred activists generated national attention–if not any policy victories.  Diffusion can also work, as we saw with Occupy.

The question for this round of Days of Rage is whether the protests, starting tonight, end up multiplying forces without diluting focus.



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Nurse-in in Beverly Hills

Protest, when it works, makes it hard to ignore something that was previously ignorable.  Yesterday, women held a nurse-in at the Anthropologie store in Beverly Hills.  The flash meal was a response to an incident earlier in the week, when a store manager hustled a nursing mother off to a bathroom.  The mother, Ingrid Wiese-Hesson, took to Facebook and Instagram to recount the incident, her embarrassment and anger, and the fact that the store manager broke the law.  California law allows women to nurse anywhere they and their babies are allowed to be.

Although brick and mortar stores will do almost anything to increase their street traffic, the assembly of babies doing lunch probably wasn’t a super great retail opportunity.  But it certainly made a point.  Antropologie quickly issued an apologie, and affirmed its commitment to the customer experience and better training for its employees.  Beyond the store and the chain, the protest increased the visibility of Breastfeeding Awareness Month, which had otherwise escaped at least my attention.

The nurse-in tactic was new to me, but it didn’t start this week in Beverly Hills.  Nearly two years ago, activists targeted Target with mass action, and earlier this year nursing mothers appeared at Facebook’s shareholders’ meeting to protest the site’s policy of censoring pictures it deems too revealing.  Instagram has a similar policy, and has engendered similar opposition.

It’s interesting that that the social media sites were so useful in organizing a protest that wasn’t targeted at them.

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How movements work; Shamu’s story.

Here’s a shift:

SeaWorld is building larger pens for the killer whales it keeps as performers and tourist attractions.  It also announced an enhanced focus on research.  Where did this come from? This is the movement story:

Shamu, the stage name of the killer whales that perform at SeaWorld, has been the subject of animal rights activism for years.  And what a great case!  Orcas are large, smart, social mammals, who live shorter, constrained lives in captivity.  I really don’t know what they feel, but in captivity, their distinctive dorsal fins droop, sadly.

In 2011, PETA filed an unsuccessful lawsuit arguing that orcas were entitled, as non-human persons, to 13th amendment protections against involuntary servitude.  In 2013, documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite released Blackfish, which focused on the sad story of Tillikum, an orca captured by SeaWorld, who was involved in the deaths of three people.  SeaWorld refused to cooperate with making the documentary, filed a complaint with the Department of Labor protesting that its employees did, and published its own factsheet on line disputing the film.  And all the while, activists have been demonstrating outside SeaWorld.

This past year, state legislators in California and New York proposed legislation that would prohibit orca performances or keeping killer whales in captivity altogether; nothing’s passed so far, and SeaWorld promised to relocate any killer whales to theme parks in states with less strict rules rather than release or retire any of them.

So, the lawsuit failed, and the new laws stalled; but you don’t have to win in order to effect influence.  Attendance dropped at SeaWorld; at least some parents planning vacations didn’t want to answer questions about the droopy fins.  The company’s stock price collapsed.  Prominent musicians canceled dates performing at the theme park, and other businesses, like Southwest Air, severed their ties with SeaWorld.  Credit rating agencies lowered SeaWorld’s bond rating, making it more expensive for the company to borrow money.   What to do?

SeaWorld announced that it would be providing larger pens for the orcas, twice the size of the present tanks.  It didn’t credit PETA or protests for this decision, but emphasized how the care of the whales was always a top priority.

Of course, larger pens are hardly what the campaigners were after, and they’re not satisfied.  See the report at Sea World of Hurt , a campaign sponsored by PETA.

But this is one way movements work.  The animal rights campaign made the captivity and conditions of the orcas an issue, and it hurt SeaWorld, even if the campaigners were targeting for so much more than that.  SeaWorld is trying to recapture market and reputation, doing something different in response to the changed world the movement campaign created.

We know at least two things: The animal rights activists will demand more.  And SeaWorld won’t credit the activists.

What we don’t know: Is building larger pens and nodding to research enough of a change to get some of those families to rebook visits to SeaWorld and see killer whales next year.

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Protest and riots

Violence polarizes.  It makes people pay attention.  It makes people take sides.  And this goes for violence from authorities like the police as well as protesters.

Citizens of Ferguson clean up after the police and violent protesters.

It doesn’t take many people, committed or crazy, in masks or police uniforms and riot gear, to hijack a story or a movement by doing something provocative.  Surely, almost no one who lives in Ferguson is happy to see young men throwing Molotov cocktails or looting stores.

Effective policing entails separating those seeking a confrontation with the police or a chance to act out from a larger community of protesters.  It should be easier to make this separation in Ferguson, where everyone seems to say that some large share of the violent protesters are from elsewhere.  But the policing in this very small city has been anything but effective (see Zack Beauchamp’s piece at Vox). When military assault vehicles appear in the streets, the citizens of Ferguson are likely to be just as angry at and scared of the police as the “agitators.”

Putting the police in the hands of the state highway patrol and Captain Ron Johnson was an effort to improve the policing and unite the nonviolent protesters with authorities.  It may still work, but the local police have been able to undermine that alliance by sporadically releasing odd piece of information and videotape.

This won’t go on forever, but it’s not yet clear when the nightly unrest will end.

And the awful thing: would there be national attention to the racial politics of policing and the militarization of local police departments if the protests hadn’t gotten out of hand and continued?

When their efforts spur stories about the issues, protesters are winning.  In America, violence usually undermines stories about policy.  But that’s not what’s happened in Ferguson–yet.  Indeed, overly aggressive and visibly ineffective efforts at social control have provided with a chance to turn the terrible case of a police shooting into a larger cause.  It doesn’t usually happen, but this time–thus far–there’s national attention to larger social problems–and some sympathy for substantial reforms.

Here’s another sign: Prof. Lindsey Lupo, author of One Hundred Years of Riot Commission Politics in America,
notes that that most coverage hasn’t called the violent disturbances at night, “riots,” a word that dismisses notions of larger causes.

One reason, I think, is that there has been some softening up of the body politic, which is more ready for action on policing and race in the wake of the visible campaigns around the shooting of Travyon Martin that led to…..nothing.


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Ferguson and protesting police

Unfortunately, there’s not much new about protests in reaction to overly eager policing, and there are many tragic, maybe criminal, endings that don’t generate protests as well.  In Ferguson, a small suburb of St. Louis, the police have clearly been ill-prepared to deal with mostly peaceful protests and scattered night rioting.  Above, protesters approach with their hands up, pleading for the police not to shoot them. This all follows a police officer’s shooting and killing an unarmed 18 year old African-American man, Michael Brown, on Saturday.

More generally, police overreaction, always in riot gear, has spurred more protest and additional national attention, affording opportunistic politicians who have never been near Ferguson to weigh in with their own favorite political points.  As if things weren’t bad enough anyway, local police dug even deeper, tear gassing a television news crew and arresting reporters.

Over the past fifty years or so, police in larger cities have gradually learned how to exercise control, sometimes vigorously and violently, without projecting an image unambiguously worse than those they are policing.  The images from Ferguson evoke comparisons to suppression of democracy movements in authoritarian countries, with the additional twist of a racial bias and inequality that is distinctly American.  Two-thirds of the 21,000 city residents are African-American, just like only 3 of the 53 police offices, and one of the six city councilors.

Concern about racial inequities is nothing new in Ferguson, but effective organization and advocacy may be.


So, what will come of all this?  How do protests about violent actually translate into policy changes?  Hint: usually, they don’t.  Remember, Trayvon Martin’s killing isn’t all that long ago.  That generated nation-wide protests of all sorts, the legal intervention of state government, and the trial (and acquittal) of the shooter.  If changes in gun laws or  community watch groups have followed, we certainly haven’t seen it.

At the moment, protesters are focusing on the City’s refusal to release the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown, pending an investigation and criminal charges.  But Ferguson residents–and others [including Anonymous]–already know the name, or at least they say they do.  But the name is not going to be what matters for very long.  If the shooter were a rogue in the department, protests of this volume and vigor could not have emerged.  Locals see Michael Brown’s death as a casualty of something larger, and national figures have followed that vision.

Protest about police policies leads to reform only when political mobilization follows.  In Los Angeles, the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal of the police who beat Rodney King, ultimately led to the retirement of longtime police chief Daryl Gates, a parade of new chiefs, a series of commissions, and a number of reforms.  Political figures intervened when they could because the sheer disruption of the riots made it difficult not to.  In New York City, the controversial stop and frisk policy lingered for decades.  Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio used opposition to the policy to mobilize voters, and delivered on his campaign promise to end it.

In Ferguson, the peaceful protests–and the riots–work if they force the issue of police conduct, and if they agitate or inspire locals to engage in other kinds of politics.  Getting the name released has to be part of a longer, more difficult process, to provoke meaningful change.

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Economic inequality is bad (Occupy echoes?)

Don’t trust me on this; that’s what Standard and Poor’s says in a report published on August 5.  And S&P doesn’t mention human privation, stalled opportunity, justice, or any other kind of moral or political concern.  Rather, S&P claims that extreme economic inequality is bad for economic growth.  The simple story is that rich people spend a smaller share of their income on stuff (goods and services) than the less rich.  There’s only so many haircuts, restaurant meals, or private plane rides that one can use.  This means insufficient demand to keep the economy chugging along.

This isn’t a new argument based on new data or research.  French economist Thomas Piketty got the rock star treatment earlier this year when he visited America to promote his new book, Capital in the 21st Century,  and he was telling that story–armed with equations and graphs, and boatloads of data easily available on his website.  Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich made a similar argument, less encumbered with math, in his recent book, Aftershock.

It was also not that long ago that Occupy (everywhere) was protesting economic inequality–among other things–but focusing more on justice than inadequate demand.

Occupy as a whole didn’t develop an instrumental political strategy (as Tea Party groups did) to get what its activists wanted.  Rather, people turned out to voice their demands, operating as if they could change the culture and the priorities of others.  Even as the occupations were cleared out across the United States, some of the ideas were picked up by others, not least of them the president, who certainly didn’t agree with the activists on everything–or maybe much.

And that’s how political influence works.  When movements make gains, it’s partly because others take up their issues and add different arguments, sometimes dismissing the initial ones offered by those in the streets.

Is there some chain of influence running from Zuccotti Park to S&P’s offices a few blocks away?  Minimally, did the cacophony of protest encampments alert journalists, or even the public, to pay a little more attention when the word “inequality” appears in a sentence or a French economist visits?

It’s a nine minute walk from Occupy Wall Street to S&P’s corporate offices on Water Street in Manhattan.

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Occupy Maidan

They’re still there.  At least some of the protesters who toppled Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovich months ago never left the Maidan, Kiev’s public square.  According to Steven Zeitchik’s report in this morning’s Los Angeles Times, the overwhelming majority of  the hundreds of thousands of citizens who protested last fall, often in violent clashes with the police, left when Yanukovich fled and an interim government was established.

Likely most went back to their homes and the rest of their lives.  Some opted to continue the battle elsewhere, mobilizing to defend Ukraine in the East from Russian sympathizers.  But hundreds (maybe thousands, says Zeitchik) remain in tents, ostensibly to ensure that the revolution continues–although they disagree on just what this means.  Most of the residents of Kiev see the tents as a disruptive and dirty eyesore, but given the recent history in Maidan, the government will not martial force to clear the occupiers out.

from Colin’s Notes, (

The Occupiers usually don’t get such grace notes from the governments they fail to topple (e.g., Zuccotti Park) or even those they do (Tahrir Square).  When it no longer seems practical or effective to occupy, protesters redirect their efforts and their lives.  [Of course, government can hasten the reoccupation by clearing protesters out with force.]  Some move back to private life, work, school, gardens.  Some keep at politics, moving into other efforts.  In the United States, Occupiers fanned out to a variety of causes, including protecting the environment, protesting student debt, and stopping foreclosures.  In Egypt, some of the Tahrir veterans organized to enter government–or help their allies do so.

Much of any movement’s important work takes place between the dramatic instances of protest that capture the headlines and the imagination.  It’s the prose of politics that generally ends up being more significant than the punctuation marks of visible protest.  On the day after the occupation, someone has to pick up the garbage and staff the public schools.  When a government doesn’t fall, as in the United States, it can feel, uh, same as it ever was.  When it does, activists need to figure out whether to pick up the trash bags or to monitor and pressure those who do.


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