Solidarity and social distance, COVID-19 2/x

If you can’t meet in person, how can you protest effectively, or build the communities that can support effective action in the future?

Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest by [Tufekci, Zeynep]Online connections and social media provide an exceptional set of resources for organizers to spread information about issues and actions, bypassing obstacles of mainstream media (neglect) and repression (e.g., police who chase away activists wheatpasting flyers on walls and electric polls), but much of the work of building social movements/networks/trust is face-to-face. Moreover, online networks can easily be more segregated and insular than their real-life expressions. (Zeynep Tufekci’s book, at left, describes the heft and limits of online action well.)

In ancient times, like the last century, large demonstrations reflected thousands of hours of organizing efforts played out over months or years, where local groups built activist communities, common understandings of problems and politics, and solidarity–a feeling of connection. Social media allow organizers to generate the numbers far more quickly, but can movements be effective without all the infrastructure? (Rhetorical question; I don’t think so.)

extinction rebellion buddhists

Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement (DANCE)

In real life, organizers build solidarity by bringing people together for common purposes. Around coffee or tea, activists learn about each others’ families and favorite foods. They share brownies or cookies, tell jokes and stories, argue about places to shop or eat, and share rides. Sometimes, they make plans to go for walks or meals, organizer play dates for kids, and build friendships.
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A picketer is arrested behind Loveman's Department Store. Civil rights leaders believed that if they could break segregation in Birmingham, it would collapse throughout the South. ©1963 Bob Adelman, Courtesy CDEA.

 

 

 

 

At meetings and at actions, people sometimes pray or chant or sing. There is a feeling that can come from such collective action, of warmth and trust and connection, that provides support and sustenance and courage to take on actions that feel scary or risky.

Sometimes an issue or a political commitment can bring people together, but political commitments also develop through social connections, and the accumulation of common experiences over time.  
At demonstrations and actions, activists build bonds through proximity, like the two crusaders who confronted Sen. Jeff Flake at an elevator to urge him not to vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh, or the young people in the Sunrise Movement who sat in at Speaker Pelosi’s office–and elsewhere in Congressional offices.

Canvassers meet neighbors and learn about issues that they aren’t organizing on at the moment, and learn to recognize people they might see at the grocery store later in the week.

Protesters linked arms in the street on Inauguration DayWhen academics write about the sense of connection, often expressed through physical ties, common language and slang, styles of dress, and familiar songs, they often use the term “collective identity.” It comes from personal and physical contact.

Can all of this be replicated online? I don’t know, but I’m doubtful. I had a good long Zoom meeting this morning with nearly a dozen others who shared a common purpose and similar values. But I muted my mic so that they didn’t have to hear me eat breakfast, and I made my own coffee. We tended our own obligations during a break; no small talk. Others were interrupted by calls or deliveries, and had to drop off at odd times to deal with children and normal household obligations. No stories, shared food, and not too many distractions. It was far more efficient than a meeting in-person, but far more instrumental and limited.

So, I’ve been interested in how local groups are working to build social contacts in these moments of social distance. My JCC has, surprisingly, been inspiring. In the phone and email messages that announced its closing, staff offered to check in with daily calls to people who wanted the connection. Fitness trainers offered free exercise classes online, and preschool teachers provided online story times, reading children’s books to children who must be climbing the walls.

Historian and activist Lara Putnam reports on Twitter of organizers cultivating mutual aid groups, trying to serve community needs even with the currently necessary distance. Neighbors are offering to pick up groceries or help with errands and information. This surely does something to build community and solidarity. Maybe this provides a core connection that can support political action later.

Maybe.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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