Saturday, November 19, 2011

March with Occupy Wall Street/Civil Rights Strategy and the '99%' Movement

The Occupied Wall Streeters, marching from New York City to D.C., are in Baltimore.  Meet them at Patterson Park (at the Pagoda) on Saturday, November 19 at 6:30 PM.  Then there will be a march to McKeldin Square (Occupy Baltimore). Go to


Applying the Successful Strategy of the Civil Rights

Movement to a National "We are the 99%" Movement


     The Civil Rights Movement's success was based on a

     coordinated three-prong strategy of civil

     disobedience, grass-roots organizing and mass

     boycotts. To achieve similar victories, a national

     "We are the 99%" movement must adopt and apply that

     same approach.


by Andrew Levison

The Democratic Strategist

November 17, 2011


In the coming days the Occupy Wall Street movement faces

an extremely complex and difficult series of decisions

about its strategy and tactics. It cannot simply repeat

the initial tactic of occupying public spaces that it

has employed up to now but it has not yet developed any

clear alternative strategy for the future.


In debating their next steps the protesters - and the

massive numbers of Americans who support them - will

turn again and again to the history and example of the

civil rights movement for guidance. Martin Luther King's

closest advisors including Jessie Jackson and Andrew

Young have noted the clear historical parallels that

exist between the two protest movements and both

activists and observers will urgently seek to find

lessons in the struggles of the past.


The discussion, however, will be hindered by the

profoundly oversimplified vision that many people today

have of how the victories of the civil rights movement

were actually achieved. Most Americans have little more

than a series of impressionistic images of the civil

rights movement - police dogs and fire hoses unleashed

against the demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama in

1963, dramatic marches attacked by police in Selma,

Alabama in 1965 and, across the south, sit- ins and

freedom rides that rocked the region in the early years

of the decade. In this vision, dramatic confrontations

with the authorities appear to have been, in effect, the

movement's entire "strategy."


But, in fact, behind every major campaign of the civil

rights movement there was actually a very organized and

coherent three-pronged strategy. To seriously seek

guidance for the present in the struggles of the past,

it is absolutely indispensable to understand the basic

socio- political strategy that the movement employed.


The civil rights movement's three-pronged strategy

combined: 1. Civil disobedience 2. Grass-roots

organizing and voter registration 3. Boycotts and

economic withdrawal


In every single major campaign of the civil rights

movement - Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma - these three

elements of the overall strategy were employed in a

coherent, mutually supporting and reinforcing way. In

contrast, no part of this coordinated approach was ever

successful in isolation.


Seen in this light, there are indeed reasonable

comparisons between the civil rights movement and the

initial phase of Occupy Wall Street. OWS represents a

modern application of civil disobedience, the first

component of the civil rights movement's three-pronged

strategy. The essence of civil disobedience (also called

"nonviolent direct action") is the use of dramatic

protests that disrupt normal activities and usually

violate the law. They are designed to call attention to

the existence of injustice and win public sympathy

through the demonstrators willingness to risk danger and

injury and to go to jail for their cause.


In the early phase of the civil rights movement the most

extensive applications of civil disobedience were the

freedom rides and the sit-in's, actions that directly

violated the morally unjust laws enforcing segregation.

As the movement's objectives turned to social and

economic issues in the latter part of the 60's, the

targets of civil disobedience became more abstract and

symbolic, culminating in the establishment of a tent

city on the national mall during the Poor People's Campaign.


But civil disobedience was only tip of the iceberg of

the civil rights movements' struggle against

segregation. Behind the dramatic actions that captured

the headlines was a massive grass-roots organizing

effort across the South that involved thousands of

passionate young organizers. For every one sit-in

demonstrator there were a hundred grass-roots civil

rights activists who spent months and years traveling

around the South to conduct "freedom schools" in church

basements, restaurants, barber shops and meeting halls,

gatherings that were held in even the smallest towns and

rural areas. These freedom schools patiently built

support for voter registration efforts and laid the

foundations for later political campaigns by African-

American candidates. King and his lieutenants were

always absolutely clear in saying that the only long-

range solution to segregation lay in Black Americans

winning effective political representation.


Today it is the "We Are Ohio" movement and the Wisconsin

recall campaigns, rather than Occupy Wall Street, that

represent the modern equivalents of the civil rights

movement's grass-roots organizing campaigns. During

these recent campaigns against laws designed to

eliminate the right to union representation hundreds of

thousands of petitions were signed and thousands of

volunteers engaged in door to door canvassing,

literature distribution, the manning of tables in

shopping centers and the operation of phone banks - the

hard, grueling, unsung work that is indispensable for

successful grass-roots campaigns. The one- on-one, face-

to-face organizing techniques of the Ohio and Wisconsin

movements actually displayed substantial similarities

with the techniques of traditional trade union

organizing as well as with the civil rights movement.


In short, comparisons between the movements of today and

the civil rights movement cannot be limited to Occupy

Wall Street. The "We Are Ohio" and Wisconsin recall

campaigns have an equally valid claim to kinship with

the earlier struggles of the civil rights era.


The third prong of the civil rights movement's strategy

was boycott and economic withdrawal. In the Montgomery

campaign the bus system was boycotted, in Birmingham, it

was all downtown merchants. In view of King and his

associates it was economic withdrawal that was actually

the most powerful single weapon in the nonviolent

arsenal. It was the bus boycott that won King's first

victory in Montgomery and the boycott of downtown stores

that ultimately forced the business and political

establishment of Birmingham to negotiate.


King himself referred to boycotts as "campaigns of

economic withdrawal" and described them as "nonviolence

at peak of its power". Here is how he expressed it in



   In the past six months simply by refusing to purchase

   products from companies which do not hire Negroes in

   meaningful numbers and in all job categories, the

   Ministers of Chicago under SCLC's Operation

   Breadbasket have increased the income of the Negro

   community by more than two million dollars annually.

   In Atlanta the Negroes' earning power has been

   increased by more than twenty million dollars

   annually over the past three years...This is

   nonviolence at its peak of power.


The modern application of this strategy can now be seen

in the "Move Your Money" and related campaigns that call

on people to withdraw funds from the major banks and

reinvest them in credit unions and other more socially

conscious institutions. There are a variety of

estimates[2] from credit unions and independent sources

that suggest the campaign has already had a significant

and measurable effect, but it is also clear that this is

still the very earliest trial run for future economic

withdrawal campaigns with potentially powerful



Beyond the current campaign aimed at the largest banks,

the tactic of economic withdrawal can be applied to a

wide variety of firms and issues. Such campaigns will

all be united by a simple underlying concept: working

people should not spend or invest their money with firms

and institutions that use those same funds to bankroll

conservative candidates, laws and policies that

undermine those same workers' economic security,

standard of living and hopes for the future.


Consumer product companies are particularly vulnerable

to campaigns of economic withdrawal because the damage

to their reputation and image can in many cases be more

devastating than the direct economic damage itself. The

quite effective campaign by People of Color to pressure

the advertisers of Glen Beck's TV show in 2009

demonstrated the significant leverage consumer boycott

campaigns can bring to bear in the internet age.


There are already a variety of informal linkages

developing between the three social movements above --

the "Occupy Wall Street", "We are Ohio/Wisconsin recall"

and "Move Your Money" campaigns. Organizations including, Van Jones' American Dream Movement and the

AFL-CIO/Working America federations have played a

significant "behind the scenes" role in supporting the

OWS, "We are Ohio" and Move Your Money" actions and also

in popularizing and promoting the broader "We are the

99%" political movement and perspective around the country.


But the critical historical lesson that can be drawn

from the civil rights movement is the vital need for the

three prongs of the movements' strategy - civil

disobedience, grass- roots organizing/political

mobilization and boycott/economic withdrawal - to be

employed in a coordinated way as part of a single

integrated approach. The movement's key victories in

Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma all depended on this



There is currently no single leader with the immense

stature of a Martin Luther King or grass-roots

organizations like SCLC and SNCC to provide such

coordination for a national "We Are the 99%" social

movement. In the modern internet-connected world,

however, more diversified and decentralized forms of

organization are more likely to develop and are more

likely to be effective as well.


But for a "We Are the 99%" movement to achieve

substantial victories, coordination must be achieved.

Neither Occupy Wall Street nor the Ohio and Wisconsin

campaigns nor campaigns of economic withdrawal like

"Move Your Money" can, in isolation, produce

transformational victories of the scope and significance

of the victories of the civil rights movement.


In coordination, on the other hand, these three tactics

are immensely powerful. It was the combination of these

three approaches, employed in a coherent overall

strategy, that broke the back of the system of Southern

segregation within a single decade and that same three-

pronged strategy can profoundly transform America once

again today.






Andrew Levison was for many years a research assistant

to Mrs. Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young and other

participants in the civil rights movement. The analysis

presented here was first formulated at a 1971 conference

of The Institute for Nonviolent Social Change that

included many of the leaders of the major campaigns of

the civil rights movement.


No comments: