The Periods Between Large-Scale Protest Events

NPR aired a wonderful story yesterday about Occupy Chicago activists’ organizing of protests in advance of the simultaneously held NATO and G8 summit meetings in May.

The story is interesting because so much of both journalistic and scholarly attention to movements and protest events happens during and after moments of contentious politics. By contrast, the NPR story reveals the months of planning that often goes into large-scale collective action. Much of what appears to be the spontaneous bubbling up of social protest (and often gets attributed to the social and organizational affordances of networked technologies) is actually the result of the hard work of organizing that takes place far outside of public view and during times of relative quiet.

Even more, the NPR story nicely shows the continuity of activists and the transfer of skills and knowledge across protest events and movements. As NPR correspondent Cheryl Corley relates:

CORLEY: Chicago activist, Joe Iosbaker, sips a glass of water as he sits at a corner table in a downtown Chicago restaurant. He’s with the United National Anti-War Committee and he applied to hold demonstrations in Chicago the day President Obama announced the summits will be held in his hometown…..

CORLEY: Iosbaker was one of the organizers of the 2008 anti-war protest at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Although there were multiple arrests of protesters in St. Paul, that was after 30,000 people had finished the peaceful march that Iosbaker helped organize.

IOSBAKER: Many of the organizers for that are part of this organizing team, as well. We have a track record. We’re talking to the city and we’re telling them we want permits to march. They’re baiting us and saying they’re preparing for mass arrests.

This carryover of activists across periods of heightened protest and movements seems to be a more general phenomenon. C.W. Anderson recently argued that the “Battle in Seattle” and “shadow conventions” during the 2000 electoral cycle provided activists with a set of skills and knowledge that they later carried to other sites, including Occupy Wall Street. Sociologists have long shown how movements endure through years of hostile political environments and activists transfer skills and experience across movements. In my own work, I found that the Obama campaign’s successful uptake of new media was, in large part, the result of specific skills his staffers learned at other sites in politics and the work of infrastructure building between elections.

All of which suggests that there are potential research opportunities in looking at continuities in individuals across protest events such as OWS and sites such as “Battle in Seattle” as well as the advance planning that is going into what could well become the next sites of large-scale collective action. Both are potential keys to understanding what may spectacularly, and seemingly spontaneously, emerge during the coming months.
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