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This Is An Uprising – Moments Of The Whirlwind

July 24, 2018

(One in a series of posts on Mark & Paul Engler’s 2016 book, This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping The Twenty-First Century.)

Every organizer is familiar with that nervous feeling in the pit of her stomach generated by sitting in an empty room 10 minutes before a community meeting is supposed to start and wondering if anyone will show up.

Much to his surprise, Nicholas von Hoffman found himself facing the opposite problem one spring evening in Chicago in 1961. Von Hoffman was the lead organizer for The Woodlawn Organization, a year-old project of the Industrial Areas Foundation, and had been persuaded, against his own better judgment, to host some Freedom Riders for a talk in the gym at St. Cyril’s Church. Not only was the gym packed beyond capacity before the event began; there were also hundreds of people standing outside, eager to listen and to take action.

At the end of the exhilarating, exhausting evening, before going to bed, he called his boss, Saul Alinsky, and said, “I think that we should toss out everything we are doing organizationally and work on the premise that this is the moment of the whirlwind, that we are no longer organizing but guiding a social movement.” (p. 54) Alinsky quickly agreed.

According to the Englers, “the defining attribute of a moment of the whirlwind is that it involves a dramatic public event or series of events that sets off a flurry of activity, and that this activity quickly spreads beyond the institutional control of any one organization. It inspires a rash of decentralized action, drawing in people previously unconnected to established movement groups.” (p. 178)

The Arab Spring of 2011 and the Revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe are two examples of international “moments of the whirlwind”. Recent domestic examples (of varying scale) in the United States include the 2001 Harvard University Living Wage Sit-In, the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising, Occupy Wall Street, and the 2017 Women’s March.

Theorists and practitioners of momentum-driven organizing put forward several provocative theses regarding “moments of the whirlwind”:

  1. “that moments of the whirlwind are not as rare as they might seem;”
  2. “that there is an art to harnessing them when they occur spontaneously;”
  3. “that activists willing to embrace a strategy of nonviolent escalation can sometimes set off historic upheavals of their own.” (pp. 178-79)

Bill Moyer’s “Movement Action Plan” (later expanded into his 2001 book, Doing Democracy) serves as a key blueprint for understanding the dynamics of social movements. In particular, what Moyer calls “trigger events” are central to the Englers’ discussion of moments of the whirlwind.

“Moyer described a trigger event as a ‘highly publicized, shocking incident’ that ‘dramatically reveals a critical social problem to the public in a vivid way.’ The incident could be any number of things: a natural disaster or a political scandal; a journalistic exposé or an act of war. Such events, Moyer argued, are an essential part of the cycle of every social movement. ‘Overnight, a previously unrecognized social problem becomes a social issue everyone is talking about,’ he explained. By thrusting activists into the public spotlight, trigger events create vital opportunities for rallying mass participation and sharply increasing support for a cause.” (p. 181)

Moyer also explained what happens in the wake of a trigger event:

“(It) starkly reveals to the general public for the first time that a serious social problem exists and that deliberate policies and practices of the powerholders cause and perpetuate the problem. The event instills a profound sense of moral outrage within a majority of the general citizenry. Consequently, the public responds with great passion…and is ready to hear more information from the movement.” (p. 182)

Trigger events happen all the time. On any given day there are multiple potential trigger events easily found in a major newspaper or on a news-oriented website. “Arguably,” the Englers write, “the most common difference between a trigger event that fizzles and one that produces a moment of the whirlwind is the presence of a movement that decides to take action…. Chance offers up possibilities for revolt; movements make whirlwinds.” (p. 185)

They conclude their discussion of moments of the whirlwind by following Moyer’s lead and locating them within the broader context of social movements organizing for change:

“Trigger events are real. But whether they come from external sources or from movements themselves, they are only a beginning. When an uprising truly gains momentum, it is never the result of just one incident. Rather, it is the product of multiple, compounding crises, many of which are the result of deliberate effort. Effective movements create a feedback loop: building from an initial starting point, they use disruptive actions and political jiu-jitsu to make fresh headlines, prompt a reaction from authorities, and attract ever-greater numbers of participants to join in larger and more widely distributed actions.

Seen in this way, the moment of the whirlwind is the end point of escalation.” (p. 188)

What comes after the moment of the whirlwind is one of the most challenging moments for any movement’s leaders and organizers…and is the subject of the next post in this series.

Posts in this series:


From → Books, History, Politics

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