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Why Aren't Americans in the Streets? Where Is the American Autumn?

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It's an eerie feeling when you know something should be happening, and it isn't -- yet. In The Washington Post, sociologist David Meyer has an incisive essay asking why, if Americans are so angry about their political system, are they not protesting? He notes the low approval ratings of President Obama and the Congress, as well as the economic dire straits we're in, with no end in sight. He mentions the riots in England -- to say nothing of those camping out in Israel, or the patient, courageous people being beaten down in the streets of Syrian cities. Or Spain. Or Bahrain. Or China. 2011 seems primed to join 1789, 1848, and 1968 as a year of historic, bottom-up transformation. But, aside from a few weeks in Madison, the United States seems to have mostly been sitting it out.

Meyer provides part of an answer: organizing -- or lack thereof. The labor movement is nearly crippled. Clicktivism only sort of translates into true collectivism. The best we seem capable of is a rally for apathy.

He's the rare refreshing voice in a mainstream paper to recognize that civil resistance movements are not simply spontaneous eruptions of popular feeling, or the covert doings of shadowy CIA operations. They take planning, and years of preparation.

What gets people out into the streets to demonstrate? It's not general unhappiness about policy, be it on immigration or the national debt. Social movements are products of focused organization. Even the icons of activism in American history wielded influence through larger groups. Rosa Parks wasn't just a tired seamstress in 1955, when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. She was a longtime organizer who served as chapter secretary of the local NAACP, which organized a bus boycott and a lawsuit in response to her action. Earlier that year, she had attended a workshop on nonviolent action at a labor center, the Highlander Institute, where she read about Gandhi and the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down segregation in public schools. All of the specific actions weren't choreographed, but activists had spent years building the infrastructure and cultivating the ideas that made the bus boycott possible.

Without such organizational support, individual actions might be dramatic and heroic, but effective movement politics is a test of endurance. Organization gives individual efforts meaning and staying power.

Without organization, furthermore, you get something like what we're seeing across England, and in Libya -- you get spontaneous eruptions of popular feeling, and it's not likely to be pretty.

But organization is also exactly what Meyer is failing to see. Americans may not be out on the streets yet, but they're planning on it. Just wait -- or get involved. People are organizing. The more they prepare, the more likely they are to carry out actions worthy of their goals.

Something is happening. Even Al Gore said, earlier this month, that we need an "American Spring." How about an American Autumn?

For the past few weeks, we at Waging Nonviolence have been talking with individuals and groups that are involved in one way or another in a variety of powerful new protest efforts. Here are a few of them:
  • In just a few days, environmental activists -- including Bill McKibben, James Hansen, and Wendell Berry -- will be undertaking sustained civil resistance to fight the proposed pipeline taking oil from the Canadian tar sands to refineries in Texas. They consider this a crucial battleground in the fight to ameliorate climate change.
  • After Adbusters called for a takeover of Wall Street on September 17th, a number of websites and organizations have joined in to support the cause -- just look at this, this, this, this, and more. An ongoing, open discussion has been taking place about what the movement's demands will be -- including proposals from taxing the rich to ending corporate contributions to political candidates.
  • On October 6th, the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, a broad coalition of old- and new-guard activists are planning to begin a sustained occupation of Freedom Plaza in downtown Washington DC, hoping to foster new momentum for a movement that will end American militarism abroad and put resources to use for people at home.
  • Between September 11th and October 7th, a group called 10 Years and Counting will be using art and performance to galvanize people into action against the ongoing wars.
  • A global day of action is being planned for October 15, a World Revolution for Real Democracy. In anticipation, Spanish Indignados are marching from Madrid to Brussels, with solidarity actions for September 17th and October 6th along the way.
In most of these cases, as I've learned from interviewing organizers, the ideas for these actions have come about spontaneously, and simultaneously, among a range of different groups. Something is in the air. But which way is it blowing?

Originally published at Waging Nonviolence.