People’s Movements: Organizational Structure and the Big Bang of Disruption Politics, Part 2 al Aqsa Mosque Protests, and Ghandi’s Salt March Satyagraha

Looking at organizational structure and disruption politics abroad offers some fascinating insights to the same group dynamics that influence people’s movements, particularly with leaderless movements. For this piece we’ll focus on an historic example- Ghandi’s Salt March in 1930 and the al Aqsa Mosque protests in Jerusalem last month. Unlike the Black Lives Matter and the white supremacists and counter-protestors in Charlottesville examples in Part 1, the two foreign examples are much more fluid on the continuum of structured and disruption based organization.

Under British colonial control since the mid-nineteenth century, Indians were subjected to a stiff salt tax, much like the Sugar Act in colonial America. But unlike sugar, in Indian climates salt was dietary necessity, not a luxury. It was illegal for Indians to manufacture or harvest salt in any way. As a necessity tightly controlled by an occupying power, Mohandas Ghandi made salt a symbol of the unfair treatment of all Indians- of all economic backgrounds and religions- in being subjected to massive British taxes to obtain life-sustaining, local salt. While some criticized his approach, Ghandi knew that promote a true people’s satyagraha movement, it would take something transcendent. To get your own salt was to undermine British rule itself.

In the spring of 1930, 60-year-old Ghandi and a small group of followers trekked from his ashram and began a 241-mile march to the sea. It took over three weeks to reach Dandi, and in the course of walking 12 miles per day, more people spontaneously joined. Each night, Ghandi and others would lead prayers and make the argument for what we’d think of now as disruption politics- literally, they sought to disrupt the supply chain of salt from the sea. Whether that disruption would be permanent and allow Indians a direct conduit to the resource, or not, was almost irrelevant because the disruption to British law and order was far more destabilizing to the colonial power than just the salt tax.

On the 24th day, Ghandi and his gathered followers made it to the sea, but the British soldiers on guard had smashed the salt crust from the ebbing tide into the mud to subvert the Indians’ efforts. Ghandi kneeled in the mud and picked up salt flowers from the mud. In the end, 60k-80k people were arrested. Ghandi himself was arrested and jailed for about six months, but the movement he started- satyagraha (or “insistence on truth” through civil disobedience) continued spontaneously and under alternate leaders, or small groups. The British governing power was de-legitimized by failing to provide for the basic needs (nutrition) of its subjects- something we’d do well to remember in our current political atmosphere.

In this example, you see the fluidity of the satyagraha movement, from a somewhat structured small organization, at times leaderless and spontaneous, engaging in simple but powerful disruption politics. Unlike the case of Malcolm X and Organization for African American Unity, sataygraha was able to continue even while Ghandi was incarcerated. Why was this group able to adapt where others haven’t? In nearly a century, many things have changed, but at the core of it may be Ghandi’s ability to connect the people with the movement itself, beyond himself, beyond the current issue (salt, or say, gerrymandering). If the core appealed to a sense of identity and freedom as indeed any and all peoples do, then the group identity could carry the movement forward, across decades, across a subcontinent.

Al Aqsa

In the modern world, post-globalization, post Arab-Spring, we’ve just witnessed a very different and rare example of intentionally leaderless disruption politics in the al Aqsa Mosque protest in Jerusalem.

July 14, 2017 two Israeli police and three Palestinian gunmen were killed in a confrontation outside the Al Aqsa Mosque. For the first time since 1969, Israeli closed the mosque to the public. Despite even internal dissent within the Israeli Security Defenses and the government, the Israeli government installed cameras and metal detectors in the mosque and partially reopened it a week later, while continuing to bar entry for any Palestinian males under the age of 50.

Beyond the obvious violation of religious practice at the third holiest site in Islam, the closure and conditional reopening represented several additional major violations. First, Israel does not legally control this quarter of Jerusalem- the Waqf or Islamic Trust does. The 1967 agreement essentially allows Israel control outside the compound and Palestinians control within it, though Israel has formally and subtly challenged this on numerous occasions, including an incident in 2000 where Ariel Sharon entered the compound with 1000-armed police that led to the Second Intifada. Secondly, Palestinians are never permitted citizenship; instead they can only be residents, second-class inhabitants without the same rights. Thirdly, as such, Palestinians are prohibited from building, renovating or buying new property in Jerusalem. As families have grown over the decades, their spaces have not so the public spaces at Al Aqsa are spaces not only of worship, but also recreation, socializing, celebration and so on- an extension of their homes. Zahra Qaws, a nurse and resident of Jerusalem’s Old City, said “separating us from al-Aqsa is like stripping us of our lungs.” It’s important to understand that what might seem like being unable to attend church one Sunday for an American, is a much deeper violation, especially when Israel already blocks access to Al Aqsa (via wall and permits) to most West Bank inhabitants.

Israeli border police clash with Palestinian men during scuffles that erupted after Palestinians held evening prayers outside the Lion’s Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City July 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad [Reuters]

When Israelis closed Al Aqsa on the 14th, worshipers- mostly Muslims but also accompanied by Palestinian Christians- began praying at the Lion’s gate, forming a sea of prostrate forms and sit-ins. Over the weeks, as promises were broken, the worshipers simply stayed and were joined by more until tens of thousands stood in peaceful protest. Street vendors began giving their foods and drinks to the protestors, nearby houses began cooking for the masses entrenched outside the gates. Notably the supply lines were not, could not, be cut off because there was no large supplier or convoy- it was all individuals giving the little they had to give in untraceable, unstoppable amounts- not without starving an entire population. And the Israeli forces responded with tear gas, beatings, stun grenades, and firing rubber coated steel bullets into the crowds to force disbandment.

The international community was unified and consistent in their calls for Israel to remove “security” measures. Turkish President Erdogan drew on the global importance of al-Quds (Jerusalem) for all Muslims and its sanctity, making this clearly an interstate and intrastate issue. The US White House issued a statement urging Israelis to respect the 1967 and Jordan to arbitrate as the “custodian” of the al-Haram al-Sharif (the Arabic name for Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound). Similar statements were issued by Jordan, Egypt and the Lebanese President Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who said, “The recurrent Israeli aggressions…are part of an Israeli scheme to target the sacred sites after the usurpation of the land, in its attempt to continue changing the geographic and demographic status quo in Jerusalem.”

Many attribute the success of the Al-Aqsa Mosque protests to the refusal to allow any politician or political leaders to speak on behalf of the spontaneous, grassroots movement. When the Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas publicly supported the protests, the protestors chanted against him; even the PA was viewed as tainted, as “deeply intertwined with those [interests] of Israel,” and therefore pollutive to the cause. It was further dismissed as “rhetoric” and “saving face” by An-Najah University political science professor Abdelsattar Qassem. The message of the protestors was clear: No one speaks for us. No one can politicize us.

The metal detectors were removed and al Aqsa was re-opened, for now, but what the leaderless protest achieved is almost incomparable. From an organizational perspective of people’s movements, two questions surface. How was a leaderless movement so successful, with minimal loss of life and property and relatively short period from demand to acceptance? Those answers lie in the common interests, like Ghandi’s salt. This communal space is important for all residents but also to the Muslim world, and international community for what it symbolized- they were connected beyond a singular issue. The second question is why did the Palestinian protestors so vehemently oppose a leader? That may be significantly more difficult to dissect, but I have to suspect that going decades without a widely accepted “legitimate” government has taught the Palestinian people to do for themselves, to do without, and all that encompasses, from grief to temerity.

The al Aqsa Mosque protest was one of those exceptional incidents where you know- even in the moment- this leaderless people’s movement will be studied for years to come. Like the Black Lives Movement (BLM) in unstructured organization, it was also thoroughly different- one notable difference being the level of heterogeneity of the populace to place. Somewhere closer to the middle of the structured and unstructured continuum, Ghandi’s satyagraha people’s movement continued without him, and yet allowed him back in after incarcerations.

Like Ghandi’s Salt March, or even the Moral Monday Movement closer to home, the success of these very differently organized movements was based in an ability to unite many segments of the population with an overarching and compelling goal. To say that goal was freedom is perhaps too simple, or maybe only overly large, but what Cloward and Piven first posited in “Poor People’s Movements” remains constant- it’s never any one thing that foments a movement. Multiple conditions must exist to begin, and then any one of these approaches from the wholly unstructured to the most rigidly structured, it is a uniting and compelling alternative that allows them to persist.

What does it matter to us? I think it matters a great deal, particularly as we watch singular and exclusionary identity-based political groups rise, and the sanctity of the state or other formerly unifying identities like “American” give way to Liberal versus Conservative, Republican versus Democrat versus Libertarian versus Independent… Who will speak for us, and how will we speak for ourselves? Reverend Barber has done a superb job at joining people in intersectionality- uniting the Fight for 15, BLM, LGBTQ, leaders of all faiths, and so on, towards a free society of non-discrimination and equal opportunity. And I suspect we’ll see a test of that movement very soon when he moves on to the national level. Will Moral Monday survive the passing of the baton from Reverend Barber to Reverend Gatewood (or another) or is the movement so synonymous with the enigmatic leader that it will fizzle out as Malcolm X’s did?

In your own lives, jobs, communities, how does organizational structure help or hinder?