An argument for dispersed, low density, nonviolent mass action.

On July 4th, before this week’s police murders in Falcon Heights and Baton Rouge, before Alton Sterling and Philando Castile lost their lives and unknown futures, before we took the streets to show that justice is not a negotiation, before all of this, we watched the fireworks from a friend’s hilltop porch. The big display downtown was mostly lost in smoke and distance, a rumbling neon thunderhead low on the rivers, half overrun by new growth on nearby trees.

In place of that grand spectacle, on a dozen nearby street corners, smaller displays popped and whirled. With no central clock or synchronized ignition, each display seemed to us to be in conversation with the others. Stuttering crescendos swept from block to block, each finale afforded a respectful silence, or swept aside by a neighbor’s next barrage.

The fourth is never an easy holiday. Neither patriot nor nationalist, for me the celebration of the American national identity through cheery simulations of war runs to the tastelessly dystopic.

Still, I like fireworks very much. Watching them, I imagined that perhaps a different story was being told. These street-corner fireworks could be the signal-flare communiqués of a sweeping insurrection. Perhaps each one was a message, announcing to the city night that that particular corner was, for a moment, free. Their echoing replies: a series of well wishes and celebration.

There is something essentially defiant in these smaller celebrations of the fourth. Each firework announces a gleeful transgression, and finds itself echoed back by strangers across the city. In this shared defiance, new bonds are formed.

Today, less than a week later, other bonds grow in the streets. The elements of nonviolent mass demonstration— a stage, a route, a dozen chants, the crowd, the speakers, placards, banners, puppets, a new iteration of direct action tactics, and the uniformed police — are marshalled once again. All these things are calibrated to create political power for organizing groups and, simultaneously, to produce a specific and powerful personal experience for their participants.

Reflecting on the imagined Fourth of July insurrection, and the lived experience of both the Black Lives Matter march and a week’s preparation for the People’s Convention in Pittsburgh, I wonder if it’s time to experiment more widely with how we organize these types of actions in the streets.

Nonviolent mass protest builds political power primarily through its representation in the media. The importance of theatricality and message discipline in producing an event that can be captured and reproduced by reporters is a fundamental principle for many experienced organizers. We believe that if an event can’t convey it’s message in a single image, sound bite, or sentence, it drowns in a sea of more easily reproducible noise. These events begin in the streets, but hatch through a thousand lenses to live their mature lives fighting for attention on the interlocked battlefields of cable news and viral media.

Complementary to this construction of political power through representation in media, mass nonviolent protest produces specific personal experiences for its participants. The presence of uniformed and adversarial police, call and response chants, and the shifting division of physical space into areas inside and outside the crowd all serve to create feelings of cohesion and solidarity between participants. These features also tend to preclude direct interaction with other participants or with bystanders. Personally, I’ve never been approached by a stranger at a protest to speak about why we were there or our hope for the future, nor have I, until very recently, tried to start those conversations myself. Instead, the relationships formed by this style of mass action are between individuals and the identity of the crowd, often a movement or political organization. Attending a Black Lives Matter protest leaves me feeling more closely identified with that movement, while my relationship with other participants is mediated through that shared identity.

The primary ways that we take the streets now are designed to create these external and internal effects. I am not the first to suspect that the era of the usefulness of these effects is declining. I’ll describe why I think that both types of effect are less useful than they were in the past, and suggest a line of experimentation for the future.

Mass Protest in the Media

Mass protest is not designed for today’s media ecosystem. The way media works has changed since mass protest took its current form, and the media that demonstrations are designed to target has become caught in a tight feedback loop with social media networks.

Demonstrations that produce a single experience or a single class of image (i.e. crowd shot with banner and puppet) do not propagate well on social networks. First, the lack of media diversity means that the marginal novelty added by each user’s photo is small (if two of my friends took a photo of the march, I won’t post one because it’s essentially the same thing again). Second, these image sets lack the granularity for personalization. There’s no room for magic or serendipity in finding content that uniquely matches you, because all the content is focused on clearly delivering a single message and image. Third, it can’t be easily reproduced by users in a way that lets them make the event a representation of themselves — it’s about the movement and the message, not the story of why they showed up and what happened to them. Rather than revealing something uniquely personal about the user, the message is simply one of association with an existing entity.

I feel the power and anger of this moment principally on the social networks, not in the mass news media, which struggles to find a framing acceptable to the institutional values it protects. Repeated calls for national unity coupled with a return to eliding the names of the dead, originating from liberal outlets like the New York Times, NPR, and the Daily Show, are just one example of how this framing process serves to undermine and marginalize black voices. This disparity suggests that mass actions focusing on generating media for social networks, rather than the mass media, may be more effective.

The Social Experience of Mass Protest

Besides this mismatch between the way mass protest is designed to be represented in the news media and the way those representations are reproduced on social networks, the social experience these events create for participants is poorly matched to modern network based organizing practice.

Mass protest in its current form emerged at a time when widely dispersed direct communication between individuals wasn’t practical — coordinated action seemed to require an organizing body (union, church, party) with both a broadcast capability (to organize it members) and a leadership that could speak on behalf of those members.

For all its many shortcomings, the Occupy movement got the shift in the social structure of mass movements dramatically right. Permanent encampments created social spaces where more long term personal bonds could form. Even today, I listen to friends in Oakland and New York who were profoundly influenced by those relationships, and are building on them again today in today’s movement.

With a radically expanded capacity for network based communication, there’s an emergent opportunity for mass actions to leverage this capacity by creating denser and more vibrant networks of individual relationships. Instead of taking the streets as a single crowd can we design tactics that create smaller spaces in which to build a broad web of personal connections?

Dispersed Mass Action

I’d like to think that my neighborhood fireworks displays hold a suggestion for what such an action might look like. Specifically, an action that produces media suited for distribution on social networks, and that serves to extend and strengthen those social networks through direct interaction.

I’d like to see experiments with mass actions that stretch across urban spaces at low densities. These low density actions could create unique stories for each participant because they happen in different places and involve smaller groups of people. That broader diversity of individual experiences could create stronger content on social networks, unlike a series of similar photos taken from inside a marching crowd.

Without a crowd to melt into and a uniformed police force to oppose, these action could also bind people to each other through shared experience in small groups, rather than to an organization or movement. Lacking the innate confrontation of a large crowd or the semi-anonymous distance of social media, they might also be more successful at creating opportunities for engagement with a broader public still struggling to understand its place in the interlocking systems of oppression that have shaped American cities.

Finally, a widely distributed action is difficult to surveil or police — it steps outside the tactical arms race between police and protesters that we’ve been losing since the decline of the anti-globalization movement.

I can’t know what these actions will look like. Perhaps we’ll set off bottle rockets to mark the day and minute of each police murder, repeating that sequence every month. Maybe we gather visibly, in small groups, on every street corner in every business district on a chosen afternoon and try to say to each other what we’ve experienced and where we want to go from here. Could we reimagine the psychogeographic dérive, transforming it into a night of mass dispersal and encounter as we trace the lines and flows of race and power through the city? Some of these, like fireworks, still create a reproducible synoptic image (i.e. the aerial photo of the whole city), but all of them create individual stories we can tell each other.

There are uncountable variations on this theme, and in many respects these ideas are not novel. For my part, I hope that these connections between tactical choices and movement strategy inspire organizers and leaders to experiment with new forms of mass action. Our needs have changed — we once found power by connecting people with organized movements, and reached our ends by delivering a synoptic view of those movements to the mass media. Today, new routes appear — we have the opportunity to adopt tactics that connect people to each other, and reach their ends by echoing the full complexity of individual experiences. Rather than culminating with media synopses, these dispersed actions both begin and end in the streets.