A few months back my co-founder James John Bell tagged me on Facebook in a post about a new book called “This is An Uprising - How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the 21st Century” by Mark Engler and Paul Engler. He said there were two pages of quotes from ‘Re:Imagining Change,’ so naturally, I was intrigued. 

It came in the mail and I found my name in the index, right next to Stokley Carmichael, which pretty much made my 2016. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened the cover, but the storytelling about Dr. King’s strategy retreat at Dorchester to plan the SCLC’s historic campaign in Birmingham grabbed me right away: 

…the very idea that a mass public crisis could be engineered - that a major uprising could emerge not as an unstructured product of an era’s zeitgeist but as a planned effort - was a suspect notion…In the wake of the Albany debacle, members of the national media were ‘pronouncing the direct-action phase of the civil rights movement was over’…And yet…Within just six weeks, the tensions simmering in Birmingham had exploded into an event that made headlines across the country. As historian Micheal Kazin argues, the scenes of police dogs snapping at unarmed demonstrators and water cannons being opened on student marchers ‘convinced a plurality of whites, for the first time, to support the cause of black freedom’.

Popular versions of the Birmingham story, which tend to focus only on the campaign’s climax, often skip over the preparations that began at (the) Dorchester (retreat center). But the implications of such planning are very important. The landmark civil rights uprising that took so much of the country by surprise was no sociological freak. Nor was it happenstance that a clash with segregationists put the normally hidden injustices of racism on stark public display, prompting a stunned Northern media to spread outrage nationally. To the contrary, these were the consequence of a premeditated strategy of conflict.

Basically, reading ’This is an Uprising’ feels like meeting a new friend that feels like an old friend I already deeply love. 

The Engler brothers offer a sophisticated synthesis of history lessons and theoretical strands that come together to create an illuminating case for strategic nonviolence and what they have dubbed “momentum driven organizing.” 

“This is an Uprising” offers case studies of Ghandi’s Salt March, the Freedom to Marry movement in the United States, ACT Up, Occupy Wall Street, Serbia’s Otpor student movement, the DREAMers, EarthFirst! and the Headwaters Campaign, the sit-down strike in Flint, the popular uprising in Egypt, and of course SCLC and SNCC. These histories teach us the importance of strategy, planning, leadership, direct action, disruption, escalation, mass movements and (I would argue more explicitly) narrative. 

The sum total of what makes a movement successful - the Englers argue - is momentum. How do you build it? “The key common link in all momentum-driven movements is that they must be *designed*, in the long run, to build mass support.” 

And here is where I had a "no-duh" kind of epiphany: For many years, I had been bringing momentum-driven strategy - which has much of the same DNA as story-based strategy - to organizations and movements that were not designed (or equipped) to execute it. 

So much of what the Englers explore in this book spells out my underlying assumptions about strategy and movement building, which have influenced the evolution story-based strategy and my own practice over the years — i.e. a social view of power and people powered strategic nonviolent strategy as articulated by Gene Sharp; the goal of building mass movements with a culture of discipline, rather creating than isolated activist subcultures or one-off protests; calculated disruption, escalation, polarization and defection; and, their central thesis - that successful social movements are neither born of seemingly spontaneous insurrection or slow, steady incremental base-building, but a merger of the best of both. 

Wow - Yes, more of this, please.

The book also includes an interesting discussion of the global justice movement’s embrace of the meme “diversity of tactics” to side step hard commitments to nonviolence. As someone who was deeply involved in that political moment and mobilizations, I was drawn in by this passage:  “By adopting the liberal rhetoric of ‘diversity,’ the argument for ‘diversity of tactics’ is designed to sound unobjectionable. But this agreeable phrasing masks a profound problem: social movements need a strategy and strategy requires discipline.” 

This is a tough truth - particularly for young white people, who tend to come to activism out of a place of individualistic rebellion and self-expression, rather than an experience of collective solidarity and acting as part of an oppressed group. I’m glad they said it, and I hope it sparks some conversations amongst a new generation of activists about the strategic advantages of nonviolence.

The passages from Re:Imagining Change are from the Afterword, “Facing the Ecological Crisis: A Call to Innovation,” written by myself and Patrick Reinsborough in 2010, and discuss the concept of ‘psychic breaks’ as part of creating and harnessing what the Englers call “The Whirlwind.” 

For Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning of the Center for Story-based Strategy, ‘Dramatic crisis situations can challenge underlying assumptions and redefine the conventional wisdom.” Major trigger events, ranging from the start of the Iraq War to the flooding of New Orleans, “inevitably disrupt the dominant culture’s mental maps and can trigger mass ‘psychic breaks: moments when the status quo stories no longer hold true.” These times are crucial for reorienting public opinion. “Psychic breaks,” Reinsborough and Canning write, “open new political space and can provide powerful opportunities for new stories to take root in the popular consciousness.

The quote is offered in the context of a discussion of Bill Moyers MAP model for movement building, the role of trigger events and, as we suggest, psychic breaks that can shift shared public narratives. The Englers explain that despite the rigidity of Alinskyite organizing models, Alinsky himself saw the period of unrest following the Freedom Rides as a moment for experimental movement building. And that “Trade unionists and community organizers who have been inspired by recent mobilizations such as Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter, and who have thrown themselves into supporting these uprisings, have expressed similar openess and daring. Recognizing an exceptional moment, they have been willing to leap into the storm.” 

(Sidebar: I am the only woman-identified person and Patrick and I the only living persons in the heavy hitting bunch of deceased white male thinkers cited on the pages beside me…Bill Moyer, Soul Alinsky and Aristide Zolberg. Ooof?)

Overall I am impressed and moved by the work that Paul and Mark Engler have done with this book, and I urge you to read it. It helped me not only become re-inspired by the history and promise of strategic nonviolence and mass protest movements, but it reminded me of my true calling: 

“momentum-driven organizing suggest(s) a simple and urgent idea: That uprising can be a craft, and that this craft can change our world.”  

While communications is often my role, my actual craft cuts much deeper, and I am made to move in that storm they speak of.

And with that, I need to get to work on an anti-Trump demonstration happening in my town tomorrow… Hope to see you there. :)