Anatomy of a protest movement

In 1963 All Souls Church in Washington, DC paid a high price to support the civil rights movement when their associate minister Jim Reeb was beaten to death by KKK Clansmen in Selma, Alabama. Shortly thereafter, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which effectively suppressed voter suppression tactics in this country.

Below, I’ll explain why this version of the story makes great news copy but is a poor guide for understanding how a protest movement really begins and eventually succeeds. But first, there’s more to the story.

The Fight Over Voting Rights

Last year, 49 years after the Act, the Supreme Court gutted these protections. Days to weeks later, many GOP-led state congresses passed new laws to restrict access to the ballot box.


Within 9 months of the Court repealing key sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1963, all but 4 of the 27 GOP-controlled state legislatures had passed new laws that restricted access to voting, and the 4 exceptions illustrate why this is about one-party rule. Alaska, Utah, and Wyoming are the Whitest and most-Republican states, where denying blacks and latinos access to the ballot would have no effect. And in Missouri three bills were filed, but are still pending:

In contrast, not one of the 23 Democrat-controlled states passed new restrictive voting laws in 2013.

This pattern alone didn’t convince the citizens who applauded the new voter-ID laws that they were bad laws. Only by building a conflict narrative from the stories of poor people who try to navigate the broken bureaucratic ID procurement system will we change the hearts and minds of these citizens, who are unaffected by these laws. This “systematic documentation” of discrimination preceded the protest actions of both Martin Luther King, Jr and Ghandi – but few today study that component of their success. That’s what this essay is about – one key part of real protest movements is how stories build a narrative that frames an issue.

But first, a quick update on the voter ID issue (as of 2016):

In July, 2016 an appeals court struck down NC’s restrictive voter ID law, claiming the law was “passed with racially discriminatory intent.” Judge Diana Motz wrote on behalf of Judges James Wynn and Henry Floyd:

“The [NC] General Assembly enacted it in the immediate aftermath of unprecedented African American voter participation in a state with a troubled racial history and racially polarized voting. The district court clearly erred in ignoring or dismissing this historical background evidence, all of which supports a finding of discriminatory intent.”

This law was struck down shortly after the same legislature enacted an alarming string of discriminatory laws against the LGBTQ community and other minority groups, making their intent a clear pattern that was ultimately their undoing. In 2016 billions of dollars from commerce (including a relocated NCAA final four game) went to other states as a results of this legislature’s discriminatory agenda.

This shows how important the timing of events matters is in framing the meaning of what happens in a narrative  – how events fit together to tell a story.


Begin with a realistic grasp of the situation

By a recent Washington Post poll, 74 percent of citizens think voters should be required to show a photo ID. Even I believe that, though I think these laws harm democracy in practice while hiding behind the pretense of “rigor.” Leaders who can no longer win an election in which all Americans vote know best how to reframe issues and sell a “bait and switch” idea. So if you want to restore democracy you must study their craft. Begin with a reality check, visible through the contradictions between where people stand in surveys and what our world is actually like. In between you will find many unspoken assumptions.


The numbers prove that for every 100,000 citizens who will not cast a vote because of the photo ID hurdle – erected by one political party against citizens who usually vote for the other party, one person will cheat by not showing a photo ID (research attached). A 1 in 100,000 fraud rate is a lot lower than the electronic ballot error rate of 4.2%, and the paper counting error rate of 1.5% that the public (and the politicians) currently accept without outrage.

  • Assumption: Citizens assume electronic and paper ballots are very accurate, because nobody talks about them.
  • Assumption: Citizens assume lack of photo IDs is a major problem, because politicians and newsmedia talk about it, and pass laws about it.
  • Assumption: Because I have a valid photo ID, everyone must be able to get one easily.

Good information will not fix bad laws. Even if 74% of citizens were opposed to photo ID laws, no one will repeal them without protests. These New Jim Crow Laws are not erected by accident – they are a deliberate, thoughtful, systematic effort to change the balance of power. And now that these laws are in place, they will persist so long as most citizens feel unaffected. The Resurrect Jim Crow Camp knows:


Waking people up

A movement begins with awareness. Few issues are clean cut and isolated. For example, the new tactics of the Resurrect Jim Crow Camp are subtle and based on data mining, which most Americans don’t understand yet. You could try to win every election by one vote and thus gain 100% of the elected seats in Congress, but it is far better optics to win 61% of seats by a 1% margin each, thus ensuring you absolute power while maintaining the public perception of a two-party government. Big Data enables the Ressurect Jim Crow Camp to devise smart “Voter ID” laws that ensure a 51% majority, by doing the math (horrors!) on how to lower barriers to richer, home-owning, car-driving citizens with more banked vacation time, and raise barriers to poorer, hourly-wage earning, home-renting citizens who don’t own a car and move around a lot, and tend to vote with out-of-state IDs as students.

That last statement underscores why it is no longer necessary to enact race-based laws to discriminate. I need only ensure that hurdles to whites remain low while hurdles to students, blacks, immigrants, and the elderly remain high. That is the power of big data and statistics. Casino odds need only be stacked 52% to 48% in favor of the house for 100% of casinos to be profitable. The 1-percenters and their racist allies are reframing their agenda into laws that seem fair, while they exploit statistical covariates in the population to systematically cede power away from the people who did not write these laws. Elections are about populations, so statistics is the perfect 21st century tool.

Waking people up means educating them about 21st century power-grabbing tactics. It means learning statistics and also history.

We are not fighting the world of 1963. People are no longer being lynched in Alabama. Racism is subtler. People will not attribute what they see and feel each day to a voter suppression tactic that happens once every two years. The crimes, electioneering and gerrymandering, are invisible, unless we learn how to connect the dots.

Today’s movements need to exist in social media and on the ground. They need systems to measure engagement and tactics to sustain interest – especially when legislative successes are years away. For voter suppression, the obvious victims of fraud will only surface every two years, so we need to focus on proxy victims of the system instead. For this, I think we focus on people who try and fail to get their IDs ready, and expose the cost (time and money) for complying with this if you are a Democrat versus the time if you are a Republican voter.

Protests like the recent Mass Moral March in Raleigh, NC are what I call “awakening protests.” Just getting anybody to show up is a big deal. Chruches and groups are finding out how to mobilize around an issue. The people who do come are there to be inspired and to learn that they care about the issue. This is not the time to define success by the number of people who attend.

threeCoalitioning and iterative message design

In the next phase – when you have a cohesive organized group –  build a movement. This phase is about relationships, coalitions, framing and reframing the issue. Messaging. Testing and refining until you see incremental change in target groups slowly shifting from one idea to another.

One lesson comes from Arizona, where 54% opposed same-sex marriage in 2003. That number was down to 44% in 2011, with the margin (12%) unsure. By 2013, 55% supported same-sex marriage. Nate Silver of the fivethirtyeight blog (who predicted the 2012 election exactly) documents the ten year trend in public support for gay marriage:


What he doesn’t show is how and why this started happening in 2004. Partly, it was a generational demographic shift, but mostly it came from gay activists sticking to a systematic reductionist (like how scientists study reality) strategy. Just as the GOP pays Frank Luntz to figure out that people who don’t mind “estate taxes” seem to hate the “death tax” – though they are the same thing, civil rights activists can build a coalition by (a) branding gay rights as human rights, (b) passing laws about civil unions and civil rights protections that encompass gays without needing to legally affirmation of the gay lifestyle itself, and (c) using situational narratives (e.g. don’t you think that a loved one should have to right to visit his/her lover in the hospital?) to contextualize and humanize the issue.

What began as a broad issue in the 1980s – a fight for everyone to accept the gay lifestyle – changed into a series of carefully targeted fights where the data showed they could win. It was a “slippery slope” or a “gentle onramp” to marriage equality. This onramp bypassed the debate where everyone had to “accept” the lifestyle; instead they simply had to acknowledge that do define human rights so narrowly that gays were excluded was worse than whatever reservations they had about the lifestyle. And so the public mindset shifted. Acceptance of the gay lifestyle can and will come with demographic changes but cannot be legislated or propagandized into being (see Thomas Kuhn’s book – the structure of scientific revolutions for the theory and my blog about the NFL killing racial stereotypes for particulars).

For a massive issue, such as racism, we need to break it into smaller parts – such as voter disenfranchisement, and then subdivide it further until there are specific issues that we can build a strong coalition behind. Think:

  1. What vision would we achieve with a perfect outcome?
  2. What is the smallest part of that vision that we are willing to accept as progress?
  3. What part of that minimum incremental progress can we likely achieve in the next six months, given current support and resources? (analogous to the minimum viable product concept of Lean Startups)

fourBe patient. Gain momentum by changing behaviors, mindsets, and laws – not by counting bodies at protests or likes on Facebook

Smart coalitions will aim for something doable that is real progress, however small. Progress creates real momentum, whereas inflating protest numbers does not. If you look around and think 8000 people came to a march, it doesn’t serve you in the long term to go along with someone else’s reported turnout of 80,000 people, as many of my fellow protesters were happy to do at yesterday’s march. Just remember – the same news sources you shout at for buffoonery and incompetence every other day are probably your “reputable” source for that 80,000 number when you want to believe that you were part of a mass movement. Mass movements only happen once a decade, and if you need a count to validate your movement as important, you’re not there yet.

Defining success by turnout alone is also lazy thinking – because the hard work to be done happens when turnout is smaller than you’d like and most people are not woken up yet. The big turnout comes after dozens of cycles of breaking the issue – like voter suppression – into small chunks and whacking each chunk out of the law piecemeal. After you’ve had a few successes, you establish a pattern of taking down your opponent’s former fortress of “power=law” defenses around the privileged. Fence sitters will notice and start to show up, and bloat your numbers. I know, because I was the king of fence sitters. For a decade when a good cause came along, I didn’t ask – “should I put my scarce time into a fight because it is right?” No. Instead I asked, “are they likely to win? And will they win this year?”

I, like most fence sitters, made the mental error of thinking that time spent fighting a lost cause or pushing boulders up slopes was a waste. Eventually I realized that phase one marches are about making a change in our own attitudes, life priorities, and economics (buying patterns). Phase one protesting success stems from reading about Positive Deviance and the Diffusion of Innovation guidebooks, and not the lobbyist’s field manual.

Most movements die because people show up on a weekend expecting to change others and give up, never realizing that the early phase of every moment is about changing themselves. If enough people who show up to protest others are themselves transformed, what one speaker yesterday called “incarnation” – a movement will grow up and be ready for the next phase, which is about building relationships between groups and eventually coalitions which pose a real economic threat to the status quo (and thus, have real political power). “Incarnation” Is a good word for it. In greek it means for something to become flesh, just like we fare fleshing out our vague ideas on what will change things, and testing them in smaller experiments in phase two.

Don’t assume that because an idea has been buzzworded, it is understood. “Voter suppression” is a nice clean, tidy concept. But when you break it down into the specific laws that NC passed in 2014, you may not recognize it:

  • No more sunday voting – black churches were riling up the faithful and driving them to the polls right after church, and 88% vote Democrat.
  • One week less of early voting – In the last decade, the trend has been towards more convenience in voting. Poor people and blacks get at most 10 paid vacation days a year, and hourly wage earners get none, so some cannot go to the polls on election day, unless they want to lose wages.
  • Photo ID required

  • Must register months before the election
  • Address on ID must be where you currently live (and it will take weeks to update it each time you move. Note that poor people move often, but homeowners rarely ever move. And Millionaires NEVER move; they just buy 2nd homes). This is targeting students and poor people, and even PHDs like me who would rather change lives as a transient contractor than suck down a fat corporate salary at a pharmeceutical company.

  • Arrested the Moral Mondays preacher
  • Cutting hours at the DMV, to make it harder to get your paperwork in order (soon we’ll be the new shirpa state – like India – where you pay entrepreneurs to sit in line and work the bureaucracy just to get a license).

fiveKeep a generation-sized vision for change

Example, with equal voting rights for all transforming into a real democracy:

Imagine if we held a 21st century election (instead of an 18th century one): voting would start on Oct 15 and go until everyone had voted, with “everyone” being defined operationally to mean close enough 100% of the census (not the registered pool) that the number who have not voted is less than the current margin of victory, ensuring mathematically that the people have all indeed spoken. Anyone not voting would be fined $50 and everyone who did vote would get election day off as a paid holiday, subsidized by the government. Done. Now leaders have to rule knowing that in your next election, everyone you piss off will be required to vote against you.

The government and the NSA can already tell where you were last week, and google can predict your likely demographics, and likely voting pattern from data. This idea that everyone must register for the draft and pay taxes but only some people need register to vote is absurd, outdated thinking – again – by design.

We are the only developed nation that doesn’t make election day a holiday. Those in power never wanted 100% turnout. In Australia they fine you $50 for NOT voting, but when have American leaders ever really wanted a more perfect union? No, they want a union that submits to their will. Americans are the least awake citizenry of the 20 rich nations on Earth.

In the world of my near-future imagination, say by 2020, google will just send you a pre-filled ballot with all the choices matching up your values with the people the algorithm thinks you would like to vote for, and you just review it and submit it. Yes, secret ballots are a great, wonderful idea – but 100% voting turnout and smart balloting is a far more dangerous tool for holding those in power accountable to the people. And since they already know who you are more than you do, it’s time that big data was turned on its head to hold those in power accountable to YOU rather than the other way around.

This, of course, is not going to happen. The people in power don’t want anyone thinking this way. They want you to fear technology unless it helps them consolidate your power in their hands. But you can change your behavior. If you behaved in a way that was aligned with your values, that would really keep them up at night.

Imagine if everyone used pinterest boards to applaud and shame corporations that undermined the common good? As I begin my 7 days on food stamps experiment this week, I am realizing that I have a lot more buying power I could be using at the grocery store than a dozen poor people do, yet I lack the knowledge and the killer app that will filter all the products on the shelf and tell me which ones are the best match between my stomach, my wallet, my health, and my political life.

I recently created a card game (Oh No Jim Crow!) to help others understand just how screwed up the voter suppression laws were in the South. Games are powerful tools, and part of the activists’s arsenal.

Creativity will be part of fighting racism. Now go imagine how you will make your future brighter for yourself and others.

A hundred years ago, one anarchist was quoted as saying, “If voting worked, they’d make it illegal.”

Well, it works. And they’re trying.

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