As one of the original co-creators of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I’ve watched student protests sweep across campuses in Cape Town, Missouri, London and Los Angeles with a growing sense of optimism. The history of protest suggests that students are often the first to sense the opportunity for revolutionary change.
I suspect that the new wave of campus protests could be the foreshock to the global social movement that activists have been hoping for since the end of Occupy. To increase the odds, here is some advice to student protesters, based on the lessons from my time with Occupy.
First, never protest the same way twice. The birth of a new movement is exciting. But the effectiveness of a protest diminishes if the same tactic is used repeatedly. Once the occupation tactic stopped working in the face of police crackdowns and the onset of winter weather, Occupy Wall Street stopped existing.
To avoid this pitfall, the next generation of student protestors must constantly come up with inspiring fresh tactics and be quick to abandon the methods that cease to achieve results. Given the diversity of tactics used by today’s student protesters—from the hunger strike at the University of Missouri, to the #OccupyNassau sit-in at Princeton, the candlelight vigil at Oklahoma State University and the creative use of black tape to protest Harvard’s Law School seal (an action that inspired a racist backlash)—young activists appear to have internalized this lesson.
Now the challenge is for student activists to move beyond disruptive tactics and to experiment with protest methods designed to spark epiphanies, or awakenings, in people outside their social circles. This means creating a contagious mood that spreads across borders, identities and milieus.
A common misconception among activists is that campaigns should start with actions most people would not be afraid of committing—such as signing an online petition—before leading to greater militancy. That idea, known as the “ladder of engagement,” must be abandoned.
Instead, mass movements arise when courageous activists do something daring that inspires spectators to stop being afraid. When hundreds of people slept in Zuccotti Park, they spread a fearless mood that gave birth to Occupy Wall Street. People from all societies, across economic classes, languages, and religions, rush to join such movements because they share an emotion of collective liberation. It feels uplifting, and a bit intoxicating, to be part of the human wave.
This leads to the second lesson for student protestors: Never confine your protest to a single identity or issue.
Instead, maintain a global perspective that links campus protests to injustices in the wider world. This will encourage all kinds of people to rise up collectively in a bid to gain control of the globe.
Here, too, student activists seem to be learning this lesson. Explaining the inspiration for their #RoyallMustFall campaign protesting the law-school seal honoring the family crest of slaveholder Isaac Royall Jr., Harvard’s activists cite the ongoing student protests in Cape Town, South Africa. The Cape Town protests began in March with #RhodesMustFall and have continued to rock that country with demands for anti-racism, a freeze on tuition hikes (#FeesMustFall) and greater economic equality.
The next step is to link the campus unrest in America, UK and South Africa with the broader people’s democracy struggles everywhere. As Martin Luther King, Jr puts it: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” All protests are part of the same protest; all social-justice movements are part of the same movement. Use specific demands to coalesce energy for change, but never lose sight of the larger goal: a liberated world governed by the people.
Lastly, social movements require a willing historical moment—such as a worldwide political or economic crisis.
This is something that student protesters can’t control. But if the timing isn’t correct, then a social movement will not erupt. That is why, according to Friedrich Engels, the Europe-wide revolutions of 1848 fizzled out after the economic situation improved. Similarly, activists in the US were unable to catalyze a social movement in the aftermath of the anti-war protests of 2003 until the financial crisis gave rise to Occupy Wall Street in 2011.
Patience may be the most difficult lesson for many young activists to accept. Still, it’s vital to maintaining a balanced perspective that knows when to act and when to wait.
It is ultimately impossible to know for certain whether we are heading toward one of those rare historical moments when the world is ripe for sudden change. However, there are compelling indications that the time for action is coming. For one, studies have shown that the rising cost of food often presages a revolutionary moment. This October saw the sharpest increase in global food prices in three years.
If food prices continue to rise, and the ensuing economic crisis triggers political instability, then creative activists will have an opportunity to spark a worldwide social uprising. We might be closer today to a global revolution than ever before. Can you feel it?