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Reuters Magazine: Return of the Activist
January 25, 2012 / 1:56 PM / 6 years ago

Reuters Magazine: Return of the Activist

(Reuters) - Hundreds of miles and a vast ideological divide separate Cecily Friday from Tim Dake. But what they share is a passionate dislike and distrust of the American political elite. I caught up with Friday on a bitterly cold, rainy October night in Nashville. That same night state troopers had arrested 29 members of Occupy Nashville for violating a new curfew designed to end the occupation of Legislative Plaza.

Tea Party protesters in Flagstaff, Arizona, demonstrate against President Obama, Congress, and the corruption of Washington politics, August 31, 2009. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

They were there, the occupiers said, to protest income inequality, bank bailouts, and corporate involvement in American politics. “I have been waiting and waiting for years for people to come out onto the streets,” said Friday, a former left-wing blogger, now a stay-at-home mom who has become a spokeswoman for the local Occupy movement. Slender, brown-haired, and efficient, Friday did not waste many words - she was needed elsewhere. “Now we’re doing something and we’re not going to stop.”

When I asked why protesters felt compelled to occupy this public space instead of relying on civil society and nongovernmental organizations to make their case, Friday paused to warm her bright red fingers on a polystyrene cup of hot liquid that looked, but didn’t taste, like coffee. “They have been around for a while, but apparently they haven’t done enough,” she said matter-of-factly. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”

Two weeks later and some 500 miles north of Nashville in the Milwaukee suburb of Franklin, Tim Dake and Larry Gamble of the Wisconsin Grandsons of Liberty described a visit from a national conservative nonprofit group seeking to open an office in the state. Dake, an engineer, said the preliminary $7.5 million budget proposed by the nonprofit, which he declined to name, included a six-figure salary for the state director, plus $3.5 million for a new building. “I looked at that budget and I thought about how much havoc I could wreak with that money,” he said, slapping his forehead as he spoke. “A lot of groups go to Washington with good ideas, but over time it all becomes about raising money from donors,” said Gamble, a former Air Force colonel. “After a while all they’re doing is feeding the beast and trying to justify their budgets.”

America’s left-wing Occupy movement and right-wing Tea Party are just two examples of the world’s new wave of activists, a diverse and dispersed collection of movements that also includes Spain’s Indignados (the “Indignant”) and the rebellious youth of the Arab Spring. What these disparate groups have in common is a desire to challenge a system that favors a wealthy and powerful elite, often at their expense, whether that takes the form of opposing bailouts for the banking giants or attempting to take down longtime despots like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Many in this new wave of activists feel left behind by globalization. Coming of age in the Great Recession era of rising inequality and high unemployment, they seem determined to remain outside the system - or in the case of the Tea Party activists, to take over the system but remain as unpaid outsiders. Many look upon mainstream NGOs as part of the establishment and therefore part of the problem. They have a point. Over the past few decades, NGOs founded by the activists of decades past have become increasingly domesticated. The chief executives of these highly respectable groups receive invitations to attend the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos alongside the world’s powerful and wealthy elite, and the hefty salaries of some top nonprofit executives put them in the top 1 percent of American earners targeted by the Occupy movement.

But can this new generation of activists avoid the lure of institutionalization that has apparently befallen the large mainstream NGOs? And will these new activists have any staying power? Some academics like Larry Jacobs, a politics professor at the University of Minnesota, see the Occupiers and others like them eventually succumbing to the enticements of professional activism. “A small number of people will see a career opportunity, the rest will fade back into the scenery,” he told me. “To sustain something like this you need money and organization.”

But Mark Thoma, an economist at the University of Oregon, says this is just the beginning. The middle class in the developed world and the young everywhere have borne the brunt of the global slowdown, he argued, and will suffer more from high long-term unemployment. “What we’re seeing now may just be the first wave of protests,” Thoma said. “The middle class has aspirations and taught their children that if they studied for a degree they would get a job. Suddenly that’s not happening and we’re seeing anger and protests as a result. I don’t know if this first wave is the big one yet, but if the system doesn’t provide good jobs for the middle class, there will be others.”

Over the past decade or so there have been protests and demonstrations against globalization and the institutions that represent it, though nothing on the scale seen since 2009. Thomas Ratliff, an assistant professor of sociology at Tennessee Tech University, has been studying protest movements going back to the 1970s. He argues that the world has been in a “new cycle of mobilization” since the “Battle of Seattle” in 1999, when anti-globalization protesters clashed with police outside a World Trade Organization meeting. Subsequently, thousands of protesters made the trip to Prague in September 2000 for the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These included a cheerful bunch of Italian anarchists who donned homemade body armor (consisting of foam pads, varied sports helmets, and trash-can lids as shields) and battled riot police on the city’s Nuselsky Bridge, taking turns sitting in the warm autumnal sun with their eyes streaming when the tear gas became too much. But this remained a largely fringe movement.

The United States saw protests against the Iraq War in 2003 and immigration reform demonstrations in more than 100 cities in 2006, but these soon petered out. By contrast, the protests since 2009 have been more frequent, in more places, and attended by growing numbers of people. In 2010, students in the United Kingdom took to the streets to protest against rising university fees; they were followed in May by the predominantly young Indignados of Spain. Along with the Arab Spring, these vigorous protests have served as the inspiration for the Occupy movement. “The issues raised by these movements are not new issues,” Ratliff said. “But they do involve people who are new to protesting.”

Fifty-six-year-old Dorsey Malina is just such a newcomer. She was laid off two years ago from her job as a counselor at an alcohol and drug abuse center. I met her in late October in the crowd at Occupy Nashville. “This movement is full of people like me who feel like they have a boot across their necks,” she said. “Many of us are working people who have done all the right things but are still stuck.” The same might be said of Jamal Sibai, age 25, an art student who was among the 75 attendees at the first protest for greater freedoms in the Libyan city of Misrata on February 17. Sibai had come despite the risk of arrest by the Gaddafi regime’s feared militia, and indeed all the protesters were arrested. “We just wanted the things a normal country should have,” he told me when I visited Misrata in July. This wave of new activists also includes Julianne Thompson, a mother of two and a co-organizer of the Atlanta Tea Party. “For years conservatives in America were disappointed by the leaders we elected because they did not fix everything we wanted them to,” she said. “But then we realized we had to look no further than ourselves if we wanted to fix it.”

On November 8, 2011, in a special ballot, voters in Ohio heavily rejected a bill passed by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature to limit collective bargaining by public sector unions. In the same special ballot, Ohio residents backed the Healthcare Freedom Amendment, a challenge to President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare reform law. Backed by Tea Party activists who went door-to-door statewide, the amendment is intended to be part of the case against “Obamacare” that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear in 2012. On the same day, FreedomWorks, a conservative nonprofit that has frequently associated itself with the Tea Party movement, touted its role in the campaign for the amendment, which included producing more than 18,000 yard signs and 145,000 door hangers.

Yet Chris Littleton of the Ohio Liberty Council was dismissive of the nonprofit’s role. “FreedomWorks needs to show its donors that it’s doing something substantive when it’s not really doing anything at all,” said Littleton, whose background is in healthcare management. “It’s nice of them to help, but if real people are not out there doing it, it’s not going to happen. FreedomWorks does just enough for recognition, but not enough to make a difference.” Grassroots Tea Party activists often criticize FreedomWorks and its chairman, Dick Armey, a former Republican Majority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives who makes a combined annual salary of $500,000 from both FreedomWorks Inc. and FreedomWorks Foundation Inc. But this is nothing compared to the criticism reserved for the Republican Party’s old guard establishment. Although the Tea Party is occasionally portrayed as an adjunct of the Republican Party, almost all of the activists in this middle-class grassroots movement are unpaid and they often pick fights with the establishment. Tea Party groups in Georgia, for example, are also working with the liberal group Common Cause on ethics reform. “Our ethics reform proposal has not been well received in the state legislature,” said Debbie Dooley, co-organizer of the Atlanta Tea Party. “But politicians on both sides need to understand we are here to clean house.”

Unlike the Tea Party, the Occupy movement has only been around since September, and it is still working out what to do after being ejected from the public spaces that it occupied early on. Beyond a dislike of corporate bailouts and a sense that a moneyed elite dominates American politics, the Tea Party and the Occupy movement are poles apart politically. So far Occupy Wall Street has resisted the urge to become involved in the political process. “It is hard to say where the Occupy movement will go from here,” said Robert Liebman, an associate sociology professor at Portland State University. “But even if they fade away their contribution to history thus far is they have changed the political debate in America from being about deficit reduction to being about income inequality and jobs.”

Many of today’s large mainstream NGOs started out as scrappy, confrontational groups of activists. Greenpeace, to take just one example, rose out of antinuclear protests in 1971. Today the group maintains offices in 40 countries. “If you look at any protest movement in the last 50 years, they have started off as challengers,” said Brayden King, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “But with success they have all become more institutionalized,” he added. “Now they are no longer really a movement anymore, but professional advocacy groups.”

That institutionalization entails compromise and inevitably requires professional staff, many of whom come from the private sector. King says that students in his MBA classes often say their goal is to make a lot of money and then pursue their passion by working for an NGO. “While that is great and noble, they don’t have the same background in activism and have little in common with the activists they end up working with,” King said. A perfect illustration of his point can be seen at Davos, where leading executives of mainstream NGOs have become fixtures. Last year, for instance, executives from Mercy Corps, Greenpeace, and World Vision International - a Christian humanitarian organization - were all in attendance.

And like their Ivy League classmates who entered the financial sector, such well-meaning executives pull down excellent salaries. According to tax filings, Mercy Corps CEO Neal Keny-Guyer received $303,419 in compensation in 2010. Richard Stearns, president of World Vision International, received $439,155. The most recent data available from the Internal Revenue Service show that the top 1 percent of U.S. taxpayers earned a minimum of $343,927. Data provided by Guidestar, which collects information on nonprofit organizations, shows that the median compensation for the CEO or executive director of nonprofits - which includes museums, some universities, and hospitals - with budgets of more than $50 million rose 60 percent to $422,000 between 2000 and 2009.

Are these new movements destined to go the same way as the activists of yesteryear? Some argue that it’s inevitable, especially for Tea Party members, many of whom have worked hard to take over the Republican Party from the ground up. In many cases that means learning how to raise money for campaigns. “The system is rigged and unless you learn the rules and how to get around them, you’re never going to win the game,” said Dawn Wildman, president of the SoCal Tax Revolt Coalition in San Diego. “We are learning how to play the game.”

But whether or not groups like Occupy, the Tea Party, or the Indignados falter or become indistinguishable from the establishment may be irrelevant; the underlying problems these groups are targeting will persist and are expected to fuel further activism. In Spain, for instance, unemployment among those age 25 and under stands at more than 45 percent. In America, the rates for those age 16 to 19 and 20 to 24 were 23.7 percent and 14.2 percent respectively. Robert Liebman warns that what we have seen so far is “just the beginning” and that it would be unwise of the elite who turn up at Davos - which he described as an “old people’s club” - to ignore the developed world’s disenfranchised youth. “There is no certainty as to whether the democratic institutions of the past few decades are going to hold,” Liebman said. “This is potentially a very dangerous time.”

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