On February 18, the Rhode Island Center for Justice hosted a lecture at Roger Williams University by renowned sociologist and activist Frances Fox Piven. Piven, 83, touched on a number of subjects related to voter disenfranchisement and the troublesome methods by which we "translate votes into representation" in America. One interesting thread in the talk concerned "movements" and their role in our political processes.
Piven: Broken promises in the economy, broken promises in politics probably accounts for the surge of movements in the last few years. It really is a surge. A few years ago when I said that this is the beginning of a new movement era, people were very skeptical, but I don't think anyone can be skeptical anymore.
First there was Occupy, and Occupy was all over the country, not just on Wall Street. The press mocked Occupy at the beginning. "What are they doing? They're picnicking; they're having sleep-outs." But then everyone started using Occupy's slogans, Occupy's language. "They are the one one percent. We are the 99%."
Occupy succeeded in making extreme inequality an issue. And then there was the fight for fifteen. This was also sort of unexpected. SEIU, a very big union, had a significant role in promoting $15 as a goal, and in working with the little groups that did one and two day strikes at McDonald's and other fast food places. SEIU is a union. SEIU was doing this to build the union. They wanted more locals, more members. That didn't happen.
What happened instead is that a movement took off that had a big effect on state and local politics, and will probably have a big effect on the national minimum wage as well.
And then Black Lives Matter, it is an incredible movement. I don't know how many of you have been involved in trying to organize. Its hard work, one on one, house meetings. Endless flyers. "How many people can you get to the demonstration?" "Twenty? That's not enough..." Until the moment when it is not that hard to organize protests. People are ready to come. And I think this is one of those moments. ...
Those (20th century labor law, women's suffrage, civil rights movement, etc) were all movement victories. Movements interacting with a particular electoral regime. Movements communicating issues that politicians wanted to avoid. Movements showing people that they can become defiant they could make trouble, they could close things down. They could shut down cities in the South. They could shut down factories in the North. Those troubles, the trouble caused by movements became troubles for politicians. They became troubles for a governing regime. That's why we won those. We didn't win them otherwise...
I want to go back to this election. There is an interplay between movements and elections. We believe in movements, but don't dismiss elections, or electoral politics, because electoral politics can help to nourish movements.
For example, do you think Sanders would be a real contender without Occupy? No. He couldn't do it himself. He's been around forever, not as long as I have, but he's been around a long time. The movements made Sanders possible, and Sanders' campaign encourages the movements.
When Black Lives Matter forced Sanders to reconnoiter and give more weight to black issues, that strengthened Black Lives Matter. Some of the issues come from politicans in a way pandering to get support, but some of the issues come from the movements reflecting the broken promises and the hopes of ordinary people. ...
Movements can shut things down. That is their ultimate leverage, the ability of ordinary people to refuse to play their customary role, and to create what are in effect strikes, in all sorts of arenas of social, economic and political life.