Tag Archives: protest

The Lessons of MLK, Jr. and 1961’s Freedom Riders

1961 Freedom Ride

Harvard student Pete Davis, founder of OurCommonPlace and participant in the 50th anniversary celebration of the 1961 Freedom Ride last summer with 39 other activists, gave a terrific speech at the Cambridge MLK Jr. Day Celebration in Cambridge, MA on January 16, 2012.  With Pete’s permission, here are his remarks, and audio available here [he’s a great speaker]:

Hello, everyone — it is an honor to be here at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on my favorite holiday of the year, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I’m happy that MLK day is the first holiday of the year, because you start the New Year with all these personal New Year’s resolutions, and you say, “I’m going to cut back on the sweets”, “I’m going to make time to go running everyday” and then right about around this weekend, two weeks into the year, you’ve given up on all them… and you’re feeling down and don’t know what to do. And then Martin Luther King, Jr. Day comes along and reminds you that you can start your New Year off with not just personal resolutions but community and citizen resolutions — like “I’m going to cut back on my pre-judgment of others” ,“I’m going to make time to go help out and speak out and act out more around school or church or my local community every day” — and those are resolutions that are harder in practice, but easier to fight for, because you’re not just fighting for yourself. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself — my name is Pete Davis and I am a student down the road at Harvard, and I am here today because I had the great pleasure of being part of a recreation of an important Civil Rights project when this past summer I rode with 39 other students, a team of PBS cameras and a handful of Civil Rights Movement heroes in a recreation of the 1961 Freedom Ride. And I’d like to take part of my time here to look backward and tell a brief, yet harrowing, story about what one Civil Rights project accomplished in the 1960s, and then take the other part of my time here to look forward and share what one young, wide-eyed college kid from a small town in Virginia thinks about what we might just be able to accomplish in the 2010s.

In 1961, a group of young people led by Congress of Racial Equality Director James Farmer wanted to test if a Supreme Court decision integrating interstate bus travel was being implemented on the ground. So, 13 riders — six white, seven black, including one future Congressman John Lewis — set out on Greyhound and Trailways buses down South. When they got to Atlanta, they had a brief reception hosted by the big man, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself. They wanted him to come on the ride as well, but he pulled a few of their leaders aside and said, “I’m not going to get on the buses with you, and if I were you, I probably wouldn’t go into Alabama…The Alabama Klan is preparing quite a welcome.” And, like good young people, they didn’t listen to him and kept going on to Alabama. And like wise, older people, King was right. The riders were met with Klan violence, they were firebombed and some were even beaten with lead pipes. But they made it all the way down to Birmingham, Alabama. 

The Kennedy administration got word of this, and Bobby Kennedy called for a “cooling down” period after this first round of Freedom Riders got home. But, a young woman from Nashville by the name of Diane Nash would have none of it, and she organized a set of Tennessee students to leave school – during their final exams – and become a new set of riders to bus down to Birmingham. One night, after brutal beatings in Montgomery, these new Freedom Riders packed into Reverend Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church and heard James Farmer, the great Fred Shuttlesworth (who passed away last year), and Dr. King, give rousing speeches as a mob gathered outside and threatened to attack the attendees. Dr. King had to get on the phone with the Kennedy administration to get the National Guard there for protection. These Freedom Riders were creating quite the ruckus.

They boarded a bus to Jackson, Mississippi and were promptly arrested and sent to the infamous Parchman Prison. The Mississippi Governor thought he had squashed ‘em — they’re now just stuck in Parchman Prison…what are they gonna do? Well, as one historian put it, they responded, “Fine, we’ll go to Parchman, and we’ll fill Parchman up, and we’ll have Parchman be the next site of the Civil Rights Movement.” And it became so. Hundreds of people across the country boarded buses, and headed to Jackson. They filled up the prison, and kept their morale by singing to their jailers, “Buses are a comin’ oh yeah, Buses are a comin’ oh yeah, Better get you ready oh yeah.” They took 300 riders of different races, religions, different regions, different political philosophies…and turned Parchman into a University of Non-Violence…a place to become more committed, more tough…and as one guy put it, to become “the shock-troops of the movement.” On September 22, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued its order: the “whites only” signs came down at bus and rail stations across the South. Two years later, President Kennedy — who had wanted to ignore civil rights and focus on foreign policy for his Presidency, who only had to start paying attention because, “those darn agitators” (as the Riders were called), had caused a ruckus — gave a speech in June 1963, calling on Congress to pass legislation to end Jim Crow altogether. The Freedom Riders — after arrests, beatings, and warnings to slow down by not only the Administration but also Civil Rights Movement leaders, themselves — had won.

And it was 50 years later that I and other college students had the great blessing of recreating the ride on our own bus…except, in this time around, the bus had Wi-fi and air conditioning; and lacked the threat of arrests and Klan mobs, fortunately. And I want to spend the rest of my time here talking about what I learned from this experience — one that involved seeing former Jim Crow cities up close and personal, talking with Civil Rights leaders new and old, and, most importantly, getting to know 39 diverse student activists from all across the country.


And I know what you’re expecting: a heartwarming tale from me about how we students — black, white, and brown, 50 years later — held hands in a big circle, sang “We Shall Overcome,” and declared racism over. Though we did hold hands at times, and though we did sing We Shall Overcome so many times that I was considering singing We Shall Overcome-the-singing-of-We Shall Overcome… that’s not the tale I’m going to tell here today. Because we all know that resting too long on our laurels of the victories of yesterday is a recipe for not opening up our eyes to the injustices of today. So, instead here’s Three Lessons from the ride with our sight set on tomorrow.

The first thing I learned on our Ride was that most people in the Civil Rights Movement did not have Civil Rights as their number one cause. Everyone, from Jim Zwerg — a white man who was beaten with a lead pipe in Alabama — to Diane Nash — the lead organizer of the second round of the rides — had an underlying loyalty that was the foundation of all their actions in their surface level causes: a loyalty to Non-Violence. When Zwerg and Nash spoke to us, they hardly focused on racial discrimination — they wanted to spend their time sharing with us their philosophy and lifestyle of non-violence. 

To the Freedom Riders, to Martin Luther King: nonviolent resistance was not the absence of violence– it was the presence of what Nash called Agapic energy, from the Greek term ‘agape’, meaning brotherly, sisterly love or love of mankind. It was a belief that people were never your enemy– unjust political systems, unjust economic systems, unjust attitudes were your enemy. And you can attack those systems, without attacking the people that participated in them. It was a belief that oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed, and that it could end if only you respected yourself enough and if only you reflected enough on how you were participating in your own oppression and if only you were brave enough to stop participating, 

They did not see non-violence or agapic energy as a ‘lovey-dovey’ ‘give peace a chance, man’ concept. They would not have liked to be known just as pacifists… they were activists! They would not have described themselves as having no weapons or as not waging war. They saw non-violence as a powerful, strong strategy, a weapon…the only weapon they had in this fight…and an energy that was not born out of thin air…it was based on a serious theory of how to win conflicts, and solve problems for justice… a philosophy that was put best when Dr. King explained that: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” And, indeed, they couldn’t have won if it was a violent conflict — they were churchmen and women up against the state police and governments in the South, with their batons, and guns, and in the case of Sheriff Bull Connor in Alabama, tanks. But what they could do, is contrast their “dignified, disciplined, non-violent actions” against the other side’s grotesque reaction of violence, leaving no way — for the millions who would watch on TV — to confuse their confrontations. 

And when they learned that philosophy — in long training sessions for the Riders, where they practiced being beaten and not responding — and when they committed to it, when they put in the hard work and discipline to live by its principles… it worked. Out of that foundation, came more surface level tactics. Out of those tactics came victories. And if we want to learn from the Civil Rights movement to repeat their success today…if we only looked at those tactics, we might never understand what made the Civil Rights movement so successful — we have to look at their deep commitment and loyalty to foundational principles about how justice is won in history. And that’s the lesson for today’s justice movements: If we don’t have an equally strong commitment to foundational principles in our movements — if we believe we’re only fighting for environmental reform or gay rights or urban renewal… only our specific issues and not, also…, always…, at the same time… re-affirming our commitment to agapic love, to our civic connection our fellow community members — …then we are … like a sail without a mast… just flapping around in the wind…not harnessing energy to move society in any direction. 

So, given that lesson…why don’t we just do what they did? Why don’t we just believe in non-violence and use their tactics…get on buses, start marching, provoke some confrontations with the police? Well, people have tried that. People have taken to the streets, people have had millions at marches in my lifetime. People have occupied public spaces and provoked the police. And yet, we have not had as big a victory for justice in my lifetime as King did in his. And I think that’s because, as I learned in the second big lesson on my trip — a lesson that came to me as I saw the contrast between how the elders on the trip talked about the problems of their day and the students on the trip talked about the problems of ours — the second big lesson is that the problems of today are taking different forms than they did back in the 60’s! 

Back then, we had Jim Crow, explicit racism and segregation by the government. Today, segregation is not by law, but by structural circumstance, as segregation plagues not our drinking fountains nor our diners, but becomes a good way to describe how our justice system and our prisons work, when 1 in 3 black men will go be imprisoned at some point in their life. Back then, explicit racial discrimination in employment was commonplace throughout the South. Today, there’s a whole division of the Justice Department to challenge explicit racism on the job, but, today, black unemployment still stands at more than twice the rate of white unemployment, with almost 1 in 5 black men in June 2011 being without work. Racism burbles up inside of us in unexpected places, as our focus on overcoming racism here at home might sometimes forget that it is also racist to believe that a human life is less worthwhile, more disposable — more collateral and incidental and less sacred — if it’s an Afghani or Pakistani life or an indigenous person’s life.  We have struck a strong blow to the type of racism that allows leaders to make slurs publicly without recourse or state legislatures to write the word “colored” into legislation. But the problems of racial disparity remain, in new forms… that can’t be overcome with the stroke of President’s pen. 

And the same is true for Materialism. In King’s time, the environmental movement was just in its infancy, and the concept of widespread corporate watchdogging was just an idea in Ralph Nader’s head. And today, we do see blowback against the incessant pursuit of material things, as community gardens, farmer’s markets, car sharing, slow food movements, and lifestyles around living on less are cropping up, reminding us that there still is a live belief that people are more important than, as Dr. King put it, “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights.” But, today we face unending advertising on half a dozen types of screens telling us that all our problems will be solved, all our insecurities will be vanquished, and all our deepest wants will be realized…if only we buy one more thing, use one more service. Today, our activists that are fighting to move our nation from, as Dr. King called them to do, a “thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society” are facing a steeper climb, as the monied interests grip ever tighter on the neck of our democratic institutions. 

And the same is true for Militarism. In King’s time, we had tens of thousands of American men and Vietnamese men, women and children killed in a grueling war. Today, we face no draft, and less civilian casualties in our militaristic pursuits overseas. But, today, we have even more trouble breaking the cycle of — what King called — the “madness of militarism” and the “self-defeating effects of physical violence” when wars are felt less back home, because the fighters are drones or soldiers from an economic bracket we never interact with. 

Whereas Jim Crow and Vietnam was a tumor on a part of society, many of the problems of today are more like sicknesses in the bloodstream, unable to be pinpointed. There used to be a Civil Rights song, “O Freedom”, where you’d sing about the specific thing you wanted to overcome… No Segregation, No Segregation, No Segregation over me…or No Bull Connor, No Bull Connor over me. But with problems as complex as today, what can we sing about in our O Freedoms? No more prison-industrial complex, no more prison-industrial complex over me…no more global warming caused by various forms of carbon emissions, no more global warming caused by various forms of carbon emission over me…no more deregulation of the financial industry…over me…you get the point.

In the age of 24 hours news blaring and blog posts and tweets and status updates whizzing around our heads…it gets confusing even knowing what’s happening and feels with these multiple storylines going at once. Our time feels new and it feels dreadfully old. It feels like networked freedom and it feels like the old power structure is still in charge. It feels like a black president but more black people in poverty. It feels like a shiny new iPhone and a hollowed out Detroit. It feels like we don’t know what the problem is and we all know what the problem is. It feels like the solutions were made 15 years ago and are waiting to be implemented and like they’re just 15 years into the future out of our reach.

And for us who want to change the world, who want to walk in King’s footsteps, we sometimes just don’t know where to start:

Whereas our heroes knew their adversaries, ours aren’t in a single form.

Whereas our heroes fought clearer, visual problems, ours are invisible and baked into institutions all around us.

Whereas they had a sense of what solutions looked like, we have trouble having a clue.

In the confusion about the content of the solutions, we latch onto forms of the past – we think to be an activist means to be a marcher, a rallier, a person that needs to use dramatic, direct action.

But what works for civil rights, for women’s rights, for getting troops pulled out of Vietnam is not necessarily going to work to solve global warming, to fix our food system, to raise our neighborhoods out of poverty, or to invigorate our public schools.

What do we act against?
Where do we march?

They had all these signs up throughout our trip that say “Would you get on the bus?” But the question is less, “Would someone today get on the bus?” and more “Which bus should I get on? Darn it…all the buses are telling me they’re the right bus!? IS this bus doing more harm than good? Oh no! This bus isn’t carbon neutral!” 

Oh, the postmodern condition…it’s so hard to find something true to get excited about in such a time. We look back on Dr. King and part of us thinks, “wow that must’ve been hard, he must’ve been one brave genius.” But then another part of us still whisper, “That was easy…Dr. King, get a load of today!”

So what do we do? How do we keep The Freedom Riders and Dr. King’s dream alive? How do we take our agapic love and translate it into action in a world with new, confounding problems? Well, I learned on the ride that we have a choice.

Option 1: Give up. Escape from the confusion of our era into safe places. Some have made that choice: those who choose to be cynical, those who use irony to distance themselves from any conviction, who laugh at those who care too much; those who complain and yearn for nonexistent pasts when ‘everything was better’, who simplify and blame it all on the other; those who keep the wheels turning on the structures that have left us all so distraught so as to see what they can privately squeeze out of it; who ignore the great public problems of our time and reject the great life in favor of the big life; and those who throw up their hands, screaming “There’s no such thing as truth and we don’t now to do…so let’s just watch some cat videos.” There’s a lifetime supply online…that’s a live option.  But, we don’t want to give up.

So there’s Option 2: Hope someone else takes on the great problems of our time and solves them for us. There is a certain quality to us that makes it easier for us to propose problems than to propose solutions. We all get riled up pointin’ to why this is bad, and that’s messed up, and that over there is being done totally backwards…and then we yell it out and hope someone else out there hears us and does something about it.

And my generation is particularly plagued by this quality, and the last few years for many young people, has been a great example of this option. In the Presidential Election in 2008, we young people had finally thought we had found someone who was going to solve all of the public problems we had been worried about throughout our lives. On election night in 2008 — when millions of young people around the country were cheering, singing and rallying together — I had thought that we were celebrating the first shot of a revitalized movement…. a launch party of sorts for the years of collective problem solving work we had in store for us. Barack was kicking down the door to a new era and we — the people! — were going to storm in! 

However, after Inauguration Day 2009, the surge of youth engagement receded. The entire Obama youth movement packed up and went home, believing their work to be done, their mission accomplished. Instead of continuing to actively organize for change, we simply waited, expecting the Presidency that we had brought to the White House to solve everything for us. When it did not work out exactly as planned, the cynicism re-emerged as we were left wondering how we, yet again, found ourselves with most of the same ol’ problems that we had before.

And there lies the problem with Option 2. History — and especially American Civil Rights history — teaches that we should not be surprised at all. Of course it is not the leaders we elect who bring major change to government policy. It is social movements and citizen projects from outside of government that force those leaders to act.

Lincoln penned the Emancipation Proclamation, but abolitionists provided the link. FDR signed off on the New Deal, but for the workers’ movement, it was old news. Maybe Nixon proposed the Environmental Protection Agency ‘cuz he was tree hugger at heart… or maybe he faced the biggest environmental movement in history!

Indeed, as historian Howard Zinn put it, “government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action.” Indeed, it was that 2008 Presidential candidate that we all fell in love with himself who put it best: “You are the ones you have been waiting for…you are the change that we seek.”

The Freedom Riders of 1961 understood that extraordinary ordinary citizens had to hold leaders’ feet to the fire if they wanted to spur those leaders to action. When the Kennedy Administration was asking for a ‘cooling off period’ from direct action by civil rights advocates, activists kept the Rides going, understanding that it was exactly direct citizen action in times of administration uneasiness that could lead to major societal change. Their success in convincing the Kennedy Administration to support bus de-segregation proved their belief true.

Flickr/HongKongHuey

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in D.C. is the only memorial that features a statute that is not free standing…rather, Dr. King’s towering figure is emerging out of a large stone of hope. It’s quite appropriate, because even Dr. King is not the be-all-end-all of the Civil Rights movement…his work and leadership only could emerge out of the tireless efforts of the tens of thousands that made up the movement. And that was the final lesson of my trip – that the real movers of American government and society are not the leaders, but rather the groups of unelected, extraordinary ordinary people who decide to commit to public action.

But there still remains the question of “What is to be done?” now…well, there’s a final option: get to work, continue the struggle, know that if we collaborate and focus and work hard, we can figure out what’s going on, identify and articulate problems, and imagine, experiment with and implement solutions.

Back in Dr. King’s day, in the post-World War II era, America was prosperous, and Dr. King’s battle was to include a group of people in that prosperity. He literally spoke in the I Have a Dream speech about a promissory note to African Americans that wasn’t cashed, despite the fact that the “great vaults of opportunity” of the nation had enough funds to cash it. When Civil Rights activists sat in at the lunch counters, they were sincere about it – they really wanted to eat at those lunch counters. It was a great house his generation inherited, and he was fighting to have equal access to all its floors and rooms.

But, today, America isn’t doing so well. The vaults of opportunity are defaulting on their loans. Most families are having a harder time finding the excess income to eat out at a lunch counter. The house my generation inherits has some pipes leaking and broken windows and failed expansion projects.

But the reason I say this is because, with the house in shambles, with the house due in for some remodeling…we have a shot. Every crisis comes with an opportunity. And America is going to be rebuilt, I’m confident of that. The question is, rebuilt by whom, and rebuilt in what spirit? There are people out there, like you in the crowd, who understand Dr. King’s dream, who know agapic love, who can imagine what a world with less racism, militarism and materialism might look like. If people like you are not in on the remodeling of America, our nation is at risk of being rebuilt with the same ol’ built-in problems, the same ol’ built-in injustices. But, if people like you participate in this rebuilding of America, out of the Great Recession of the 2000s, and into the Great Revival of the 2010s – if people like you who understand the Dream put in the hard work to participate vigorously in your neighborhood and churches and schools and campuses and elections and communities small and big…if you craft solutions that make our problems that much more meliorated… if you bend the blueprints a bit more towards justice…if you put in the focus and hard work that is necessary to make anything that matters shake and move…then the dream lives to see another day. 

But only if you choose to participate.

At my Father’s graduation from Antioch College in 1965, a preacher by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put what I am trying to say best, exclaiming that: “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with god.” 

Let’s get to work. 


Twitter, Facebook and YouTube’s role in Arab Spring (Middle East uprisings) [UPDATED 7/7/13]

Flickr photo of Tunisian protests by marcovdz

Democracy has finally come to parts of the mid-East and Northern Africa. What has been the role of social media and the Internet in these uprisings?

First the facts and then some discussion of the role of social media:

Background: The “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Mid-East heavily relied on the Internet, social media and technologies like Twitter, TwitPic, Facebook and YouTube in the early stages to accelerate social protest. There are even allegations that the CIA was blindsided about the Egypt uprising by failing to follow developments on Twitter. There is less evidence that social media played a strong a role in places like Yemen (where Internet penetration is low) or Libya (where the government controlled Internet means of distribution and cracked down more effectively).

In Syria, where the “Arab Fall” and “Second Arab Spring” is still underway and the fighting has intensified and spread to Damascus’ suburbs. The role of social media was originally more limited in Syria, out of fear that the government is monitoring online behavior and because the government learned from Egypt and Tunisia and cracked down heavily on social media, but there is some evidence that activists  was starting to figure out how to use social media more  when the Syrian government temporarily shut down the Internet on May 7, 2013.  The Free Syrian Army [Arabic FSA actual site is here] is threatening civil war in Syria and claims to represent 10,000 defected soldiers operating in small bands across Syria; FSA has posted a YouTube video and claimed responsibility on Facebook for the 11/16/11 assault on the Air Force Intelligence building.  Disappointingly, Twitter and Google have also agreed to help the Syrian government and other oppressive regimes by enforcing rules that censor tweets or blog posts in Syria by blocking them out within-country.  There have not been large-scale protests in Syria, making it hard to gauge the level of anti-government support, since large number of critics of the Assad regime may be refusing to demonstrate out of fear of being injured or killed.  Because of the media blackout, it is hard to assess the role of social media currently in Syria, but this Google Hangout hosted by the Syrian American Council in DC held a conference video with activists in and outside the country, discusses their use of social media like Facebook, Skype or YouTube.

Tunisia:

The first domino was Tunisia where the underlying source of the uprising lay in government corruption, inequality, censorship and joblessness (even among the well educated youth).   The protests began in December 2010 with a college-educated street vendor’s (Mohamed Bouazizi’s) self-immolation in the coastal town of Sidi Bouzid in despair at the corruption and joblessness.  He died from the burns, but his protest, despite Tunisia’s strict web censorship laws, was rapidly fanned by online Internet tools.

“Because the protests came together largely through informal online networks, their success has also raised questions about whether a new opposition movement has formed that could challenge whatever new government takes shape.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a close ally from the president’s hometown, announced on state television that he was taking power as interim president. But that step violated the Tunisian Constitution, which provides for a succession by the head of Parliament, something that Mr. Ghannouchi tried to gloss over by describing Mr. Ben Ali as “temporarily” unable to serve.

Yet by late Friday night [1/7/11], Tunisian Facebook pages previously emblazoned with the revolt’s slogan, “Ben Ali, Out,” had made way for the name of the interim president. “Ghannouchi Out,” they declared…. And the protesters relied heavily on social media Web sites like Facebook and Twitter to circulate videos of each demonstration and issue calls for the next one.    [“President of Tunisia Flees“, NY Times, 1/14/11)

“By many accounts, the new arsenal of social networking helped accelerate Tunisia’s revolution, driving the country’s ruler of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, into ignominious exile and igniting a conflagration that has spread across the Arab world at breathtaking speed. It was an apt symbol that a dissident blogger with thousands of followers on Twitter, Slim Amamou, was catapulted in a matter of days from the interrogation chambers of Mr. Ben Ali’s regime to a new government post as minister for youth and sports. It was a marker of the uncertainty in Tunis that he had stepped down from the government by Thursday.” [New York Times 1/30/11 article]

“Other social media aspects of the revolution included Twitter updates with stories of state oppression, police brutality and unrest, and tweet feeds of imminent street protests….  Over 30,000 videos have now been placed on YouTube tagged “Sidi Bouzid.” [Online Social Media, 1/18/11 story]

Egypt:

Emboldened by the overthrow of Tunisia’s Ben Ali, the protests spread to Egypt on January 25, 2011 where opposition leaders declared it a “Day of Rage” on which protesters would take to the street against President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. The protesters included secularists, Islamists and Communists/ultra-left-wingers–a veritable who’s who of the Egyptian opposition.

While exact numbers of protesters could not be estimated, a flood of internet photographs and videos showed a massive presence in Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities.  These protests lasted 18 days and Internet-savvy protesters used Twitpic, Facebook and YouTube to disseminate videos and photographs and called on Egyptians to protest.  Protesters provided minute-by-minute tweets concerning where to assemble in an effort to outwit police.

“More than 90,000 people signed up on a Facebook page for the Tuesday [Jan. 25] protests, framed by the organizers as a stand against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment. But the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful opposition movement, said it would not officially participate, though some of its members joined the protesters in Cairo.”  (NY Times, “Broad Protests Across Egypt Focus Fury on Mubarak“, 1/25/11)

The Egyptian government originally engaged in episodic censorship. One video posted to YouTube and then shared on Facebook claimed to show Egyptian riot police being assaulted and seriously injured by protesters. However, the video was taken offline for a Terms of Service violation. There were also reports of YouTube censorship of protest videos. “[D]uring protests on Tuesday [Jan. 25, 2011] and again on Wednesday [Jan. 26], many reported trouble accessing Facebook and Twitter, the social networking sites that helped organize and spread news of the protests.” [NY Times]

The Internet crackdown began in earnest on January 28 when the government, amidst extremely large-scale demonstrations moved to fully restrict the Internet and cellular forms of mobilizing demonstrators.  “Internet and cellphone connections had been disrupted or restricted in Cairo, Alexandria and other places, cutting off social-media Web sites that had been used to organize protests and complicating efforts by news media to report on events on the ground. Some reports said journalists had been singled out by police who used batons to beat and charge protesters. One cell phone operator, Vodafone, said on Friday that Egypt had told all mobile operators to suspend services in selected areas of the country The British company said it would comply with the order, Reuters reported.” [New York Times, “Clashes in Cairo Extend Arab World’s Days of Unrest“, 1/28/2011]

Tahrir Square protest in Egpyt, posted on Facebook page

Slate has a brief description of how, despite the Internet and cellphone limits, some one million protesters were mobilized for the 2/1/11 protest in Tahrir Square using old-school tactics:

“Three young men from the ElBaradei Association for Change, a group that had been working to mobilize people and have them sign a petition to reform constitutional amendments passed in 2005 and 2007 that prevented an independent candidate from running for president, decided to take matters into their own hands. They would go into other neighborhoods and convince people to come to the square. “We’re going to go out on the streets and start screaming, ‘Down with Mubarak,’ and asking people to join us. Once we get about 1,000 or 2,000, we will move toward downtown,” Tawfik Gamal told me, as we walked briskly toward the subway.

A little while after we set out, word came that other activists had the same idea, so Tawfik and his friends headed to a different neighborhood. I decided to stick with our original meeting point. As I waited in front of a major Cairo mosque in a wealthy neighborhood, I watched about 100 people walk by.

In front of the mosque, carrying home-made banners and bottles of soda, a small group of friends had congregated. They were the affluent upper-middle-class on the march. One of them is Ahmed El-Diwany. An IT manager at the American University in Cairo, he had moved back into his parents’ home to be closer to the protests. He’s not sure when Mubarak will fall, but he is sure that he will. “Mubarak is a Taurus, and so he is stubborn. He doesn’t like looking weak—and he’s a general. Put it all in a blender, and it’s a lethal combination,” he tells me, totally serious.” [Slate]

Mubarak’s unsubtle crackdown on the Internet and cellphones, not only imposed great cost on the economy, but had the ironic consequence of actually radicalizing many  rural Egyptians into opposing the Mubarak regime. In any event, Mubarak’s countermove occurred after the dissension genie had already escaped the bottle and the revolution successfully ousted Mubarak.

“[With the internet crackdown,] President Hosni Mubarak betrayed his own fear — that Facebook, Twitter, laptops and smartphones could empower his opponents, expose his weakness to the world and topple his regime.  There was reason for Mr. Mubarak to be shaken. ” [New York Times 1/30/11 article]

On February 10, amidst unrelenting protests, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had ceded power. Egyptians have now voted meaningfully for the first time ever, although doubts remain about whether the protesters’ gains are being eroded.  And on May 23, 2012, Egyptians, in a historic election, for the first time  voted for a replacement for Mubarak (one year after his departure).

The Second Revolution: The situation in Egypt in mid-2013 is highly unstable.  It appears that Egypt’s second revolution has ousted Mohammed Morsi, but the situation there remains highly unstable and there are assertions that Morsi is corralling the military to put down protest, even after he has agreed to step down.  There is evidence that Facebook was used much more prominently in the second revolution than the first.

Libya: In Libya, while the revolution was ultimately successful in ousting Muammar Gaddafi, social media played a minor role.  Libya’s government maintained strong control of the Internet infrastructure, and Gaddafi as an ego-maniacal autocrat responded only to insurgent militia, once they were aided by NATO.

Syria/Jordan/Yemen/others: Other middle-Eastern nations fear the shadow of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and fear that youth uprisings spurred by social networking mobilization or more traditional mobilization are taking hold.  On Monday, January 31, 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unsuccessfully announced efforts to try to get ahead of a possible revolution there (in a WSJ interview).  Jordan pre-emptively tried to avoid the Tunisian or Egyptian result with somewhat limited success. (AP) The Yemeni leader agreed not to run again or hand the reins to his son. [Here is a great graphic showing the spread of the Tunisian uprising to at least 18 other middle East countries (through April 11, 2011), with four other countries having overthrown their leader (Egypt, Libya, Ivory Coast and Yemen[?]) and another (Syria) at a tipping point.  And this is the current state of play by country.]

Although the role of social media is much lower in Syria’s protest actions than countries like Tunisia or Egypt, individuals have risked their lives to use cellphones and small cameras to film atrocities of President Bashar Al-Assad’s crackdown on the protesters and upload these images to Facebook or YouTube, fanning international pressure on Assad to back down.  Assad has also used propogandistic websites like Bashar al-Assad and used social media to assert that protest videos are fake and that he has hundreds of thousands of loyal supporters.  Although only 15% of Syrians are online, activist LeShaque claims that without social media, the Syrian revolution would have been successfully repressed at an earlier stage, and notes that the government complains more about the media than the protests.

What was the role of social media?

Social media must work hand-in-hand with an ability to mobilize citizens.  It is far too easy to simply “Friend” or “Like” a movement on Facebook and a retweet is never enough. The challenge is to put boots on the street, as protesters in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya know only too well.

Everyone agrees that social media add new arrows to the quivers of social activists.  These social media can be helpful in: a) mobilizing protesters rapidly; b) undermining a regime’s legitimacy; or c) increasing national and international exposure to a regime’s atrocities.   Any use of these social media is likely to be more successful in a country that has some form of democracy; so far, the exit of Tunisia’s Ben Ali is the only example we have of social media non-violently ousting an autocrat.

Malcolm Gladwell observes in “The Revolution Will Not be Tweeted” that successful social movements long pre-dated social media.  In an May 2011 interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN’s GPS (Global Public Square), he disputes the importance of social media in the mid-east uprisings and asserts that protesters could have organized in other ways, noting that East Germany overturned a government when only 13% had landline phones. Moreover, Arab Spring uprisings are occurring in places like Yemen with low rates of Internet penetration. Journalist Anthony Shadid comments on Syria that: “It’s not a Twitter or Facebook revolution. The revolution is in the streets, and it smells of blood.”

Advocates of the new technology point out that the fact that there were successful revolutions before the telephone, doesn’t mean that the telephone (or social media) might not enhance social protest or enable some protests to succeed where otherwise they would not have.

Malcolm Gladwell and Clay Shirky, “From Innovation to Revolution”, Foreign Affairs, Response, March/April 2011  have an interesting brief exchange of their differing thoughts on the role of social media in revolutions.  Zeynep Tufekci, Why the ‘how’ of social organizing matters and how Gladwell’s latest contrarian missive falls short and David Weinberger, Joho the Blog, “Gladwell proves too much” had quite thoughtful blog posts on this topic, criticizing Gladwell for his dismissal of the importance of social media.

Philip N. Howard, assoc. professor of communication at the Univ. of Washington, and other scholars have analyzed the millions of tweets, YouTube videos and blog posts and concluded that “social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring…[The evidence] suggests that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising. People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom.”

Wael Abbas (a prominent Egyptian blogger), when questioned on the role of  social media in the Egyptian revolution, said: “Social media is a tool. But revolution is the decision of many people. Once we decided to have a revolution, once people decided to stay in the square, social media was a helpful tool to call for support, ask lawyers for help. I will not give social media all the credit, nor will I take away all the credit from social media.”  He noted that the revolution is not yet over: “We’re not beyond the revolution. We now have a military junta, and people are being shot by armed officers, defending their interests. The army is protecting American, Israeli, Saudi interests in the country. They are protecting their own interests: the military aid from the US. The army is building factories and roads, and they’re not paying taxes, electricity or water. The labor for these projects are soldiers acting as slave labor.”

Wael Ghonim, who anonymously founded the Facebook site Kullena Khaled Said (“We Are All Khaled Said”) in sympathy with a 28-year old brutalized by police and called for the critical Tahrir Square Jan. 25, 2011 day of protest, wrote Revolution 2.0 to chronicle the role of social media in Egypt’s uprising and the suspenseful tale of trying to stay ahead of the police.  Hear Wael, a 30-year old Google marketing executive, talk with Terri Gross of Fresh Air here about the power of social media.  [Interestingly, he made real efforts with his Facebook site to make this interactive and build individual investments and commitment in this, by asking those who affiliated electronically with the website to post videos of them carrying placards reading “We Are All Khaled Said” and answer electronic surveys about their thoughts, and by indicating that if 100,000 took to the streets to protest on Jan. 25, they couldn’t be stopped.]

It’s very hard to prove whether a revolution would or would not have happened barring the existence of social media [countries rarely offer themselves up for experimentation], but there may be some learnable lessons about some important dimensions in understanding how successful social media may be.

1) The underlying strength of civil society: Clay Shirky has an interesting piece “The Political Power of Social Media” in the January/February 2011 Foreign Affairs journal where he acknowledges the key role of civil society:

“The more promising way to think about social media is as long-term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere. In contrast to the instrumental view of Internet freedom, this can be called the environmental view. According to this conception, positive changes in the life of a country, including pro-democratic regime change, follow, rather than precede, the development of a strong public sphere. This is not to say that popular movements will not successfully use these tools to discipline or even oust their governments, but rather that U.S. attempts to direct such uses are likely to do more harm than good. Considered in this light, Internet freedom is a long game, to be conceived of and supported not as a separate agenda but merely as an important input to the more fundamental political freedoms.”

2) Whether government is a democracy or autocracy.  Thus far in the Middle East, Tunisia is the one example where a social-media-tinged uprising has successfully ousted an autocrat.  This doesn’t mean that social media can’t be useful in bringing democracy, but if an autocratic leader is willing to brutally suppress dissent (as in Syria) and if outside countries don’t intervene (as they did in Libya), social media may have less impact than one would expect in bringing democracy to the Middle East.

3) The degree of Internet penetration and whether government controls the Internet infrastructure: Obviously in countries with low internet penetration it is far more difficult to use the Internet to mobilize local masses, although it may still be a tool to garner international support. In Libya, where the state controlled the Internet and telephony, it was far easier to block use of these social media than in a country where telecommunications were privatized. In Egypt, the government secured Vodaphone’s cooperation in blocking mobile communications, but foreign companies in the future may be less cooperative.

4) Sophistication in Internet censorship or misinformation campaigns: We are in the early stages of social media and the cat-and-mouse interplay between protesters and repressive regimes.  In second-generation revolutions, the state is becoming more sophisticated about Internet controls, making it look like the Internet is active, but slowing speeds dramatically so  video is ineffective or blocking certain words from appearing on trending lists or in search queries.  Repressive governments have alas learned from Egypt’s inept full-frontal blocking of the Internet. Regarding the use of misinformation, Gaddafi’s attempt to claim that a protest rally video circulating was actually a pro-government rally looked foolish.  Would other more sophisticated misinformation campaigns succeed?  Will there be fake groups that form in an effort to flush out activists for persecution?  Will government become more active in the Internet to try to direct protesters to incorrect locations where police are waiting?

5) Unintended consequences from state action:  Related to point #4, we are also in the early days of understanding what types of government crackdowns succeed and which backfire and wind up bolstering the opposition (as Mubarak did in his shutting down of the Internet).    Until we have a better handle on those dynamics we will be unsure of what the net-net impact of social media will be.

6) How intertwined social media is in everyday life:  To the extent that a society uses social media mundanely but deeply in everyday commerce and social interaction, it will be much harder for countries to effectively dismantle these without huge economic and social costs.

Beyond any initial revolution, Thomas Friedman pointed out in the NY Times on April 13 that starting the revolution may be the easier part. “In the Arab world, almost all these countries are Yugoslavia-like assemblages of ethnic, religious and tribal groups put together by colonial powers — except Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, which have big homogeneous majorities. So removing the lid off these countries may potentially unleash civil war, not civil society.

Friedman concludes: “That is why, for now, the relatively peaceful Arab democracy revolutions are probably over. They [first] happened in the two countries where they were most able to happen because the whole society in Tunisia and Egypt could pull together as a family and oust the evil ‘dad’ — the dictator. From here forward, we have to hope for ‘Arab evolutions’ or we’re going to get Arab civil wars.”

++++

Other links:

Tunisia:

Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain, “The Role of Digital Media”, Journal of Democracy 22(3):35-48(2011) has good background of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt in terms of social media.

- “Tunisia Protesters Use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to Organize And Report” (LA Times Blog, 1/14/11).

- See New Yorker, “Letter from Tunis: The Casbah Coalition” (4/4/11 by Steve Coll)

- See “The Use of Social Media Made Arab Spring Possible

Egypt:

- See earlier Social Capital Blog post on role of Facebook in earlier Egyptian uprising.

- As noted under the Tunisia section, Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain, “The Role of Digital Media”, Journal of Democracy 22(3):35-48(2011) has good background of what happened in Egypt in terms of social media.

- Fast Company urged those interested in monitoring events to follow Egyptian journalist Mona el-Tahawy’s Twitter feed and the wall of the Egyptian opposition el-Shaheed’s Facebook account, which posted minute-by-minute updates from hundreds of Egyptian Facebook users including photos and news of the latest events. They also commended Blogsofwar’s Egypt Twitter aggregator for those who can read Arabic.

- See “How Social Media Accelerated the Uprising in Egypt“, Fast Company, 2/3/11.

- Read also “Facebook treads carefully after its vital role in Egypt’s anti-Mubarak protests” (Wash. Post, 2/2/2011).

- see, “Twitter’s Role in Arab Spring exaggerated, experts find” (The National, 5/1/12) [Citing Arab Media Outlook Study (2011-2015), commissioned by the Dubai Press Club.]

Syria:

See “Will Syria’s Revolution be Organized… on Facebook?“, Fast Company, 2/3/11.

Radwan Ziadeh explains why use of social media is much lower in Syria in “The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media” (7/11/2011)

Social Media and Syria’s Revolution” by Namo Abdulla (12/20/11)

- Syria Interview: Activist “LeShaque” on Social Media and the Syrian Revolution (1/15/2012)

Arab Spring generally:

- Clay Shirky did an interesting short interview for the Annenberg “Eye on the Middle East” program (Nov. 10, 2011) on the use of social media in the Arab Spring.

For a broader description of just how game-changing the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East may be, see Thomas Friedman’s “B.E., Before Egypt, A.E., After Egypt” (2/1/11 NYT Op-Ed) [likening the impact to Israel as being similar to the impact on the U.S. if Canada and Mexico were both going through revolutions at the moment]

- See also “Five Reasons why Arab regimes are falling” (Christian Science Monitor, February 8, 2011 Op-Ed by Moataz Fattah) citing the fact that countries like Egypt have not leveraged physical capital (i.e., oil) into social capital for its residents.

- See also, Rory O’Connor (Huffington Post, 1/26/12), “#january25 One Year Later: Social Media & Politics 3.0″

Libya:

- See “Libya: How authorities have blocked the story” (BBC, 2/25/2011)

- See Deborah Amos (NPR) talking about the role of social media: “Revolution in the Age of Social Media, Deborah Amos

- Doug Saunders has a very interesting Op-Ed in the Globe and Mail discussing social networks in Libya and Egypt in 2004 and 2011 and contrasting the difference.  Excerpt:

Certainly, the Libya I visited in 2004 was low on social capital. It was the only Arab country I’ve ever visited where men didn’t gather in large crowds at street-side cafés to smoke and talk politics. This was illegal, and dangerous. Next door in Egypt, life for many was (and remains) a lonely oscillation between home, mosque and workplace, with nothing to bind people in a way that could change the country or its society.

Or so it seemed. But on that visit seven years ago, I noticed something else: Everyone I met under 20, even in fairly poor communities, spent their spare time at the Internet café. In the freedom of those places, in detailed conversations, I found teenagers forming intimate communities online, discussing cars and rap lyrics and sex and especially restrictions on Internet freedoms in neighbouring countries (Libya’s Net was wide open then), and often coalescing in physical meet-ups. And that was Libya, one of the least free countries in the region.

Those teens are now around 24 – and half of all Egyptians and Libyans are 24 or under. In the past months, we have seen them form extraordinarily resilient and tightly linked voluntary communities using those Internet connections.

A fifth of Egyptians and more than a third of Tunisians have broadband at home, and the Internet cafés and cellphone web services mean that almost everyone under 24 has daily access.

Dictators and Islamists also use the Internet. But the young opponents keep showing that their social capital is more robust than we’d ever imagined: In the past seven weeks, we have seen Facebook-organized rallies drive out the old-regime prime ministers of Tunisia and Egypt and replace them with movement-associated figures. The towns and villages of Tunisia and Egypt, as I reported this week, are being transformed by local democracy committees, which have become an unstoppable force.

That’s not to say that the Arab world’s connected generation are going to have an easy time building a democratic society. But they certainly aren’t bowling alone.

Does activism make you happy?

Flickr photo by Matthew Bradley

Flickr photo by Matthew Bradley

I’m quoted in the Boston Globe’s Ideas Section in “The Upside of ‘down with’” (Drake Bennett, 10/11/09).

The article reports on a forthcoming study “Some Benefits of Being an Activist” by Tim Kasser and Malte Klar that activism is associated with happiness (2009, Political Psychology 30(5) ).

The Globe article neglected to quote me that there are lots of reason to support activism — it may increase people’s confidence in making a difference, it may improve governmental quality and leaders’ accountability, it may spark extra-governmental change or reveal the immorality of laws (as seen in the Civil Rights Era).

That said, I am skeptical, as the Globe article noted that it is activism per se that is causing happiness, based on our forthcoming religious research.  Religious Americans are more happy, but it has nothing to do with their theology, or what they hear from the pulpit, or a sense of calling.  It is explained by being in a morally-infused social network.  Praying alone or attending a church where you hear the sermons (but don’t make friends) makes you no happier.  Similarly if one looks at research by Alan Krueger and others, it is social activities that bring happiness.

So while I’m not sure that bowlers are doing as much for government accountability as protesters, my guess would be that they are equally happy.

Social and Civic Mobilizing in Iran

Iranian Protests: Flickr photo by John McNab

Iranian Protests: Flickr photo by John McNab

I commend Thomas Friedman’s Op-Ed today, “The Virtual Mosque”, where he wonders whether Facebook can play the same role for Iranian moderates that the mosque played for more extremist Iranians in mobilizing voters.

Social capital (or social connections) have always played a strong role in politics worldwide.  Experiments in the U.S. show that that face-to-face mobilization is far more effective than phone mobilization, and churches have always played a strong role in political mobilization (especially in black churches, as American Grace, the new book by Robert Putnam and David Campbell will show [among many other interesting findings]).

These facts, in addition to the fact that the Iranian police state has guns (as Friedman points out) and is trying hard, and perhaps effectively to block and filter the internet, make me more skeptical of whether Facebook or Twitter can be as effective a tool in mobilizing Iranian moderates as the F2F connections at the mosque.  But for sure these e-connections are way more useful than not being able to mobilize social networks.   [And mark this as another example of how what appeared to be trivial technologies can be used as pro-democratic forces in repressive countries.] If you’re curious for a live and compelling updating of situation in Iran, see Andrew Sullivan’s blog. Note: the U.S. State Department even asked Twitter to defer maintenance for fear that this might adversely impact the protests!

Moreover, various news pieces have pointed out that the Guardian Council, which previously had maintained their infallability now looks a lot more fallable (after Khamanei initially immediately certified the results and now claims that there should be at least a partial recount).  That’s a hard genie to put back in the bottle.    It’s reminiscent of a conversation with a mother-friend of mine.  When her kids misbehaved, she was constantly counting to five and telling her sons, “you better do it by the time I count to 5, or you’ll be subjected to the wrath of Mom.”  I asked her what happened if her sons didn’t do something by 5 and realized that the consequences weren’t as dangerous as they feared.  She smiled sheepishly and noted, “I’m hoping we don’t get to that point…”  If people believe that the Guardian Council has no clothes, Iranian politics could change dramatically.

See Thomas Friedman’s “The Virtual Mosque” (NYT, 6/17/09)

See also the very interesting “Twitter on the Barricades: Six Lessons Learned” (NYT, 6/21/09, Noam Cohen)