How Does a Grassroot Movement succeed?


As the word implies, a grassroot movement develops from the base and is a bottom-up process. Its success depends on three important factors: a clear idea that people can relate to and unite behind, sustained efforts in organization and leadership, and last but not least, a flexible but consistent articulation of its purpose to keep the flame alive. Let’s examine some major grassroot movements around the world:

The Arab Spring of 2011 has already brought down a number of regimes that had ruled for decades, and is by no means ending yet. The spark came from the self-immolation of a street vendor in Tunisia protesting police corruption and treatment. It turned out that government corruption and brutality struck a resounding chord for most citizens of the Arab World. The major slogan was: “The people want to bring down the regime.” Now that some regimes are down, the message has changed to building a democracy. The next step has begun where elections were held, although the end result is not yet clear. The leaders of this movement are not very visible on television. They prefer to lead and organize through the social media via the Internet.

The Civil Rights movement in the United States lasted from the mid 1950s to early 1960s culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was led by Martin Luther King, Jr., a great orator. The original message was the injustice of racial segregation and oppression against Blacks in the South. The method was non-violent demonstration and civil disobedience. The non-violence met with police brutality using dogs, clubs and water canons, which solidified the sympathy and support from the rest of the country. The movement continued after the assassination of King in 1968. The message has since changed to equal opportunities for all minorities in the country.

The anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa lasted from the late 1940s to 1994 culminating in the election of Nelson Mandela to President. A lot of blood was shed in the riots of Black townships and in government crackdowns on members of the African National Congress (ANC), the opposing party representing the Black population. As a leader of the ANC, Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years. After his election as President, Mandela modified the message of resistance to truth and reconciliation rather than focusing on retribution by impulse. A special commission was established to investigate and propagate the true stories about the victims of Apartheid as a lesson to be learned for future generations. This effectively guaranteed peaceful transition for South Africa to a modern democratic society.

Although inspired by the Russian Communists, the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949 was in fact a grassroot peasant movement led and organized by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) formed in Shanghai in 1921. For thirty years until 1949, China was plagued by an intermittent civil war between the ruling Nationalist Party and the CCP, both of which maintained their own armies. Under relentless attacks from the ruling party, the CCP retreated 3000 miles inland to the mountains of Shensi Province in the Long March of 1934-35. Despite heavy casualties, the CCP found salvation in the peasants of the countryside. At that time, the peasants represented over 90% of the total population. They probably suffered most under the existing system of rampant corruption, hyperinflation, and the exploitation of absentee landlords. The Communists understood the plight of the peasants and cultivated an alliance with them. In return for CCP protection against exploitation by the ruling regime, the peasants supported the Communists with food, shelter, and eager young recruits. Thus the peasant movement grew and spread across the countryside to eventually engulf all the major cities. The ruling Nationalists finally fled to Taiwan in 1949 and handed the victory to the Communists. The Chinese peasant movement has continued up to this day in many different forms even though massive urbanization has reduced the peasant population to about 50% of the total.

After the communist takeover in 1949, the US Congress wasted their time in recriminations as to which of their own political parties had lost China. They were totally disconnected from the realities overseas. It was not US fault for they had little control of events there even though they thought they were a superpower. It was the Chinese Nationalist government that had lost support of 90% of their population.

What about the present Occupy Wall Street movement? The idea that we are the suffering 99% drives home the widening inequalities between rich and poor. Nevertheless, camping in the streets by the protesters for an extended time creates public health and safety problems besides disrupting the daily business of small shop owners who also belong to the 99%. This runs the risk of losing public support for the movement. Another issue is the flexibility of purpose and message as the movement proceeds. Do they really want to shut down Wall Street and paralyze the banks? If so, for how long? How can the occupation sustain itself if the purpose is to disrupt rather than reform or rebuild? These are the questions for the leaders and organizers to think about.

(February 2012)

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