There are times in history when sudden events — natural disasters, economic collapses, pandemics, wars, famines — change everything. They change politics, they change economics and they change public opinion in drastic ways. Many social movement analysts call these “trigger events.” During a trigger event, things that were previously unimaginable quickly become reality, as the social and political map is remade. On the one hand, major triggers are rare; but on the other, we have seen them regularly in recent decades. Events such as 9/11, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crash of 2008 have all had major repercussions on national life, leading to political changes that would have been difficult to predict beforehand.
COVID-19, the coronavirus pandemic, is by far the biggest trigger event of our generation. It is a combination of natural disaster and economic collapse happening at the same time. Topping it off, this public health crisis is coming right in the middle of one of the most consequential political seasons of our lifetime.
Trigger events can create confusion and unease. But they also present tremendous opportunities for people who have a plan and know how to use the moment to push forward their agendas. These agendas can be reactionary, as when conservatives and fascists pass harsh austerity measures and spread xenophobia — the type of activity documented in Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine.” Yet, this type of response need not prevail. With a counter-agenda rooted in a commitment to democracy and a deep sense of collective empathy, communities can flourish, even amid a crisis.
In fact, we can find many examples in history of how progressive and solidaristic impulses have come to the fore in response to trigger events. The New Deal’s emergence as a response to the Great Depression of the 1930s is one example, as is the more recent Occupy Sandy’s mobilization in New York City to support hurricane-ravaged communities in 2012. Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 book “A Paradise Built in Hell” contains myriad more examples of humane, collective efforts that responded to disaster.
Today, as we face the prospect that hundreds of thousands of people in the United States — and millions around the world — may die, the only way we can prevent some of the worst tragedy and destruction is with such a response.
In my writing on social movements, I have argued that triggers create liminal spaces that mass protest movements can use to mobilize the forces of grassroots democracy. In the wake of such an event, organizers often find themselves in a “moment of the whirlwind,” in which the standard rules of how politics works are turned on their head. Many of the great social movements of the past have been born out of these moments. But these moments require skillful navigation, the ability to use “prophetic promotion” to spread a humane vision, and the faith that mass mobilization can open new avenues to change that, at the outset, seem distant and improbable.
In order to craft a people’s response to the pandemic, we should draw both on the possibilities of new technology that allow for decentralized action and some time-honored lessons from past social movements.
Social movements are the vehicle for mass participation
Right now, lots of people are formulating action plans and policy demands, focusing on how the government should respond or measures that elected officials might pass by way of emergency response. These include plans by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s call for an emergency universal basic income, and proposals by groups like the Working Families Party, National Nurses United and collections of grassroots organizers.
What’s missing is a platform and vision for mass participation — a means through which people can join in and collectively take part in a movement to create the type of just response our society needs. A movement can support, amplify, and fill in the gaps left by government and the health care infrastructure.
The good news is that there are clear historical examples in which social movements have been able to step into the vacuum of a crisis.
Obviously, social distancing and the isolation required to slow the spread of the pandemic presents unique challenges. For one thing, people are limited in their ability to physically come together and congregate. Meanwhile, many of the traditional tools and tactics of social movements cannot be deployed under current circumstances. This should not, however, blind us to the things that can be done. From mutual support in local areas to collective responses of protest from home, we can build a powerful people’s response that brings us together and uses our combined effort to provide care in our communities and reshape the limits of what is politically possible.
A social movement response to major trigger events often emerges from unexpected places. Major structure-based organizations have infrastructure and resources that seem like they would make them natural candidates for rallying the wider public into a response. However, they also face institutional limitations that prevent them from scaling their efforts to meet the enormity of the challenge. Groups like labor unions are commonly preoccupied with responding to how the crisis is affecting their own membership, making them essential hubs of action for people within their structures but leaving them with little capacity to engage people outside of their ranks or to absorb the energy of others who might want to get involved.
Meanwhile, politicians and leading advocacy organizations are often focused on the details of the inside game — carefully monitoring and attempting to use insider leverage to influence the policies that are being debated at the local, state and federal levels. This is an important role, but it does not address the vacuum that exists in terms of mobilizing large numbers of people to change what are perceived as needed and possible solutions to the crisis. Therefore, it is often scrappy, decentralized and sometimes ad hoc groups that play vital roles in shaping a social movement response — which more institutionalized organizations can get behind once underway.
The people have responded before
The good news is that there are clear historical examples in which social movements have been able to step into the vacuum of a crisis, and we have seen several of these in the past decade and a half. After Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012, the mutual support operation Occupy Sandy — which drew on networks and infrastructure built during Occupy Wall Street — coordinated thousands of people into a fast and efficient response, providing food and medical attention to those in need. It also opened a collection and distribution center for needed supplies, kept track of individuals who might otherwise have been isolated and abandoned, and moved debris from homes and streets. Likewise, Common Ground — one of the most significant relief organizations to quickly form and respond in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans — served some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, set up temporary medical clinics and repaired damaged homes. Meanwhile, in recent years, the DREAM movement, which works in communities of undocumented immigrants, has provided services such as scholarships, job opportunities and legal support for immigrants denied services from state and federal governments.
Millions of people stuck in their homes can still pursue action on two tracks: one focused on mutual aid and the other building political pressure around a platform of people’s demands.
Looking back at another public health emergency, we can remember that, during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the LGBTQ community came together to respond to the sickness and death of thousands of individuals — even as society ostracized people who were HIV-positive, and the medical establishment often turned a blind eye to their suffering. Groups like Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York City organized the community to raise money for research, distribute information about prevention and care, and provide counseling and social workers for thousands who needed it. At a time when the doctors and hospitals were either overwhelmed, indifferent, or antagonistic, they stepped up to fill the gap and meet basic human needs.
Meanwhile, the decentralized affinity groups of the more militant ACT UP worked tirelessly to raise public awareness about the crisis, rallying under the motto “Silence Equals Death.” They quickly became on-the-ground experts in the community impact of the disease — publicly confronting leaders who spread misinformation or were hesitant to adequately fund public health efforts, calling out drug companies more fixated on profits than humane treatment and brashly insisting that health professionals be in dialogue with patients themselves. Ultimately, ACT UP fundamentally changed the country’s response to AIDS.
“They helped revolutionize the American practice of medicine,” The New Yorker’s Michael Specter wrote in 2002. “The average approval time for some critical drugs fell from a decade to a year, and the character of placebo-controlled trials was altered for good … Soon changes in the way AIDS drugs were approved were adopted for other diseases, ranging from breast cancer to Alzheimer’s.” In 1990, the New York Times paid reluctant tribute to the group with a headline reading, “Rude, Rash, Effective, Act Up Shifts AIDS Policy.”
In response to the current coronavirus epidemic, the only thing that most people have been given to do is to participate in social distancing and join preemptive measures to slow the spread of disease. But if people really believed they could participate meaningfully in a mass campaign to care for others and pressure public officials to adopt humane emergency policies, we can be confident that hundreds of thousands would quickly join in.
How to make it happen
If we know that we need a mass social movement response, how do we make it happen — especially in times of social distancing?
Millions of people are stuck in their homes, unable to go to work. But they can still pursue action on two tracks: one focused on mutual aid and the other building political pressure around a platform of people’s demands.