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Between the lack of action around police brutality, the threats to Roe v. Wade, increasing mass shootings, and the ever looming threat of climate catastrophe, desperation and despair have become the emotions of the day. Polling shows most Americans still care about these issues, but they’ve long lost faith in mainstream institutions and their capacity for change.
It can be difficult to know how to respond in moments of crisis like these. Besides panicking, one traditional approach is what is called the “ladder of engagement,” which relies on a series of actions that increase in intensity over time to win over supporters and apply pressure to people in power. This usually begins with gathering petition signatures and holding educational events while gradually building the support and capacity to move towards rallies and eventually, though rarely, more confrontational protests like occupations.
In moments like the one we are experiencing, the typical ladder may not only be too slow to be effective, the less urgent feeling of low impact actions may validate the fears of the large numbers of people who distrust the system and feel like change is impossible.
Some organizers did initially engage in confrontational actions, like protesting at a Supreme Court Justice’s house and the protest that drew hundreds on short notice to the NRA’s recent national convention. Most campaigns, however, have fallen back to tactics on the first rung of the ladder like petition gathering.