Two of the most important recent developments in US politics have come from social movements involving schools. Each has a different look and generational profile, but they are united in a common tactic: the use of disruptive power.
The first movement rose after a horrific mass shooting: on 14 February a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida opened fire on students, staff and teachers, killing 17 people.
Given America’s toxic gun culture, such incidents happen so frequently that there is a well-established pattern of response: the public expresses horror, politicians extend thoughts and prayers to victims, and then the National Rifle Association’s ruthlessly effective lobby squelches any real action as soon as headlines die down.
This particular case has unfolded differently for two reasons. First, students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas forcefully asserted that they would not tolerate stonewalling or empty pledges. Second, they showed themselves to be brilliant organizers. Students descended upon legislators, spoke on every major morning talk show and started planning school walkouts. On 14 March, students from across the US walked out of their classrooms to protest inaction on gun control.
Student organizer Emma Gonzalez: ‘We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks; not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America but because… we are going to be the last mass shooting.’
At one rally, student organizer Emma Gonzalez expressed the movement’s determination: ‘We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks; not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America but because… we are going to be the last mass shooting.’
Ten days later students led a huge nationwide ‘March for Our Lives’, with more walkouts planned for coming months.
The second major mobilization was led not by students, but by teachers. On 22 February, union educators in West Virginia went on strike, denouncing skyrocketing healthcare costs and the persistent underfunding of public schools. In a place where generations of coalminers had battled against state troopers and company thugs, the teachers galvanized widespread public support for their massive, statewide disruption. Some wore red shirts and bandanas to recall the famous ‘Battle of Blair Mountain’, one of the most storied strikes in US history.
After spending nearly two weeks on the picket line, and after courageously turning down an inadequate settlement offer, the teachers won. They defeated right-wing measures to eliminate union protections and won substantial raises not only for themselves, but for all state employees. The upheaval provided a major surge for the beleaguered US labour movement. Inspired, educators in Oklahoma, where teachers have not received a raise in a decade, have vowed to strike this spring if the legislature does not increase education budgets.
Students organizing around gun control have also made an impact. In Florida – a place sometimes known as the ‘Gunshine State’ – the conservative state legislature passed initial restrictions on firearms, although the students are pushing for far more.
Frances Fox Piven, the great theorist of disruptive power, argues that the major moments of democratic reform in our society occur when ‘people cease to conform to accustomed institutional roles’. This happens when workers withhold their work, when tenants refuse to pay rent and when passive pensioners form crowds that flood state offices demanding relief.
Berkeley Free Speech activist Mario Savio poetically explained the idea in 1964: ‘There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious… [that] you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.’
Sadly, such action is too rarely deployed. The number of strikes, for one, is at a historic low. Between 1950 and 1975 there were an average of 281 work stoppages each year in the US involving more than a thousand people. Last year there were seven.
Disruption is power. We need to use it.