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From civil rights to the occupy movement: talking across issues in independent media

Interest in the dynamics of collaboration, alliance-building, coordination, and networking point to intersectionalities in participants, issues, and tactics that movements have always faced. DemocracyNow! is a good example.

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lead lead Amy Goodman, award-winning journalist and host of Democracy Now! signs books at the 2010 Chicago Green Festival. Wikicommons/Chris Eaves. Some rights reserved.Social movements are sometimes thought of as discrete entities that focus on particular issues of importance to separate categories of people. If we are interested in organizing for improved wages, we might look to the labor movement, for instance. Often academic research on social movements reflects this interpretation, focusing on dynamics in relation to a particular issue movement like the women’s movement or the environmental movement.

It is increasingly difficult, however, to ignore the importance of cross-movement organizing in facilitating social change outcomes. Interest in the dynamics of collaboration, alliance-building, coordination, and networking point to intersectionalities in participants, issues, and tactics that movements have always faced.

Talking movements into being

One of the most obvious examples of why a single issue-movement model falls short, can be seen in cases where a movement label itself defies separation. The “pacifist catholic worker movement”, for example, asks us to imagine the integration of a pacifist (anti-war, peace, anti-nuclear), catholic (religious) and worker movement (unions, labor) into a single hybrid assemblage. We may think about such a label as a limiting strategy, offering greater focus (and a particular historical development narrative) than a ‘pacifist movement’ might offer alone, but the label also broadens its range by bringing whole fields of social life into the narrative – indeed new opportunities to see connections with ourselves and others.

This example highlights the semiotic character of how we label and value social movements. While movements certainly display physical characteristics (i.e., people marching in the streets), movements as entities are often hard to pin down or define since they may change character over time, or mean something different in distinct cultural contexts. This has vexed sociologists for years, leading to clear and definable boundaries around what we can understand empirically as a ‘movement.’

Seen instead as a cultural and semiotic resource, the movement label is a strategically ambiguous marker that can be used as a memetic package to convey culturally shared meanings about who participates, what they do, and what they accomplish together. It can be attached to marginalized uprisings to imbue them with grandeur, or as a shorthand for allies when positioning a movement within a socio-historical narrative about social change.  

Independent media as movement resources

In a highly commercialized media environment, movements have little editorial space as it is, so participants look to independent media and new media technologies as resources for learning about movement activity and sense making.

Information overload and source credibility ensure the ongoing importance of independent media organizations as editorial filters for making sense of the political terrain and how movements can engage with it.

This essay draws on transcript data from Democracy Now!, an independent daily news magazine program broadcast out of New York City. The program is targeted at a US listenership, is distributed online, and is currently carried on over 14,000 stations around the world – mostly community and public radio stations, and public television stations – describing themselves as “the largest public media collaboration in the country.” In this short essay I use the transcripted talk of program hosts, guests, and actualities/tape in programs aired between 2003 and 2013 to outline some of how participants used movement labels as strategic resources in cross-movement talk.

The cannon and the periphery

The selection of movement labels one has to choose from is both diverse and constrained. While one movement label might offer particularly attractive opportunities for connection to another, it may have little cultural relevance in the situation, or worse, present new liabilities that are deemed too costly to justify.

A combination of particularized concerns (things specific to a set of grievances, tactics, participants, etc.) and contextual sensitivities (things like socio-historically specific shared cultural knowledges) might be used to select secondary movements that one can use to make sense of a primary movement of concern. Participants navigate a field of cultural narratives, packaged neatly in an array of movement labels, selecting those valued by the target population and most easily analogized to their own. In a contemporary US context, for instance, the immigration reform movement, or the immigrant rights movement has been described as the “new civil rights movement,” attaching context-specific cultural meanings that aim to elevate legitimacy and perceived potential for success.

The result is a core/periphery structure where a core set of movement labels come to constitute a kind of movement cannon that includes the most culturally important social movements in that socio-historical context. We might read the cannon as frequency (used most often), or stability (used year after year), or a combination of both.

In the case of Democracy Now! between 2003 and 2013, the cannon included: the anti-corporate globalization movement; the antiwar and peace movements; the abolition, black and civil rights movements; the independence and pro-democracy movements; the women’s, feminist, and the suffrage movements; the international solidarity and Palestinian movements; the union and worker movements; the gay movement; the human rights movement; the progressive movement; the student movement; the environmental movement; and the indigenous movement.

The narrative field of what movement resources are most valued and most likely to be drawn upon is subject to changing dynamics in periods of active mobilization or relative dormancy. We might also expect a very different set of options and choices in two different cultural contexts, and we might expect that to change significantly over time as new movements emerge, and old movements change meaning.

Figure 1. Network of co-mentions of movements on Democracy Now! in 2009. Size = betweeness centrality.

One example was the shift in emphasis I found from the civil rights movement in 2009 to a narrative field dominated by the occupy movement in 2012 (see Figures 1 and 2). While both represented periods following significant movement activity (in 2009 around the presidential election of Barack Obama, and in 2012 around the occupy movement), and many issue neighborhoods remained recognizable in both periods, the sociocultural dynamics had shifted significantly, and with it the utility prominence of the civil rights movement label as compared to that of the occupy movement.

The abeyance utility of the civil rights movement as the dominant referent when seeking to understand movement dynamics gave way to the occupy movement as current cross-movement organizing space, and potential venue for future cross-movement collaboration.

Figure 2. Network of co-mentions of movements on Democracy Now! in 2012. Size = betweeness centrality.

Strategies for cross-movement talk

Looking at the field of options is one thing, but making use of movement labels as resources is another thing entirely. Making cognitive connections between movements through talk is an important skill if we are to convince others (whose concerns may not obviously overlap with our own) to join with us in common struggle in a mass action, campaign, or new hybrid movement. Approaching cross-talk strategically involves skilled use of several logic components together in a single argument. Figure 3 illustrates a process model for how participants might think about movement strategy in relation to taking strategic action. While we can use such a model for planning actual actions, we can also see how our semiotic choices present these factors while signalling the need for cross-movement collaboration through cross-talk.

Figure 3. A process model for strategy and action in movement organizing

First, highlighting the affordances that movements share can be used to justify cross-movement activity. One might use claims about shared external threats (like sharing police repression or infiltration dangers) or opportunities (like a sympathetic politician or elite), or one might signal affordances within the movements themselves (like a shared ideological framework, or shared goals). Such considerations follow a long tradition of work in the resource mobilization tradition that has pointed to external opportunities and threats (i.e., resources) as important predictors of mobilization success.

Focusing on identifying shared participants is another important logic component in cross-movement talk. One approach might involve generalizing participation categories (often by listing off individual or group identity categories), or one might particularize participant categories (by listing a single identity category or individual who has or is working across movements). Mische’s work on the Brazilian Youth movement also highlighted such practices as important linguistic resources for inclusion and exclusion in cross-movement coalition building.

Making claims about shared tactical considerations is a third logic component, and can either be approached descriptively (by describing how movements organize or claiming that other movement tactics can provide recipes for success), or prescriptively (by suggesting particular tactical choices or calling on listeners to work together across movements). Repertoires of contention and tactical diffusion research have underlined such considerations, and I would suggest that semiotic practices are an important factor in facilitating the perception of tactical similarity between movements through cross-talk.

While not exhaustive, these three components (affordances, participants, and tactics) are common elements in discussions about movement strategy for practitioners and academics alike, and paying attention to how one can skillfully weave them together into effective arguments may influence an organizer’s ability to build bridges outside their existing participation base.

Part of the skill in cross-movement language strategy comes in understanding changing social contexts, and how those contexts might prefer particular constellations of arguments and movement labels over others. For instance, cross-talk strategies varied in several ways when discussing the civil rights movement compared to discussions of the occupy movement. While some strategies (prescriptive and descriptive tactics, for instance) were common in both, statements about shared goals, shared opportunities, and how movements effect social change were positively correlated with mentions of the occupy movement but negatively correlated with mentions of the civil rights movement. On the other hand, statements that particularized participants (i.e., how specific people or identity categories participated in multiple movements) were positively correlated with the civil rights movement, but negatively correlated with mentions of the occupy movement.


When looking at how social movements make sense of the political terrain, and communicate about who they are and what they do, practitioners and academics can both benefit from a closer look at the relationship between movement labels and cross-movement talk.

While I have shown that there are often a wide range of movement labels to choose from when describing potential allies, analogies, or shared attributes, not all movements are equally relevant and appropriate for cross-movement mention.

Indeed, an elite subsection of movements often constitute a kind of cannon of prominent movement labels, signaling narrative memetic packages and serving as shorthand for sets of issues, tactics and political relationships. Further, attention to the changing socio-cultural narrative field can help to identify secondary movements with beneficial semantic properties that might be profitably attached to the primary movement in question. 

When looking at language strategies participants used to establish narrative relationships between movements, we might think about sets of logic components as aligned with other forms of movement strategy. As a combination of argumentation components, the social construction of cross-movement strategy can be thought of as comprised of three main areas of concern: the identification of affordances, the discussion of shared movement participants, and the presentation of shared tactical choices.

While rarely including elements in all three areas, strong arguments for cross-movement collaboration make strategic use of select components based on a careful read of the socio-cultural environment. Hopefully this analysis gets us just a little bit closer to making these strategic choices.  

How to cite:
Toft, A. (2017). From civil rights to the occupy movement: talking across issues in independent media, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 27 April.
About the author

Amoshaun Toft is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Social Change at the University of Washington Bothell, and the faculty advisor for UWave Radio.

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