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Can Tragic Events Give Birth to Effective Movements?

January 30, 2015

By Mark Pertschuk

One of the questions I get most often about grassroots movements is: “How do events (usually tragedies) transform into effective movements for change?”

I wish the answer were simple, but like so many aspects of building successful social change movements, the solutions are not always straightforward or easy to implement.

But I can draw some lessons for current movements from two experiences of my own over the past 25 years. These examples represent two extremes. In one case, the tobacco industry made a major blunder in hindsight, and an already thriving health movement used their blunder to expand and grow.

In the second case, a terrible and preventable mass shooting grabbed the world’s attention for months. Politicians including the US president and others demanded action and jumped on the bandwagon. Advocates declared the birth of a powerful “grassroots movement,” and organized events that continued to transfix the media and public. But ultimately, nothing changed.

In the first case, the nonsmokers’ rights movement was in full swing in 1989. Hundreds of cities and counties already adopted ordinances banning smoking, and President Reagan had recently signed the Airline Smoking Ban, a grassroots campaign documented by Grassroots Change.

In that same year, Philip Morris (now Altria) launched an ambitious media event: a national tour featuring an original copy of the Bill of Rights. The company rented the copy from the National Archive for a “donation” of $600,000, and toured the US to parade the Bill of Rights in a caravan of buses accompanied by an educational exhibit extoling the virtues of freedom (presumably, this included the right to market cigarettes).

What actually happened was the opposite of what the tobacco industry expected. The already powerful grassroots anti-tobacco movement obtained a copy of Philip Morris’ tour schedule. At each stop, from Boston to Oakland, California, a small but passionate group of protesters drew attention to the hypocrisy and corruption inherent in allowing an industry that kills millions of its best customers to purchase an association with one of the most important documents in the history of American democracy.

Instead of the planned positive news stories, every story focused on the passion of the public health advocates and Philip Morris’ exploitation of the Bill of Rights. Typical of the extensive negative publicity was an editorial in the New York Times headlined: “The Bill of Rights, for Rent.” In the words of the Times: “The United States has allowed itself to get taken by the producers of Marlboro cigarettes, Kool-Aid, Miller Beer and Jell-O. Philip Morris is spending $60 million for a two-year image-lifting campaign. For a mere 1 percent of that, it was able to rent the Bill of Rights. It’s a shabby transaction at any price.”

Students and community members at memorial for victims of Virginia Tech shooting. Flickr: Jenn Sterling
A memorial for victims of the Virginia Tech shooting.
Flickr: Jenn Sterling

Within a few months, Phillip Morris simply gave up. It canceled the tour and returned the Bill of Rights to the American people. And the tobacco control movement came out stronger than ever.

Unfortunately, my next experience had the opposite outcome. By 1999, I was working as a gun control advocate, first as the director of Californians for Responsible Gun Laws, then as legislative director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a national group.

Soon after beginning my work in DC, reports began to arrive of a shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. When the details became clear, I shared the widely held belief that this tragedy was a “game changer” for gun control advocates.

But like most of my colleagues, I was wrong. It is true that the Million Mom March, a call to action one year after Columbine, was a tremendous success. National leaders, from Hillary Clinton to numerous members of the US Senate and House, asked to speak at the event in support of gun control. But after the march, the “movement” ultimately failed to deliver on its promise.

So why wasn’t it possible to transform the tragedies of Columbine into a powerful movement for change? What was the difference between Philip Morris’ appropriation of the US Bill of Rights and the preventable death of 13 (mostly young) people?

The difference, in hindsight, was two-fold. First, the gun control movement lacked an existing grassroots infrastructure. In contrast, by 1989, the grassroots tobacco control movement was firmly established, successful, well managed, and national in scope.

Second, the gun control field in 1999 was primarily top-down, not bottom up. Almost all strategic decisions were made in Washington and handed down to advocates across the country. In contrast, the leadership of the nonsmokers’ rights movement was diverse and primarily outside the Beltway. So grassroots leaders and activists weren’t just following orders from Washington – they were giving orders, too.

So what can violence prevention advocates, and other grassroots leaders, learn from the past to build effective movements today?

First and foremost, it’s essential to build a grassroots infrastructure that is already prepared to respond to world events before they occur. As we’ve illustrated in this diagram, that includes:

  • Grassroots passion and engagement in decision-making.
  • Trusted leaders with grassroots experience.
  • Resources and expertise to support and manage a grassroots network.
  • The capacity to quickly and effectively communicate with grassroots advocates, the media, and the public.
  • Smart grassroots strategies, including goals that energize individual activists.
  • The expertise to advocate for policy change.

For more information see Grassroots Change’s case studies and movement-building tools.