Activism in Hard Times

April 14, 2020 | 10:00 am
Omari Spears/UCS
Fernando Tormos-Aponte
Former Contributor

Millions of us marched in the streets. We called on elected leaders to act on climate, healthcare, racism, and inequality. The election season was in full swing. We wondered if our dreams would fit in a ballot box. As we prepared to cast our votes, the Coronavirus pandemic changed everything.

We are now coming to terms with the fact that nothing about our politics and public policies can be taken for granted. Yet, for many, politics have never offered any guarantees.

Building and sustaining democratic institutions will require collaborations across various social and political differences. As we work to demand evidence-based policies and transition our organizing efforts online, we must build on what we know about strengthening advocacy and mobilizing across differences.

I am a social scientist who studies social movements and a new Kendall Fellow with UCS’ Center for Science and Democracy. Together, we are working to support and diversify science advocacy by sharing insights from social science on how social movements come together, how they cope with the challenges of diversifying, and why movements matter.

This is the first of a series of blog entries on this topic. This series will feature fellow members of the UCS working group on strengthening science advocacy. Our blogs will use a social science lens to spotlight important organizing work being done, discuss equity questions, and share information on existing resources that organizers can use in their work. We are working to move more of our colleagues into engaging in the political process.

Here I share a few ways for people to get involved during times of crisis, and why these forms of engagement matter.

Movements matter

I’ll start by saying that social movements matter. Movements are not only drivers of social change, they also act as representatives of the people they mobilize.

Movements can even act as representatives of marginalized groups. When they do, governments are more responsive to the issues of disadvantaged people.

The ongoing pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge for our public and institutional health. Uncertainty rules. For many, voting was already very difficult, if not impossible, and we have yet to adopt the measures needed to celebrate free and fair elections during this pandemic. This is not good for any country that claims to be a democracy.

For these reasons, we should be mindful of the many ways in which we can become engaged and contribute to enhancing democracy during this time. The continuity of our democracy is at stake.

So, how can you help?

Organizations are important drivers of engagement. They help build connections between people, coordinate advocacy efforts, and build collective power. Most mobilization occurs under the auspices of movement organizations. Organizations can also make activism more durable and powerful.

During this time of crisis and physical distancing, some organizations will be able to draw support from the relationships they built offline prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Others, however, will have less resources to draw from and must find ways to recruit and mobilize through digital means.

If you are already involved in an organization or network, this is a good time to get a sense of how the organization is transitioning its work to a digital format. Many have issued demands around the COVID-19 crisis and are calling on members to use social media to amplify these demands.

Turning outrage into action

The COVID-19 pandemic is, in many ways, paralyzing. Many of us will mourn the loss of someone we know, including friends and loved ones. The stress and grief that this moment induces affects our abilities to do what we would like to do.

While some may prefer that social movements avoid calling on people to mobilize during these hard times, we must remember that our actions are a matter of life and death. Our efforts to move governments and corporations to act can save lives.

When Puerto Ricans learned about the death toll after hurricane María, many gathered to grieve collectively, but they also demonstrated their outrage over government negligence. This outrage spilled over into the massive demonstrations in Puerto Rico last summer. During these times, we can channel our outrage in ways that push our governments to act in ways that save lives and improve our livelihoods.

Opportunities for change

These are particularly important times for us to get engaged. While crises open opportunities for us to make strides on some of our demands, we will also have to defend our longstanding victories. This is why, in the words of Stuart Hall, politics offer no guarantees.

One of the major opportunities for government action is in the area of mass incarceration. Criminal justice reform activists and prison abolitionists have been calling on governments to reduce prison populations. The diligent work of activists and scholars who raised concerns over the high risk of transmission within correctional facilities prompted one of the largest pushes to decarcerate in our times.

These government actions are certainly promising, but we must continue to push governments to enact legislation to make sure that they do not continue to incarcerate people who should have never been incarcerated in the first place. We need to fight for the permanence of these victories.

Defending our democracy

As the crisis opens up opportunities for movement victories, it also gives those who stand to win from voter suppression a chance to continue eroding our democracy. A particularly important issue to get involved in is voting rights.

The fight for voting rights is still ongoing in many fronts. Scientists can play an important role in campaigns aiming to restore voting rights and eliminate barriers to voting. For instance, UCS is calling on the scientific community to tell Congress to safeguard our elections.

The pandemic presents unprecedented challenges for the electoral system. The federal government has only apportioned $400 million out of the $2 billion needed to finance the measures needed to Corona-proof our elections.

The next few weeks and months will test our spirits and our democracy. We must find ways to ensure our physical, mental, and institutional health. Governments and corporations will not concede without demand, and this is why we must resort to collective action.