Frank James Matthews III clearly remembers the invention of the robo-call. For a revolutionary like himself, the newfangled technology was a revelation.
Matthews got his start protesting gang violence in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1989. At the time, much of his organizing took place at churches and on street corners across town. “I organized pastors, told them we’re going to march on a Saturday into public housing,” Matthews says.
Then the robo-call came along. The legwork became automated. “I could collect numbers and put them all in there and tell them to meet at this time and place,” he says. On a good week, depending on how many churches got on board, Matthews estimates he could get about 100 people to march alongside him.
That all seems positively quaint compared to the throngs of protesters who descended almost instantly upon the nation’s airports this weekend in response to news that customs officials were detaining refugees and other immigrants. In Birmingham alone, some 1,000 people RSVPed on Facebook to attend the Birmingham Rally for Refugees and Immigrants after getting just a few hours notice. The same phenomenon played out in cities and small towns across the country.
“I call them pop-up protests,” Matthews says.
The Arab Spring six years ago first demonstrated social media’s ability to power political dissent. Now it’s reaching a new point of maturation. Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and Bernie Sanders all found ways to use social platforms to organize. In the course of those efforts and others, protesters have built a kind of plug-and-play network that makes it easy to generate widespread civil action with a click or tap. With this infrastructure in place, street protests could become as much a fixture of the new administration as President Trump’s tweets.
“Like almost all things computer based, it speeds up the process,” says Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, a political scientist at UCLA who studies mass protests and authoritarian regimes. “It makes them more likely to happen, because more people will hear about it, and know that other people have heard about it as well.”
The People You (Don’t) Know
Carlos Chaverst, who considers Matthews his mentor, organized the Birmingham protest this weekend in just a few hours. In July 2016, he had led a Black Lives Matter march through the city and collected about 600 email addresses. This weekend, after setting up a Facebook event page for the refugee march and inviting two friends to share it with their networks, he sent out an email blast to his list.
“It begins to spread through your contacts, the people you know, and the people they know,” he says.
In some cases, it reaches perfect strangers. Donna Maier was shellshocked by the news of President Trump’s refugee ban. On Sunday morning, she dashed off a quick tweet wondering if anything was happening in her hometown of Boise, Idaho.
— Idaho Donna (@PassengerDonna) January 29, 2017
Before long, people she’d never met were inviting her to meet them–and hundreds of others–at Boise Airport. “I am old enough to remember the anti-war protests in San Francisco in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” Maier, who is 66, says. “This had such a similar energy.”
Except that it took just a fraction of the time to organize–and it was in Boise, hardly a hotbed for human rights activism. But that’s just the point. Activists have rarely been hard-pressed to find a few hundred radicals to take over lower Manhattan or march through the Castro. But in this new era, it’s possible to find like-minded bleeding hearts wherever they may be.
“I like that these protests can be organized by anyone,” Maier says. “It puts it in the hands of the people.”
But if it’s that easy to join an activist movement, does it become just as easy for the powers that be to ignore it? In an age of perpetual pop-up protests, do activists run the risk of outrage fatigue?
Steinert-Threlkeld doubts it. Yes, he says, protests around individual issues will come and go. But over the last few weeks people have organized marches around women’s issues, native people, and refugees. (Scientists are next.) That variety could keep the movement fresh, he says.
“This is a pretty new phenomenon,” he says of this multi-pronged approach to protest. “If anti-Trump protests are driven by sub-issues, then that has the potential to last much longer.”
Little more than a week into the Trump presidency, organizers can’t yet point to any obvious victories where protests have yielded real policy changes. But they are laying out goals. After the Women’s March, the leadership team laid out a set of ten actions people could take to keep the momentum going–goals that have spread via social media, of course.
Chaverst, for his part, plans to lead a group of 300 people to the local Birmingham City Council meeting this week to demand a vote on becoming a sanctuary city. In August, he hopes to rally this same community to turn out to the polls for the city’s municipal election. “If we as people understood how much power we had in our hands, we could do anything we wanted to do,” he said. “It’s in our hands.” Especially if those hands are holding smartphones.