Frances Fox Piven on Why Protesters Must “Defend Their Ability to Exercise Disruptive Power”

Frances Fox Piven

Just last month, social movement scholar Frances Fox Piven predicted “waves of mass protest” in the US. She was right. In an interview with Jacobin, Piven discusses why disruption must be central to protests, the thorny questions of violence and property destruction, and how organizers should and should not see their role in the streets.

Protesters block traffic on Interstate 395 as they march from Lafayette Park on June 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer / Getty

Interview by
Mie Inouye

In a mid-May interview, Frances Fox Piven predicted “waves of mass protest” in the United States’ near future. Since then, the country has erupted into an unprecedented multiracial mass movement against police brutality.

It’s no surprise that Piven predicted this uprising, given that she has spent the last fifty years studying the background conditions that enable mass protest to emerge. Piven’s attention to the dynamics of protest, her study of race and class in US social movements, and her experience as a welfare rights and electoral organizer give her an essential perspective on this moment.

Mie Inouye spoke with Piven about the conditions that contributed to the current uprising, the reasons for its multiracial character, the role of organizers in a movement moment, property destruction as a tactic, the movement’s electoral implications, and the possibility of a revolution in the United States. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


MI

Just a month ago, you predicted “waves of mass protest” coming off of the pandemic and its gross mishandling by the Trump administration. Since then, we have seen protests in every US state and territory, many with record-breaking turnout. In your view, what political and economic factors contributed to this uprising?

FFP

Donald Trump had a lot to do with it. Trump has been virtually working to create a kind of legitimation crisis in the United States. Of course, he comes in the wake of a series of campaigns to strip away New Deal concessions to working people in the United States that left the system bare, exposed, without the softening and the protections that unions gave people and that the Democratic Party once gave people before it became a Wall Street party. So, in the wake of an aggressive neoliberal assault on working people, we got a leader who was, in a way, a reflection of delegitimation because he was so crude and so vulgar and so aggressive in attacking black people and immigrants. But in the end, he also attacked white working people by ridiculing and dismissing the programs that they depended on.

So what we’ve had is not only waves of protest, as I said to Marc Kagan a month ago, but more extensive waves than I think we’ve ever seen.

I remember in 1968 reading a newspaper headline that said, “Eight Cities Burning.” It wasn’t just eight cities this time. It was hundreds of cities. There was even a protest in the little town next to me here, which has only about 2,500 people, and this is Trump territory.

Not only is it huge, but it is also the only deeply interracial protest I can recall having ever occurred in the United States. That is so important, because racism has been a kind of prop of holding the white working class in the system no matter how they themselves fare as a result of being in the system.

So on these two grounds alone, this wave of protest is remarkable, and such a relief, to tell you the truth, because it really did look as though we were marching down the road to fascism.

MI

In Poor People’s Movements, you and Richard Cloward argued that people needed to gain two beliefs in order for a social movement to emerge. First, they needed the belief that the system was unjust. But then they also needed to believe that they could do something about it.

It seems like what you’ve just said about the delegitimation of the state, combined with the massive unemployment numbers we were seeing last month, provided the basis for these beliefs. Were you surprised, though, that it was the murder of George Floyd by police officers that sparked the movement?

FFP

It was hard not to be puzzled, if not surprised, because there had been so many murders before Floyd. But the triggers or sparks that light up a protest movement are numerous. They’re all over the place, if the underlying conditions are right. There was nothing new about this grotesque murder in particular, except that it was filmed. But that seems to me not enough to make it so distinctive.

It was the coming together of this kind of inciting, outrageous act with the underlying conditions — and underlying conditions not only of hardship but also of gross incompetence on the part of the government in charge — which contributed to the sense that people could win something, that they could make an impact on their society.

MI

What about the conjunction of what we tend to understand as a particular form of racial oppression, police brutality, with the underlying economic and political conditions that accompanied the pandemic? Was that surprising to you? How do you think about the relationship between racism and economic exploitation?

FFP

I think that people experience them as very similar. The poverty of blacks is a reflection of racism, isn’t it? The fact that black home ownership is so much less widespread than white home ownership, and that when blacks do own homes, they’re more likely to be foreclosed on and to lose their homes — that’s a form of racism. I think we experience racism, or other kinds of nationalism, economically as well as in the attitudes or slogans or songs or advertisements of the dominant media.

MI

In your past work, you’ve written about racism as the basis of mass movements in the United States. For example, the civil rights movement was one of the four cases you studied in Poor People’s Movements. But as you’ve said, this was not a deeply multiracial movement.

Why do you think that so many white people are making abolitionist demands in the streets right now? Do you think that they are protesting because they understand policing to be an issue that affects their own interests? Or do you think that they’re protesting out of moral outrage on behalf of black Americans?

FFP

It’s a combination of moral outrage on behalf of black and brown Americans with the shock of a leadership that defies all of the softening norms of American political culture. Norms that say, “we are all one people,” “we care about one another,” “we would not cut old people off of Social Security.” But we would! That’s what they’re busy trying to do right now!

It would have softened the police transgressions if the president of the United States, whoever he happened to be, had come out and spoken to his people about how awful this was and how we have to all pray to God that this never happens again, and how we’re going to have a commission so that it never happens again, not in our fine country. None of that happened.

What happened instead is we had a set of leaders, but especially the president of the United States, defending the police and ignoring the appalling brutality of what they had done and had been doing.

MI

Throughout your career, you’ve argued that poor people’s power lies in their capacity for disruption, rather than their ability to work within “the system.” And this uprising has been breathtakingly disruptive. We’ve seen a police precinct and countless cop cars destroyed, statues defaced and toppled, and businesses looted.

I’ve heard some people who support the protests suggest that these acts of property destruction are understandable reactions to police brutality, but not smart political tactics. What would you say to those skeptics?

FFP

For a very long time now, people who are sympathetic with movements from below and who study movements from below have drawn the line at violence. There’s been a kind of fetish, almost a sort of religion of nonviolence in movement studies.

There’s a reason for this. Movements are playing to a public, because they interact with electoral politics, which depend on the behavior of mass publics in the voting booth. The public shrinks from violence, especially violence from below.

On top of that, we have these grand movements, like the civil rights movement, that came to be understood and celebrated for their nonviolence, even though that’s not a good analysis of the civil rights movement. There was violence both within the movement and allied with it. The Deacons for Defense, for example, were very important in protecting civil rights protestors. But we choose to forget about that and just like the people who turned the other cheek and spoke Christian sayings in responding to white racism in the South.

That has crippled our analysis, because there’s always been violence associated with mass movements. And there are two important things to be said about that. One is that a lot of the sort of quasi-religious regrets about violence ignore the fact that most of what people decry as violence is property destruction, not violence against persons. That distinction has to be made.

And the other part of what we ignore in the study of movements is that people often have to threaten or exercise violence in order to defend their ability to disrupt social and economic relations by refusing to do what they’re supposed to do.

Look at the history of strikes. There would not have been any strikes without the threat of collective violence by workers who were trying to defend their ability to withdraw their labor by preventing scabs from replacing them. That’s why every mass strike in American history involved physical confrontation at the plant gates, as workers tried to protect their property right in the job from these transgressors who were going to replace them.

We go so far to ignore that. Today, we treat the picket line as a little dance that striking workers do outside their place of employment. They have to keep moving, and they have to be a certain number of inches apart from one another, and it’s all regulated by the dance instructor that is the courts. But the picket line originates as a show of brute force by the workers whose jobs are at stake against the henchmen and other workers who are trying to replace them.

MI

How does that way of narrating historical movements frame our vision of contemporary movements, like the one we’re in now?

FFP

Everybody seems to agree that we have to be nonviolent. I think that’s a judgment that has to be made for each movement action. I do agree that the public that we play to doesn’t like violence. But at the same time, the violent capacity of the crowd is an important way of defending its ability to exercise disruptive power.

This movement has been very disruptive. Well, its disruption hasn’t been that of the classical strike. These are crowd disruptions. These are disruptions of our streets and our cities, disruptions of traffic patterns, disruptions of commerce. These are important forms of disruption. We’ve seen that throughout the Global South and especially in Latin America. You have to defend your ability to do that kind of action, and the defense is knitted very closely to the action itself. It’s the crowd’s capacity for violence that is the defense of its ability to shut the city down.

MI

That brings me to my next question. I recently attended an online panel organized by the George Wiley Center at which you spoke. In response to a question about property destruction as a tactic, I think I heard you say something like, “The left needs more tough guys.” Can you explain what you meant by that?

FFP

Instead of shrinking from either acknowledging or experimenting with the role of violence in movements, we have to be tougher and look at what actually has happened in historical movements.

Look at the difference, for example, between strikes that walk out and strikes that occupy factories. Strikes that occupy factories have much more leverage than walkout strikes, all other things being equal. (Of course, all other things are never equal.) But the success of the sit-down strikes in the 1930s, and the reason for their success, is not quite appreciated.

Those workers had control of the plant! Of the equipment! Of the factory! Now workers never control the plant, the equipment, and the factory, and as a result, they are massively replaced when they walk out. And if they can be replaced, their strike capacity is greatly weakened.

MI

Is part of what you’re saying that we need not only to be honest about the facts of history, but also to train to do forms of disruptive direct action that might not be part of our current repertoire?

FFP

That’s right. And we have to figure that out. We have to do it with caution. We have to worry about repression. We have to worry about the cops beating our heads in. All that is true. We have to be careful. We have to be informed. We have to protect ourselves with bail money and lawyers. But we should not fall on this very narrow path of nonviolence.

MI

One reason that this moment is so incredible is that so many people are becoming newly politically active. I’ve heard many organizers, myself included, look at these crowds and say things like, “If only all these people belonged to a leftist organization, we could win socialism.” And then I’ve recalled the line in the first chapter of Poor People’s Movements, where you describe the organizer’s misguided impulse to start collecting membership cards on the crest of an uprising. Do you think that that instinctive response misunderstands something about the dynamics of protest?

FFP

Absolutely. And you’ve said it pretty well. I want to point to two episodes in the very recent past. One is the wave of teachers’ strikes that spread from West Virginia throughout very conservative parts of the country. Teachers went on strike with a lot of support from their communities and from the parents of the children they taught. They were strategic. They worried whether the children would get lunch if they were on strike. There was a great deal of self-consciousness in this mass action.

But what there was not was a lot of union organization. There were unions there, but they were very frail. They did not include many teachers and they did not call the strikes. But those teachers won! And what happened afterward? The unions that existed took credit for the strikes and claimed them as a great union victory.

I am very sympathetic to those teachers’ unions. But I think we have to be a little bit more hardheaded about what actually happened. What happened was that there was an uprising that was smart. Collective action can be smart even without a union sometimes, especially if there are predecessors like the Chicago Teachers Union, which has been a very strategic and very intelligent union organizer of action.

Or the movement that we’re in right now — who organized it? Well, there were a lot of organizations in the Black Lives Matter movement, and many others. But you could not say that an organization created the movement or should inherit the movement.

We have to be very careful, very cautious. We need more analysis. I don’t usually say, “We need more analysis.” I usually say, “We need more people in the street.” But we need to be more careful about what to do now, because if what we say we should do now is collect those dues cards, we may be forfeiting the power that we gain through collective action that is more loosely organized. It’s for that reason that the return of popular protest after Seattle, after the Zapatistas, the turn away from conventional forms of organization, was a good thing, actually. It loosened us up. We have to take advantage of that.

MI

But do you see any role for organizers and organization during this uprising? For example, I’m thinking of a protest I attended in Rhode Island that had record-breaking turnout and lots of energy in the crowd, but was semi-spontaneous and not very organized. One of the consequences was that it was pretty easily controlled by the cops. At one point, they recruited a protestor to tell the crowd to disperse before curfew, and a lot of people went home. It could have been much more disruptive than it was if someone had stepped up in a leadership role in that moment to encourage disruption rather than acquiescence to the police.

Is there a role for organizers and organizations to teach people how to resist that kind of police control?

FFP

Maybe. We haven’t developed that role very well, but maybe we should. Maybe that could be done. I think there is a role for organizers. I know quite a few people who are good organizers. They know how to talk to people, they know how to talk to a crowd, they know how to keep up the momentum of a protest.

But what they’re wrong about is the overall role that they play. They are not the architects of action. They move in a kind of dynamic tension with the action that is unfolding. They don’t build it. We have organizers who think that you can talk yourself into a movement one by one with each participant. All you have to do is talk to enough people for long enough and you’ll get a movement. That’s not true.

MI

In your study of the unemployed workers’ movement during the Depression you talk about the role Communists played in agitating the masses. You suggest that, when the Communists were operating as a cadre organization, they were effective at amplifying burgeoning unrest by providing slogans and opportunities for direct action. But then, as they shifted toward mass organization, you suggest that they became less effective. Do you think this points to strategic distinctions between agitation and organizing and between cadre formations and mass organizations?

FFP

Maybe. But I think there’s something else the Communists did in the 1930s. They created exemplary actions and they put themselves on the outside perimeter of the action, where they were more likely to receive the blows of the cops. That was a very important part of the teachings of the Communist Party USA at the time. There was a little journal called the Communist that had articles in which they told the comrades that they should always be on the outside to be the first to receive the blows. I can’t imagine an organizer saying that today!

MI

People might not know that you have consistently recognized the importance of both movement and electoral politics, and that you’ve done a lot of electoral organizing yourself. In the early 1980s, you and Richard Cloward organized an electoral reform project to expand access to voter registration. Your efforts resulted in the passage of the “motor voter” act in 1993. What are your thoughts about the consequences of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the current uprising for the November election? Do you see an opening for a realignment on the horizon? Do you think that protestors should be thinking toward November?

FFP

Yes, of course. And the protesters have been thinking toward November already. The protests have sparked electoral activity. I don’t think you would get people risking COVID-19 by standing in line to wait to vote in the face of the voter suppression that has become the Republican tool of choice except for the movement. The standing in line is now a movement action. That’s horrible, in a way, but it’s also politically good.

This movement, Black Lives Matter, in particular, is very open to electoral activism. After the 1960s, activists drew a sharp line between protest activity and electoral activity, as if doing one meant you couldn’t do the other. What they did not keep in full view was the way in which protest activism affected electoral activism and the way in which electoral victories encouraged protest. We can see that pretty clearly now. I don’t think we’ll get a classical realignment, but I think we have to look forward to the destruction of the Republican Party, which has become pretty much a fascist party under the leadership of Trump.

MI

So you don’t see the disruption and the riots as a reflection of disillusionment with electoral politics?

FFP

No, quite the contrary. And I’ve never seen that before, either. I’ve never seen the way in which they bolster each other and the way that people explicitly talk about the two kinds of activism.

MI

People sometimes describe your work as “pessimistic.” You’ve always argued that there are structural limitations on the emergence of social movements and the forms that they can take, and that, when they do emerge and win changes, they inevitably dissipate and generate countermovements, which then erode some of their achievements. If that’s still your view, what do you think is the best we can hope for from this uprising?

FFP

That is still my view, but I also think we are at a historic juncture where the issue is survival. More and more people, especially young people, are beginning to recognize it. Maybe that will make a difference. I’m not sure. But the prospects of global warming and the exhaustion of fossil fuels really may create historic turning points. We have to hope that that’s true.

Three weeks ago, I was feeling very somber about the political situation in the United States. I saw this party, the Republican Party — that had become a fascist party, certainly under fascist leadership, with the wholehearted support of economic interests in finance and in fossil fuels — as the party in command, and I didn’t know where the opposition would come from. It didn’t look to me like it was going to come from the Democratic Party, although I liked all the efforts, small though they might be, to transform that party.

Now it’s different. All of a sudden, there are new possibilities! We can’t exactly map them, but we have to appreciate them and widen them.

MI

When you say that you think that maybe there are new possibilities for “historic turning points” because of the question of survival, do you mean that deeper changes may be possible now than in the past?

FFP

Yes. I don’t think that we can do a Green New Deal or we can conquer the problems of global warming without strong central authority, for example. That requires big changes in all rich countries. There are challenges that we may not meet, that we may not be able to handle, but that require we do things differently.

MI

So this is a moment that is calling for something like a revolution?

FFP

Certainly a revolutionary transformation, yes. Something like a revolution. It’s hard to imagine a revolution in the old style, the French style, in the United States. But a revolutionary transformation in the United States, and in European countries as well.

MI

Are there examples of what that might look like that you can point to?

FFP

There are no examples for us. There are no models, for the United States or for rich countries generally. Nobody has been in this situation before. So we have to figure it out if we want to survive. There are no models.