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Coast-to-Coast Demonstrations Against Police Violence Use Decentralized Organizing

I just watched this video on the Social Action blog. Earlier today, I read about the police violence protesters in The Washington Post. I’d like to combine the two pieces here – because they both refer to the protests as a leaderless movement.

Why Young Protesters Are Marching

Many of the now-daily protests on race and justice are being led by young people frustrated by recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York City. Gwen Ifill gets perspectives from protester Molly Greiber, Tory Russell of Hands Up United and Jessica Pierce of the Black Youth Project on what’s driving them personally and the movement at large.

PBS NewsHour

Jessica Pierce, of the Black Youth Project, says the coast-to-coast protests are coordinated by ‘decentralized organizing.’

Challenge for Protesters in Wake of Police Killings: Turning Anger, Grief Into Action

Across the country, people outraged over the police killings of unarmed black men have flowed into the streets using many of the same tactics and chanting many of the same slogans, holding up their hands in a gesture of surrender and staging “die-ins.” From Oakland to New York, they have even donned the same T-shirts.

But for all the similarities, the burgeoning social movement that began four months ago in Ferguson, Mo., remains a fractured and disparate effort, with no large national organization coordinating or guiding its trajectory. And while experts warn that a diffuse movement may ultimately fail, many of the protesters say they like it this way….

‘We very purposefully have been a leaderless movement. . . . We’ve been doing that intentionally because we know absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ said Brittany Packnett…. ‘That ensures we remain about the heart of the movement rather than certain personalities.’

The next few months could test that approach as pressure grows for protesters to turn their expressions of anger and grief into concrete policies in the form of state laws and congressional action. Often, it is the tough going of policymaking that causes loose-knit movements to fall apart, said Martin Berger, a professor of art history at the University of California at Santa Cruz who has written two books on the civil rights movement.

‘The lack of movement leaders is both a strength and a weakness,’ Berger said. ‘It is a strength in that these are grass-roots movements of people coming together with a lot of different grievances. But that lack of leadership often leads to a fracturing down the road when there is disagreement among the participants and when it becomes difficult to move change….’

As the movement turns its sights to achieving changes — for example, setting up a division within the Justice Department to specifically deal with police-brutality cases and broadening the use of body cameras by police — it helps to have an experienced, established organization leading the charge, some advocates say….

Many of the protesters say that while there may not be a national group, there has certainly been national coordination, helped along by social media….

Protesters have been copying one another’s tactics. For example, the “die-in” — when people lie down en masse — has become a common method of anti-police-brutality demonstration across the country. Protesters have worn shirts reading “I can’t breathe,” Garner’s final words….

‘Social media fills some of the gaps left by a traditional leader or organization, so it makes sense that some young people would reject the idea of a person or an organization as a standard-bearer,’ said Matthew C. Whitaker, director of the Arizona State University Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.

They prefer ‘leadership that’s shared and that doesn’t rely so much on one major leader, because history has shown we kill those leaders,’ he said. ‘We marginalize them. We undermine their reputation. We do something to undermine their ability to execute and lead. And, as a result, vacuums are left and the movement crumbles.’

Sandhya Somashekhar, The Washington Post

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I hope this movement against police violence, which in the video, Tory Russell of Hands Up United, describes as an ‘Oppressed-Peoples Movement,’ will be long-lasting and powerful. It will be interesting to see how it evolves, given its current decentral organization.

Will leaders eventually emerge? Do the protesters fear, as Whitaker suggests, that their leaders would be assassinated? Do they actually need leaders to drive real changes in the system? Maybe a decentralized organization is the new way to achieve a great goal. What do you think?


About The Author

JoAnn Chateau

JoAnn Chateau likes progressive politics and loves the canines. She writes fiction about an alpha Bichon named Chester, and his friends–with a dash of humor and a dab of poli-sci. JoAnn worked professionally in the Psychology and Information Science fields. Retired now, she enjoys the creative life.


  1. skywalkerstoryteller

    The very concept of a true democracy makes all people “leaders.” Everyone should assume responsibility and people should work together maximizing each other’s strength with equal influence. When all are empowered, oppression and dictatorships cannot arise. Jessica expressed it well. This is the hope and way for real change and to save this country. Grassroots organization and empowerment. Thanks for sharing this.

    • JoAnn Chateau

      Responsibility, grassroots, empowerment – yes, yes, yes! The trickle ‘up’ effect. (But more like a fire hose, I hope.) Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Skywalker.

  2. carolahand

    Fascinating and timely post, JoAnn – important examples of effective advocacy and a thoughtful discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of “leaderless” movements.

    • JoAnn Chateau

      Thank you for commenting, Carol. Glad you, too, find the idea of leaderless movements fascinating. As this movement rolls forward, the media will probably find the leaderless aspect quite mysterious and frustrating.

      • carolahand

        Good point about media. I’m sure they do find leadership movements frustrating – framing stories around people is a good way to avoid writing anything substantive about issues 🙂

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