Lessons for Activists, Social Change in “The Square”

by Randy Shaw on January 22, 2014

Netflix is now streaming the Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Square.” Activists in all fields of social change should make a point of seeing it. Peter Wong reviewed the film on the Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath for us last week, but his positive comments did not prepare me for a film offering such unique insights into activism and the process of creating social change.

The Square is special because it enables viewers to follow activists’ thinking from the buildup of popular opposition to the Mubarak regime through the military’s counter-revolution. We get their reactions as events occur, and hear them discuss strategic options whose outcome—to them, not the film’s viewers—is unknown.

It is akin to a documentary covering Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strategy meetings from the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott through the passage of federal civil rights laws. Many books and documentaries explore King’s strategic analysis, but The Square lets us listen in to activists as they process fast moving events and try to maintain a revolutionary vision.

Organization is Key

The films biggest lesson, which the activists articulate following the Muslim Brotherhood’s election victories in 2011-12, is the importance of building grassroots organizations for change.

The film shows how the activists promoting real, “revolutionary” change in Egypt failed to build the organizational capacity to bring it about. Voters were left to choose between the existing regime and the Muslim Brotherhood; the latter is portrayed as selling out the revolution by making a deal with the army to accept such an electoral contest in exchange for not demanding real change.

Activists can apply this message outside of a revolutionary struggle, and often most easily at the local level. Examples abound:

In Berkeley, activists of the 1970’s recognized that a pro-landlord, pro-Vietnam War local Democratic Party offered such little difference from the local Republicans that a new progressive political organization was needed. Berkeley Citizens Action emerged, repeatedly electing Ron Dellums to Congress and breaking through to win the Mayor’s office with Gus Newport in 1979.

The Working Families Party in New York City is widely credited with laying the groundwork for Bill de Blasio’s mayoral victory. In a city where Democrats win nearly all offices, a progressive party distinct from the Democratic machine proved an essential and popular electoral alternative.

The Richmond Progressive Alliance helped elect a Green Party mayor and gave voters an alternative to the city’s control by pro-Chevron candidates of both major parties.

Failing to be Pro-Active

In addition to lacking an organizational vehicle, the Egyptian activists are shown to lack a roadmap for victory. The film shows them debating politics in Tahir Square as the Muslim Brotherhood was organizing across Egypt for the inevitable election.

The film portrays idealistic young activists trying to persuade people in the square one by one, almost randomly. One of the key activists portrayed is a well-known action who used sophisticated strategies for reaching international media, but he too lacked a clear strategy for progressives to achieve power.

No one expected progressive activists to quickly match the Muslim Brotherhood’s thirty years of organizing. And what a new generation of Egyptian activists achieved in overthrowing Mubarak was remarkable. Nothing in the film detracts from their accomplishments.

But in taking a step back and looking at what went wrong, its clear that a terrible price was paid for activists failure to build a left organizational alternative. The absence of this alternative to the status quo and Muslim Brotherhood made Egypt’s current deplorable situation—and the comparatively lower level of mass protest—far more likely, if not inevitable.

The Limits of Mass Protest

The film also highlights the limits of mass protest as a substitute for organization building.

The original mass protests at Tahir Square, like the “People Power” throngs that brought down Marcos in the Philippines, were incredibly inspiring. But in both cases, mass protest was not accompanied by an organizational strategy for implementing the revolutionary ideas that brought people to the streets.

Egyptian activists are stunned by the military’s use of torture and violence against them, despite this being a familiar response to challenges to despotic regimes. There is no indication that left activists developed allies who could have moved the military in a different direction, or at least limited the violence against peaceful protesters.

The above is but a few of the powerful and thought-provoking ideas in this film. It will have viewers debating its meaning long into the night.

I hope activist groups show The Square in community organizer training sessions, and to participants in ongoing campaigns for social justice and change. Few films so accurately raise critically important issues about activism and social change, and The Square well deserves to win the Oscar for Best Documentary.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of four books on activism. His new book is The Activist’s Handbook, 2nd ed.: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century

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