by Amber FrenchApril 03, 2020
In this article I offer a big-picture framework for how the Covid-19 crisis is impacting activism, organizing, and civil resistance movements. I hope this article, which defines four main phases I've observed, is helpful as movements make sense of this moment, analyze where they want to go from here, and begin planning a transition to the post-Covid-19 period.
Activists and organizers are urgently turning their attention toward securing food, shelter, medical assistance, medical supplies, childcare, elderly care, job continuation, and many other primary necessities for themselves and their families.
Ramesh Sharma, national coordinator of Ekta Parishad, India’s largest people’s movement with thousands of volunteers throughout India, wrote to me this week: “Currently, we are engaged in relief responses, especially for a large number of marginalized people in villages.” This represents a major shift from just two weeks earlier. Prior to the crisis, Ekta Parishad was leading a global march of 50 core participants, plus numerous local partners along the way, committed to walking from Delhi to Geneva in an elaborately coordinated, year-long campaign for justice and peace. After Armenia declared a national health emergency in connection with COVID-19, organizers decided to postpone the march. “All the marchers [who had reached Armenia just last month] have already left to their respective countries,” Ramesh reports.
Ramesh joins millions of movement organizers worldwide who have had to cancel or postpone existing plans to instead focus on securing their primary necessities. Arnab Chakraborty, a movement trainer and educator with PRADAN, an NGO that works to empower poor women in India, echoes this: “At present due to complete lockdown by the government all of us are at our homes. This has severely impacted our movement as all the activities (trainings, meetings, exposure visits, etc.) that were planned in this period have had to be cancelled.”
Like Ekta Parishad, PRADAN is mostly focused on how the crisis is a survival issue for all—not only the activists but also the populations that they serve. For PRADAN, this population is “the destitute, vulnerable, and disadvantaged people” who bear a large part of the burden and risk in any crisis situation. Arnab also tells me about the huge numbers of migrant workers and their families in India who are returning home—often by foot for hundreds of kilometers and without sufficient food and medical supplies. Many are believed to be sick but are completely off the government radar and are therefore unaccounted for in public health efforts.
This phase sets in when activists are picking up communication with each other again and coordinating, for example, to move their activities to online platforms and explore digital and dispersed tactics. Movements may also take the time to re-strategize and conduct online training if they have access to the internet. Some individuals are also regrouping by taking time off for self-care and to revamp lifestyle practices in ways that are more environmentally sustainable.
In response to my question about how her movement activities had evolved since the Covid-19 crisis set in, US-based activist, author, and educator Rivera Sun wrote to me: “Several trainings with groups I work with were shifted online. Planning meetings are incorporating potential restrictions into upcoming efforts (online organizing vs. in person, utilizing dispersed actions rather than concentrated).” In a similar vein, US-based the Sunrise Movement is now offering online trainings about how people can take action to advance the Green New Deal as a response to the Covid-19 crisis.
Many online tools are already available for activists to continue their movement work from a distance during the pandemic. Perhaps this offers us some silver lining: movements are suddenly building new online capacity that will continue to serve their causes and communities for decades to come.
In addition, as activists worldwide acknowledge the inadequacy of concentrated tactics like marches and sit-ins at this moment, they are instead emphasizing online tactics such as Facebook and Instagram live campaigns, and dispersed tactics such as cacerolazo (the banging of pots and pans) in Brazil. Other innovations include social distancing rent strike meetings, and sharing protest-themed playlists.
This phase is when movements repurpose their infrastructure and networks for community service ends, in a spirit of solidarity and mutual aid. Especially in the case of many regions of the United States, grassroots organizing is exploding to compensate for a slow, confused, and insufficient national response. We’ve seen examples of awareness-raising about the risks of COVID-19 and public health measures, as well as facilitating food distribution, obtaining shelter for the homeless, and arranging for assistance to abused and at-risk women. Another characteristic of this phase is applauding medical personnel in solidarity from windows and balconies, as what is taking place daily in Italy, France, Spain, and elsewhere. In some cases, people are also trying to assist medical personnel, for example in Algeria, where weekly protests pushing for democracy have been held for over a year, but recently volunteers showed up and instead helped disinfect city streets in the capital.
Ekta Parishad has for a long time engaged in the nonviolent method of parallel institution-building, and their crisis response is building on this strength. With an extensive presence and strong links with rural communities in 14 states, Ekta Parishad is focusing in the short term on mask production and distribution, food distribution, the migrant worker crisis, and ensuring cash flow to poor populations. In the medium and long term, they are planning to set up grain banks to anchor local economies, develop measures to ensure continuity of agricultural work, and establish a public distribution system to ensure provisions and employment continuity for poor people. They are also conducting consultations to develop a “new model of local/rural economy, which essentially respects the wide canvas of biodiversity and is based on conservation of nature.” (All of this is outlined in detail in this brief, which could serve as a strategic planning template for other movements that are preparing their Covid-19 response.)
This latter point brings us to phase 4.
Phase 4 comes when a movement is striving to make the Covid-19 crisis a trigger event or accelerator for achieving the goals and rights they have been fighting for already for years. This phase can be viewed as an extension of phases 2 and 3: engaging in those activities but with the "enlightened" goal of creating the kind of society the movement wishes to live in once the crisis is over. This is often referred to as prefigurative action.
One movement actor that is in this phase is Ashoka France, a social innovation focused NGO that works with disadvantaged populations. In a recent newsletter, the NGO characterized the crisis as “a decisive period that is revealing the urgency of accelerating economic, ecological, and educational transitions in society, for a more resilient and sustainable tomorrow.” Black MN, a US-based coalition of Black organizers and organizations is working to “ensure the needs and lives of Black people are at the center” of Covid-19 responses. Strikes are sprouting up against companies that have been reluctant to provide masks, gloves, and paid sick leave to their employees (such as Amazon workers in France and the United States, as well as Instacart workers). A few grocery store chains in the United States are beginning to respond piecemeal to pressure from employees and national health agencies, but this still falls short of employee demands for more progressive measures like paid sick leave. Any employee-driven wins during the pandemic will set a precedent for better terms and conditions for workers, shifting social norms on an unprecedented scale in US history.
Rae Abileah and Nadine Bloch write that the crisis is exposing injustices of the current economic system. They emphasize the need for “more equitable, compassionate, and creative solutions" to people’s needs. Echoing this idea, calls are multiplying worldwide to let the pandemic be a lesson to all that we should liberate ourselves from a "domination system” and embrace more environmentally sustainable and just practices. As Ramesh Sharma put it simply: “I personally feel that it is high time to RESET our life and lifestyle. Respect nature, humanity, and simple humane values.” Organizer and author Paul Engler writes that “the coronavirus pandemic is by far the biggest trigger event of our generation.”
While activists are adjusting their activities to various opportunities and constraints of the current moment, so too are governments. Movements in Hungary, Uganda, Cameroon, Serbia, Spain, and many other countries are already experiencing authoritarian crackdowns disguised as emergency responses to the pandemic. Shifting movement resources to this quickly emerging battlefront constitutes a possible fifth phase.
The potential for resurgent authoritarianism in response to COVID-19 raises questions: Will more and more movements have to move from offense to defense now? How can movements protect their recent gains? And could an authoritarian resurgence present an opportunity for movements with disparate causes to unite on a national front to defend democracy and human rights, even at a time of major health emergency?
Back to the immediate challenges: How can movements move out of the survival phase and into one of the other phases? For those that are already engaging in mutual aid and solidarity actions, perhaps they can take things one step further by adopting a forward-looking, strategic planning approach, to use this moment as a trigger event. This would mean focusing efforts on building new capacity, or revamping existing movement capacity, in anticipation of the post-COVID-19 environment.