The Allure of Stop Energy

A math problem, of sorts:

What’s the difference between this?

More than 750,000

and this?

Courageous and committed, but relatively few


There’s a central truth in organizing.

I don’t completely understand it, but I’ve certainly witnessed it.

And I know that we have to figure it out.

It’s far easier to get people involved in a movement to stop something they see as bad, or threatening, or offensive, than it is to bring people together to support something positive, encouraging, or hopeful. Even if the latter is something that they care about a lot, and even if it would make their lives very much better.

And so that’s the story those pictures tell.

In 2006, almost without even trying, pro-immigrant organizers had thousands of people showing up for nearly-spontaneous protests against H.R. 4437, a particularly draconian anti-immigrant bill, passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, that would have (among other things) criminalized assistance to undocumented immigrants (even by clergy! or social workers!).

It was ugly. And hateful. And scary.

And, so, literally MILLIONS of people turned out for those rallies.

In Kansas City, we had three within 2 months, each larger than the one before. People I’d never seen before were volunteering to be event marshals, and people I hadn’t seen in years were showing up with carfuls of friends they had convinced to come. I helped respond to community pressure for action in Garden City, Dodge City, Emporia, Hays, Pittsburg, Lawrence, and Topeka, too.

It was unprecedented, organic, and urgent.

And, so, we then started to try, in about summer of 2006 (once it became apparent that H.R. 4437 was, in fact, dead in the U.S. Senate and no longer a real, legislative worry) to translate some of that community momentum into pro-comprehensive immigration reform action.

We organized town halls on CIR. And maybe 100 people came. We organized rallies, thinking it was the type of action that had appealed to them. We maybe got 150.

And it became apparent: it’s just a lot harder for us to build a cohesive movement around support for this elusive, often ill-defined and very far off possibility, rather than some here-today, very real threat.

It hadn’t really occurred to me, though, that this was not a challenge unique to those of us in the immigrant rights world, but, instead, a more immutable law of community organizers and social change agents worldwide, until I read Clay Shirky’s essay in Rebooting America. He writes, the “usual stories of collective action have to do with short-term pressure brought upon existing institutions to try to stop them from doing something.” And I underlined “short-term” and “stop” them, and thought about 2006.

Because immigrants, the same ones who missed work and risked retaliation to oppose H.R. 4437, care very much about immigration reform. It’s not a question of generalized apathy. I even believe that if a similar threat emerged here today, we’d see similar response. We’re seeing that some in Arizona and elsewhere with more urgent battles.

The challenge, then, is this: how can we build movements with relationships and visions that will carry us through this more slogging work of articulating shared goals and building broad-based support for our message? How do we guard against the inevitable collapse of consensus? How do we charge forward when our best models, and most inspiring memories, are stop-energy focused?

How do we change the math, so that we can change the world?

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