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Wednesday, 20 May 2015 06:29

Social Justice Begins at the Grassroots, Not With Coverage of the 2016 Presidential Campaign

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amcprotestSocial justice movements are the vanguard for change. (Photo: Fibonacci Blue)

Expecting that the formulaic horserace process of elections will lead to dramatic social and economic change is a bit like going to a movie about revolution and expecting to walk into a transformed world when you leave the theater.

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That's one key takeaway of an incisive May 18 article in Jacobin by Michael Schwartz and Kevin Young. The authors cogently argue that "social movements should focus on targeting corporations and oppressive institutions rather than politicians." Why? Because corporations and large organizations (think of the police, the military and lobbying groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and AIPAC, among many others) pull the strings of most politicians, particularly at the state and national levels.

Schwartz and Young state their case with a clarity that has history on their side:

Activists’ decision to target corporations reflects a growing conviction that the government is unresponsive to popular demands because it is unwilling or unable to stop the abuses of the corporate world (this view is supported by recent statistical findings that “the public has little or no influence” on policy). While these movements can change corporate behavior, we believe that they can also influence government policy in ways that direct pressure on politicians cannot....

Inflicting pain on corporations through disruptive mass activism has historically been the best way to reduce corporate opposition to progressive changes, and in turn, the resistance of the politicians who represent them.

So while it is usually assumed that the best way to change government policies is to pressure politicians or elect different ones, movements are actually more effective when they target the corporate and institutional interests that control public policy behind the scenes.

Just yesterday, the Los Angeles City Council approved an increase in the city's minimum wage to $15 (phased in through 2020). The act is symbolic of how politicians and political bodies have begun to increasingly support a rise in the minimum wage. There is little doubt that this trend is directly due to the grassroots protests, walkouts and organizing that initially focused on the fast-food industry and expanded to include Walmart and other big box stores. 

Schwartz and Young provide evidence that while corporations oppose the demands of targeted protests, they are extremely sensitive to negative impact on their brand images. (Politicians are also extremely conscious of damage to their "brands.") Injustice thrives in the shadows. When it is exposed to the sunlight, this exposure is a powerful tool for reform. Furthermore, as Frederick Douglass asserted, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

Given that corporate media has already, for several months, been focused on a presidential election that will not occur until November 2016, it is important to remember that such coverage fixates on personalities, "gotcha" moments and who's ahead in the polls. It does not, for the most part, explore the issues of most importance to the nation and the world. Instead, corporate media create a sensationalistic sense of drama about the spectacle of politics, ignoring the country's festering wounds.

Indeed, the primary pressure point for political change occurs outside of politics. Since the majority of national politicians depend on corporate, institutional and wealthy individual funders in order to win elections, those funders play a key role in determining legislative and executive branch policies.

That is not to say that political leverage is never to be used in terms of advocating for legislation. However, we must always keep in mind that long-term change comes from movements, such as Black Lives Matter, that rise up against institutionalized injustice.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s showed the ultimate power of media images, and how they can be used to effect change among politicians. The Kennedy brothers - who at first were unhelpful to the Freedom Riders, for example, because the White South was Democratic at the time - became reluctantly supportive of the ending of segregation. It can be contended that this shift took place, in part, because the brand image of the United States was being hurt on the world stage.

Corporations, institutions and wealthy individuals are not immune to the same dynamic. In the case of corporations, as Schwartz and Young assert, a tarnished brand image can lead to a loss of profits, thus forcing corporations, in many cases, to make concessions.

Mass media coverage of social action also allows others throughout the nation and world to feel empowered to rebel. This creates a ripple effect: a dynamic of "lights" being turned on around the nation and globe, putting pressure on the corporations and organizations that ultimately impact politicians.

Politicians are not saviors. We are own saviors, acting through movements for social justice - and we are responsible for keeping those lights turned on.

Not to be reposted without permission of Truthout.