Notes from the class session on Repression

Part 1. Book Review Presentation

We started this class with a book report from Garrett on Saving Florida by Leslie Kemp Poole. Saving Florida offers a historical account of environmental activism and its intersection with feminism in Florida. For the book review, check out Garrett’s blog post.

Some key takeaways from Garrett’s presentation:

  • In early 20th century, women “considered home and garden their domain,” and engaged in environmental issues by participating in women’s clubs and Audubon societies. While women were disenfranchised politically, they undertook grassroots activism to influence policy decisions. The tactics they employed include: gathering petitions; influencing public opinion by contributing articles to local newspapers; convincing their husbands using the Lysystrata strategy.
  • The mid-20th century saw the growth of ecological arguments. Women were gaining political equity and disrupting the dominant male hegemony. They play a key role in shifting the public opinion around pollution. Whereas the male-dominated government considered pollution as a by-product of “progress,” women took a moral high ground in arguing for the preservation of the environment for the future of their children.
  • Poole also discusses the question of environmental justice and inequalities faced by Black people and Native people. Race is a strong predictor of environmental injustice. African Americans were more likely to live near hazardous waste (Superfund sites) compared to whites. Garrett finds the data for this discussion are thin. EPA steps in to clean up hazardous waste (Superfund sites), but poor implementation of Superfund site cleanup by EPA caused additional issues.

Further discussion:

  • We talked about white feminism, settler colonialism, native genocide and displacement.
  • Women took on heavier organization roles in movements that also included men.


Part 2. Discussion of Readings

We then turned to discuss readings assigned for the week:


  • We used the protest in Puerto Rico that was taking place on May 1 (International Workers Day) as a starting point for this discussion. The Puerto Rican government is bankrupt (with $72 billion in debt), and workers and students were leading the protest against the government.
  • What kind of protest policing is used? The Puerto Rican government militarized protest policing. Police infiltrated student and worker movements, kidnapped students without identifying themselves, circulated false narratives via mass media to shift public opinion (e.g., police said protesters had bombs when in fact they didn’t). Information on social media revealed that this was not true, and the public was upset. People used social media to circulate alternate information and kept track of protesters who were taken away but not released.
  • Any changes in protest policing since the period covered in the “Policing Protest” article (1960-1995)? Overall, the policing pattern kept up. But there has also been militarization of protest police. Why?
    • 1980’s war on drugs framing: More money allocated to support certain types of militarization of local protest police.
    • Federal program to resell/grant surplus military weapons from the Gulf War. By 2002-3, many local forces had acquired weapons from the Gulf War. Many people argue that such program should be dismantled.
    • Much of these came after this article was written.
  • Sasha brought up the concept of differentiated policing. Both types of protest policing (escalated and managed policing) are used today, differentiated by race and geographical location (e.g., racially diverse group of MIT students protesting vs Latin or Black Americans in east Boston protesting). Sasha also noted that people have vastly different experience of protest policing depending on race, class, etc. Part of what makes conversation about protest policing so difficult is that there is differentiated policing.
  • It’s hard for police to maintain control over protest policing narratives with the advent of handheld camera. It’s easy to capture video and circulate counter-narratives.
  • Escalated force policing often leads to more cycles of protest/struggles. If police uses force to shut down protest, more sympathy goes to the protesters.
  • In non-US contexts: A little bit of violence can be counter-productive, but if you are willing to be forceful, you can keep residents from protesting in the short term. Direct experiences in state violence can silence people, especially if recourse seems unattainable. State oppression PTSD is very common.


Part 3. Guest speaker, Mike Lee, Co-founder, With Purpose

With Purpose is an organization raising money for childhood cancer awareness. There has been little progress on treatment of childhood cancer from over 30 years ago. Childhood cancers are under-researched, because market is small and not profitable.

With Purpose works primarily with youth-led activism, a lot of it online. They have formed academic and community partnerships and worked with service learning groups. They have organized activities with a wide range of age groups from kindergarteners to college students. How can the org get more students and people interested?

Questions & suggestions from class:

  • Consider confrontational direct action tactics. Act Up was brought up as an example of medical activism. Act Up used confrontational direct action tactics: throwing dollar bills at the NYSE got them a lot of press. They were successful in shifting policy and redirecting large amounts of research funding.
  • Identify key social influencers, and tap their networks.
  • Think beyond viral content. Think about what you will do when your content goes viral.
  • Work with youth organizations who already host events and have strong youth bases. Groundstar and Idealist (database of non-profits) may be useful. Also reach out to student orgs on college campuses and identify federated forms of organizations.



Book Review: Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas

In Twitter and Tear Gas, Tufekci offers an insightful analysis of the recent wave of networked social movements. Tufecki grounds her analysis on her personal experiences as a participant, participant observer, and ally in several antiauthoritarian uprisings, including the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt, and the Occupy movement in the US. Her analysis is further informed by on-the-ground interviews with activists and protest participants.

Tufekci argues that in order to understand the new movements like the Gezi Park protests of 2013, the Tahrir Square protests of 2011, or the Occupy movement, we have to comprehend the evolving landscape in which political culture and digital technologies interact in complex ways. These new movements may be indiscernible from pre-digital protests like those of the civil rights movements in terms of their visible forms and intermediate outputs (e.g. street protest size), yet they form and operate quite differently from past protests.

A key contribution of this book is the development and application of capacities and signals framework to social movements. Adapting Amartya Sen’s “capabilities” approach from the field of development, Tufekci emphasizes the analytical shift needed from outputs and outcomes (such as protest size and number of protests) to capacities underlying movements. Tufekci in particular highlights three kinds of social movement capacities that are critical to the exercise of collective power: their capacity to set a narrative (narrative capacity), disrupt the operations of an existing system (disruptive capacity), and achieve changes in elections and/or institutions (electoral and/or institutional capacity). Seen through the lens of capacity formation, the Tahrir Square protest of 2011 had strong narrative and disruptive capacities but had weak electoral capacity, partly due to the political culture that is rooted in institutional distrust. Electoral and/or institutional capacity is something that Tufekci sees consistently underdeveloped in the new wave of antiauthoritarian movements. Further, Tufekci suggests that how movements signal their capacities to those in power and how these signals are interpreted matter greatly for movement trajectories.

Tufekci traces the power and weaknesses of newer movements to both the political culture and digital technologies. Tufekci makes an important observation that terms like “networked public sphere” and “networked social movements” do not signify “online only” or even “online primarily.” The dynamics of public spheres and the ways movements operate have been reconfigured by the introduction of digital technologies. This reconfiguration broadly affects not just online activities, but online, offline, and hybrid instantiations of public spheres and social movement activities. To illustrate, in the case of Egypt in 2011, even though only 25% of the population was online, they altered the contours of public discourse across the whole society by sharing  what they saw online with their networks through other means as well (face-to-face conversations, phone calls, or texting).

Tufekci also highlights the ways in which digital technologies have heightened the “attention economy” where human attention has become a scarce, but hotly sought-after commodity in a landscape marked by information glut (see Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchant). Tufekci approaches social movements as a fight for attention, and conceptualizes censorship as denial of attention through various means. Focusing on shifts in attention as a key analytical construct proves to be fruitful in explaining movement trajectories and tactics, as well as government responses to protests. In the years leading up to the Gezi Park protests, social media provided a means of bringing attention to news that were denied attention in the mainstream media. Participants in Black Lives Matter succeeded in shifting the amount of attention paid to police brutality by tweeting images of police violence. In response, some state actors learned to adjust their tactics for containing the protests over time. In China, the government employs tactics that deny and divert attention, for example, by flooding public spheres with other attention-grabbing news in times of protests.

Tufekci discusses how modern networked movements, thanks to social media, can gather momentum and scale up in a matter of few days. In contrast, older movements like the March in Washington in 1963 were organized over long periods of time, during which people learned to work together, build trust, and develop capacities for collective decision-making. Protests in the Gezi Parks or the Tahrir Square did not undergo such a capacity-building process to establish what Tufekci calls “network internalities,” the internal gains achieved by movement networks as network actors learn to act together and develop collective decision-making processes over time.

Such weaknesses are deeply intertwined with the participatory and horizontal culture of modern movements that emphasizes individual expression and eschews formal organizations. The Gezi Park protests, for example, were leaderless by design. Many showed up to the protests representing their own voices and selves, and the point precisely was that they were not being represented by another. When the government of Turkey was ready to negotiate with the people during the Gezi Park protests, the protesters did not have mechanisms to make demands and decisions collectively. Thus, such movements often run into “tactical freezes” after the initial expansion phase, when shifts in tactics are needed at critical juncture points.

This thought-provoking book takes the reader through various social movements with vivid encounters and memorable stories. Tufekci convincingly argues that the defining features of modern networked movements are not merely by-products of technology, but also deeply rooted in the political culture. Key contributions of this book include the many concepts and analytical frameworks the author develops to shed light on longer-term trajectories of networked social movements.

Review: #RhodesMustFall: Nibbling at Resilient Colonialism in South Africa

“Makwerekwere, a mostly derogatory term for a perceived stranger who is most likely to be mistaken for ‘one of us’ “

In this timely, brilliant book, Francis Nyamnjoh uses the Rhode Must Fall (RMF) protests as a starting point to ask questions about citizenship and belonging in South Africa and Africa. He argues that the nation state of South Africa, much like Cecil Rhodes, is preoccupied with making visible certain kinds of citizenship. Cecil Rhodes granted this visibility based on how far the native sons and daughters he encountered matched up to the “imperial will and tastes of the British”. The South African state on the other hand, uses “bounded notions of culture and geography” to grant visibility to its citizens. These notions have been shaped by a history of “visible and invisible mobilities”. Nyamnjoh traces this history of mobilities that have produced a shifting set of makwerekwere, from Cecil Rhodes to current day black Africans outsiders to understand the RMF movement.

Nyamnjoh claims that Cecil Rhodes and his ilk were the original makwerekwere who came to South Africa unbidden, and conquered the land and its people with violence and cunning. The unequal encounter between colonizers like Rhodes and the native daughters and sons led to the creation of hierarchies of ‘whiteness’ that now have “less to do with skin pigmentation” and more to do with the “privileges and opportunities that come with power and its culture of control and authority”. Not even independence from colonizers have been enough to destroy these hierarchies that have been internalized over years of subjugation.

Nyamnjoh describes the creation of these circles of exclusion by Cecil Rhodes in Chapter 1: ‘Sir Cecil John Rhodes: The makwerekwere with missionary zeal’. He shows how even though Cecil Rhodes came as a makwerekwere, he used a “racism of exploitation and elimination” to turn the native South Africans he encountered into makwerekwere on their own land. To add insult to injury, Rhodes and his ilk erected monuments to indelibly etch their presence on the land they had stolen.

Nyamnjoh goes to on to show that even after independence, a resilient colonialism still preys on South Africa. He draws heavily from literature, academia and other forms of media to compellingly make his case about blacks still trapped in the never ending game of ‘whitening up’ and harboring fantasies of ‘whitening’ up, with the rules of the game still controlled by the ultimate gatekeepers of ‘whiteness’, whites themselves.

The education system in South Africa, in particular, despite all the promise that independence brought, still clings to the dichotomies of ‘civilized’ versus ‘primitive’, ‘insider’ versus ‘outside’, that are legacies of the colonial system. This manifests itself in the composition of staff and students, the diversity of the curriculum and even the physical structure of universities themselves. This legacy  has frustrated any hope of ‘self-determination’ by the new denizens of the Rainbow nation.

On 9 May, 2015, Chumani Maxwele with two placards hung around his neck reading, ‘Exhibit A: White arrogance, Exhibit B: Black assimilation’, threw excrement on the statue of Cecil Rhodes still looming large over the University of Cape Town (UCT). This act was the start of the Rhodes Must Fall movement. This movement calls for decolonization of UCT through the diversification of the curriculum, increasing the number of black students and staff, and the fall of the statue of Rhodes and other colonial relics.

Nyamnjoh provides a detailed and useful view of the movement, its methods and the response of the mass media, university authorities and the different political parties in South Africa. His account is balanced, and even though he lauds the movement and its aims, he also reveals that the movement has been criticized for  its patriarchal structure and its lack of inclusion of trans and queer voices.

Nyamnjoh adds another dimension to his analysis of the RMF protests by drawing in the question of ‘citizenship’ into the discussion. The RMF movement is primarily about the lack of representation of black South Africans rather than all black Africans. It is a movement to specifically rid South Africa of the “residual makwerekwere of yesteryear”. He thus questions the distinction between decolonization, and South-Africanization and Africanization.

In this context, he speaks about concurrent events happening in South African black townships, where impoverished South African masses called for the removal of the new makwerekwere: black Africans who have come from the ‘heart of darkness’ to South Africa; as they claimed these new outsiders were stealing their jobs. These individuals are not protected by the South African state: as evidenced by the statements made at that time about the political elite. He states that the system”thrived on freezing individuals into citizens and subjects depending on whether their lives were governed by the civic regime of laws, or by culture and tradition.” The system thus paid scant notice of “straddlers”.

He crucially, connects this with the RMF movement and questions whether this movement is perpetuating this “zero sum game of violence” in its methods and calls for a more in-depth discussion on this.

“Mobility is at the heart of being human”.

Due to increased mobility, Nyamnjoh argues, that we shift between makwerekwere and insiders based on context. He illustrates this creatively by including a piece of fiction in his novel, Chapter 6: ‘Pure Fiction: What I almost had in common with Rhodes’. He also includes two epilogues by Moshumee Teena Dewoo and Sanya Osha that boslter this point

He questions how “accommodating” the makwerekwere of the past will be of the new vanguard of South Africans. He questions how South Africans have to reconcile themselves with their past and its legacy of structures such as language. He then questions how South Africa will deal with the future: Will it subscribe to the current system of oppression where the “next oppressor is a level below the current one”, or will South Africa be able to develop a new kind of citizenship that will accommodate “straddlers” and provides for a conviviality that is “conscious of and critical of the hierarchies that make a mockery of the judicial-political regime of citizenship.”

He leaves the reader with these questions.

Movement structure

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
(Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken… or can we take both roads?)
To discuss movement structure, we focused primarily on two readings:
Staggenborg, S. 1988. “The consequences of professionalization and formalization in the pro-choice movement.” American Sociological Review 53(4):585–605. 


Here are some notes on the discussions we had.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness
About the text:
  • Context: it’s coming out of the women’s movement in the 1970s, Second Wave. It’s been very influential, it’s read very widely. 
  • The insights apply to social movements but, really, any context where you have people trying to make decisions together.
  • “For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit” is the tweet-length summary of this article.
  • It’s not just a take down of these dynamics; she actively proposes ways to address them in her principles of democratic structure.
  • Interesting responses: The tyranny of tyranny by Cathy Levine (“this all may be true, but does it mean we should abandon the ideal of creating horizontal spaces?”)
  • We know that the creative innovations that have ignited the most successful movements in history, and they didn’t come from formal structures…
  • The emergence of charismatic leaders.
    • Rhodes: media assigning leadership roles externally; meme pages aren’t transparent about their organization.
  • Engaging in online action: does it make it easier/harder to understand an organization’s structure?
    • Use of tactics to circumvent surveillance, like social steganography (d. boyd)
  • Layers of invisible creation of leadership (resources: money, time, education, network, cultural capital).
    • How social media amplifies this: Occupy Wall Street tried to come up with tactics to overcome this.
The consequences of professionalization and formalization in the pro-choice movement
About the text:
  • In relation to the last text, it is a “yes, and…”
  • This paper is a counter to resource mobilization theory which was big at this time.
  • Bottom-up, emergent volunteer processes ignite the movements that then become professionalized over time (and which learn how to sustain the work).
  • Who were the professionalized and the ad-hoc stakeholders in the movements you are studying?
  • Social movement theory as a way out of despair.




Book Report: Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs

The book: Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs written by Mark Dery in 1993 looks to theorize and historicize the concept of Culture Jamming by understanding its history and philosophical foundations. To undertake that endeavor, Mark Dery structures his conceptual inquiry in four book chapters that look to understand the theory, context, and future of the concept.

   In the first chapter Empire of Signs, Dery starts by contextualizing and providing the socio-historical and economical panorama that made possible the multiplicity of culture jamming practices we know today. He argues that with the spread of TV usage in 70’s, the image became incredibly important in how we as a society understand and consume information. Furthermore, he believes that the expansion of corporate owned media, the development of media conglomerates, the supersession of the information economy from the formal economy,  created the material and ideological conditions that would provoke incredible discontent with corporations as intuitions and ignite the cultural was against them.

   In the second chapter: Culture Jamming, he explains the origins of the jamming concept: as the practice of intercepting radio conversations with noise and how Negativland coined the use of Cultural Jamming, in a 1984 JamCon, to describe the alteration of imagery referring particularly to Billboards.  Furthermore, he explains how the predominant status of imagery to shape public discourse fostered the use of imagery alteration as a political tool against corporations by introducing other interpretations on the ideas sold by capitalist institutions. Basically, using the imagery and tools that corporations used to promote and envelop society in consumerist culture against them in order to promote critical thinking for a more just and equal society.Moreover, Dery explains some of the techniques deployed by culture jammers to intercept consumerist messages 1)Snipping – dissemination of anti ads 2) Media Hoxing- creating pranks the media believes, 3) Audio Agitpropt- digital sampling that challenges copyright law, and 4)Billboard Banditry- “damaging” corporate billboards to display subversive ideas to corporate ideology.

   In the third chapter,  Guerrilla Semiotics  Dery explains how semiotics (the study of sign process and meaningful communications)  is employed in non-academic forms by activists in what Umberto Ecco called Guerrilla Semiotics (a technique to decipher the signs and symbols that constitute culture’s secret language or systems of signification) to alter our understanding of corporate messaging and capitalist ideology.

Finally chapter four, Postscript from the Edge talks about the future of signs, images and culture in the context of the electronic frontier and interactive media as substitutes for TV. In the chapter, He poses more questions than answers. He wonders: who is going to able to participate in the production? Will it be helpful for further critique or detrimental? Will it further promote consumer culture or limit it? Nevertheless, he ends up on a hopeful note. He states that even though cyberspace might have its faults (underrepresentation/harassment of minorities, etc) it can be seen as a more democratic space for cultural production and for the dissemination of transgressive communications.

Dery’s theoretical development of the culture jamming concept allows us to understand its uses as a political tool as well as its origins. Furthermore, it allows us to understand the power that mediated information has in construction public opinion and shaping power structures in our organized society. The concepts that he presents are incredibly useful to understand not only our political and ideological concept but how we can perform engage mediated politics in the future.


Dery, Mark. 1993. “Mark Dery › Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs.”