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.


Hi! I’m Ashley. I’m a grad student at the other university two T-stops away. 🙂 I study social networks and participatory civics/politics in different political contexts. Before coming back to school, I’ve worked in software engineering, Internet policy, and international development. I’m really excited to participate in this seminar and to explore ways of thinking about social movements and the media.

I’m interested in looking at social movement actors and their strategies comparatively in democratic and authoritarian states. Alternatively, I might study a movement closer to Boston, for example, Black Lives Matter, or even something on campus (Royall must fall).