Around the world, movements struggle to capitalize on moments of mass mobilization. Activist and grassroots organizer Nicole Carty discusses how movements can better harness the energy of these moments, such as the protests that erupted across the United States in 2020 in response to police violence. She argues that, to turn street protests into sustained, successful movements that achieve political change, organizers and protesters must learn from other movements and their own histories. They must also be proactive rather than reactive.
Carty, who has trained leaders in the Movement for Black Lives, emphasizes the importance of developing structures in movements that can outlast individual moments of public outrage. The Movement for Black Lives advanced the conversation about race in the United States, Carty argues, and also provided political motivation that helped defeat Donald Trump in November 2020. But the movement also failed to maintain the intensity of the summer of 2020, when it led the largest mass mobilization in U.S. history.
The 2020 protests in the United States peaked in the tenth year of a decade of protests across the world. The U.S. protests partly drew on the experiences of counterparts in the Middle East, and in turn, the lessons from the Movement for Black Lives have bearing on the continuing efforts of protest movements in other regions to translate moments of outrage into lasting power.
Ebbs and flows are natural in any movement for social change, but strong structures ensure that movements maintain momentum through cycles of public attention. Those structures also make it possible to powerfully respond with organized actions to events—the basic tool of any moment. These actions, Carty says, are crucibles of learning, both for movements and the public.
Naira Antoun: How did you get involved in organizing? Can you tell me about your relationship to the Movement for Black Lives?
Nicole Carty: My first social movement experience was during Occupy Wall Street, in 2011. After that, I went on to do a lot of mobilizations around Trayvon Martin in 2012—that was, in a sense, the birth of the Movement for Black Lives.
In the eleven years since Occupy, I have been a strategist on the left and a grassroots organizer. In particular, I study and participate in social movements to figure out how to build them, and to integrate learning in that growth. When the more formal structure of the Movement for Black Lives began to emerge in 2014, I did a lot of strategizing with the leadership. (To be clear, I’m not personally in the formal leadership of the Movement for Black Lives.) And as you know, in 2020, the Movement for Black Lives was at the head of the biggest mass mobilizations in American history .
I’ve also supported various other mass mobilizations in the United States, and I’ve been mentoring and supporting a number of leaders in the Movement for Black Lives, especially its chapter in Minneapolis, and affiliated organizations, such as the Black Youth Project 100 (known as BYP100).
Naira: From that unique vantage point, how would you describe the organizing model of the Movement for Black Lives?
Nicole: What people don’t always understand about the Movement for Black Lives is that it’s now essentially a coalition of organizations, some of which are base-building organizations, combined with a broader structure that tries to add other components to the coalition. The coalition is organized around tables, made up of people from different organizations collaborating on different specific areas—policy, electoral justice, grassroots organizing, and so on. Then, there are also some leadership structures that function across the coalition, and focus on how to build the movement. It’s not static—the relationship between the superstructure of the coalition and the grassroots coalition members has been in flux over the past eight years. International Connections
Naira: The Movement for Black Lives inspired many activists in other countries. In some cases, protests arose in other countries around American issues (such as the murder of George Floyd). In other cases, such as in Brazil , France, and the UK, activists adopted the Black Lives Matter slogan for local campaigns. And then there were others, such as Palestinian activists , who expressed solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives, but sort of used that energy for their own mobilizations. There were also shades of these kinds of transnational inspirations during Occupy, with the Indignados in Spain , and various movements in other countries. And Occupy, of course, coincided with the Arab uprisings.
Are activists actively forming these transnational connections? Or are the connections arising spontaneously, perhaps due to the impact of social media? What does this mean for movements?
Nicole: It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. Systems like capitalism and white supremacy are global in nature. Though they look different in different places, activists are being molded and shaped by the same forces around the world. When there is a protest that touches on a global system like the Movement for Black Lives or Occupy, it resonates far beyond the original borders, and gets reinterpreted into local contexts. Social media and the Internet make the world more connected than ever before. When movements erupt in one part of the globe, they can quickly be taken up and replicated elsewhere. During Occupy, organizers traveled to occupations all over the globe, helping one another through similar problems, and forging connections—many of which have gone on to support movements today.
“As the United States has flirted with authoritarianism, we have turned to lessons from activists from more oppressive regimes to learn the best practices for organizing.”
Naira: The United States often drives cultural narratives around the world. I’m curious whether you see any flows in the opposite direction among activists. Are American movements taking cues from other countries?
Nicole: Absolutely they are taking those cues, especially in more recent years. As the United States has increasingly flirted with authoritarianism, we have turned to lessons from activists from more oppressive regimes to learn the best practices for organizing under such conditions. In particular, we have drawn inspiration from the “color revolutions” (the pro-democracy movements in several former Soviet nations) and the uprisings in Hong Kong for democracy. But this isn’t new—even our most well-known social movements in the United States were deeply influenced by global movements. James Lawson and Martin Luther King, Jr. deeply studied the strategies of noncooperation employed in the Indian independence movement, and used it as the basis for their strategies in the Civil Rights Movement. People are people, all across the globe, and the key strategies that move them don’t actually tend to shift too much from country to country. There is a lot to learn from outside of U.S. borders. Connecting the Local and the National
Naira: Do you have any observations about how local Movement for Black Lives organizing efforts end up relating to a national or broader structure of the movement? Can they have a role in setting broad strategy?
Nicole: There are ways to shape national–local connections. At the end of 2021, the formal Movement for Black Lives pulled together people and resources to support the Minneapolis ballot campaign to defund the police. The movement recognized that the campaign had the potential to be a “movement moment” with national significance, especially because the 2020 protests began in Minneapolis, in response to the murder of George Floyd.
But creating those links is hard to do in social movements, and the Movement for Black Lives is still building the infrastructure to support such a process. A lot of the activism around reallocating resources away from policing is necessarily local, because most police forces are run by municipalities. These efforts aren’t disconnected from the national Movement for Black Lives policy vision and effort, but it’s still been a challenge to connect some of the grassroots work into national structures.
Naira: What’s happened to the energy of the huge mobilizations of the summer of 2020?
Nicole: The groundswell of popular support for Movement for Black Lives in the wake of the murder of George Floyd created a moment in which a lot of organization occurred outside the movement’s structures. Most of the protests didn’t initially have any formal connections to the Movement for Black Lives. Connecting them to the movement coalition amplified their profile, and also boosted the formal organization.
Demonstrators march to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights while protesting the shooting death of Daunte Wright on April 14, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. Wright, a Black man who was shot and killed by an officer, Kimberly Potter, who police said mistook her service revolver for a Taser. Potter was later convicted of manslaughter. Source: Megan Varner/Getty Images
But a lot of the energy from 2020 didn’t filter back to the movement in a structural way, and the movement has had difficulty capturing the energy for more national purposes. In 2020, 70 percent of Americans supported the goals of the Movement for Black Lives, and 11 percent of Americans were taking action for the movement. That’s a huge number of people participating over a short amount of time, and we saw the conversation shift dramatically. But then Fox News and other right-wing media propagated a fearmongering counternarrative about crime rising. We’re now experiencing a right-wing backlash, which is backed up by an infrastructure that isn’t afraid to wield power.
But even though the movement didn’t harness the energy of 2020 as well as it might have, that energy still had positive political effects: the mobilizations of 2020 got people to register to vote and go to the polls. There’s an under-told story about the relationship between the protests of the summer of 2020 and defeating Donald Trump in November of that year. In addition, the movement still resonates broadly with people who have never touched any of its formal organizations, and that is a significant feat. Keeping Momentum
Naira: It seems like there’s something inevitable about the public interest in the movement waning—like the degree to which support can be sustained depends on what the movement does, in that moment, to make some of those people stay.
Nicole: Ebbs and flows are inevitable, but lessons from the past indicate that when we agitate, when we keep the story in the news, we can maintain more support and have more control over the narrative. Action and public awareness are two elements in a positive feedback loop. Sustained action maintains public support and prevents the public from succumbing to other narratives.
The role of movements is to take action and to keep the changes we seek in the conversation—to frame things so that they seem like common sense to people. When we don’t do that, we cede the ground to forces that are constantly communicating to the public and maligning us, and we lose power. And that’s what has happened, to some extent, since 2020. The lack of continued action meant there was not sustained pressure for reforming the police. And then there was a really intense right-wing effort to push the idea that less policing would decrease public safety, which has been successful—including among Black people.
In 2017, the Black Visions Collective spun off of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. The collective was instrumental in driving the legislation to transform the Minneapolis Police Department. That campaign was actually a great example of movements successfully turning a local issue into a national moment. However, the effort hasn’t succeeded, at least so far. In November, Minneapolis voters rejected the campaign’s proposal . That rejection was very much the result of the movement’s loss of the narrative to the right-wing backlash.
“Moments do lose momentum—people leave the streets, and move on with their lives. As organizers, we have to build the infrastructure to make movements sustainable.”
So yes, moments do lose momentum—people leave the streets, and people move on with their lives. As organizers, we have to intentionally build the infrastructure to make movements sustainable. At Momentum, a training institute where I work, part of what we’re trying to do is allow space for new mistakes, while avoiding predictable mistakes. That requires intentional structures.
Naira: It also sounds like you’re saying that, in between those moments of mass mobilization, a movement needs to get ready for the next round, in order to be ready to run, whether that’s legislative proposals or something else, rather than risking missing the wave.
Nicole: Yes. And it’s important to be able to capture the energy of movements to create moments. Successful movements can’t just wait for new events to create moments of importance.
This ability to mobilize relates, again, to movement structures and strategy. There are some examples of local Movement for Black Lives affiliates successfully creating their own moments. The Minneapolis chapter, for example, shut down the Mall of America in 2014 . When Jamar Clark was killed in 2015, the group had a ready-made structure for mobilization, and created another national moment for the movement, with their eighteen-day occupation of the Fourth Precinct . Actions like the precinct occupation trained an entire community in how to respond, and without them, I don’t know if the response to Philando Castile’s killing in 2016, or George Floyd’s in 2020, would have been as big and organized.
The activists in Minneapolis created momentum by connecting all of these moments, and used that to push the agenda forward. They also weren’t passive in between these police killings. They were building their capacities and structures. Momentum has done a lot of trainings with the activists in Minneapolis. The leaders and organizers in the city also have a foundational understanding of movement dynamics. I’ve learned that in moments of heightened activity when the movement is on fire, people are really not inclined to hear advice or training. That isn’t specific to the Movement for Black Lives. But later, as those moments lose momentum, people get a bit jaded, and are more open to hearing, reflecting, and thinking about what happened. In Minneapolis, that willingness to reflect has been crucial to success. Lessons of the Civil Rights Movement
Naira: The Movement for Black Lives is essentially a movement to end racism and make lives equally valued. There might be more particular, short-term demands within that, but there’s no way its main goal can be achieved on any short-term horizon. How do you frame that for yourself and others as an organizer? Is the movement a continuation of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement?
Nicole: One thing I’ve observed from training a new generation of activists is that people really underestimate what the Civil Rights Movement did. For those of us who grew up in a world where everyone is proclaimed to be equal, it’s easy to forget how wildly unreachable the idea of ending segregation was, and how much the movement had to do just to make the idea of equality mainstream. The Civil Rights Movement was extremely strategic and effective, particularly in how it managed to achieve such widespread engagement and participation. For all of the big events that we know of, hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, participated in ongoing boycotts, creating the power to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1968. That communicates, I think, the level of organization, tactics, and strategy that is necessary to pass policies to upend white supremacy.
People march from the Canfield Green Apartments in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was killed, following a memorial service marking the anniversary of his death on August 9, 2015. Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on August 9, 2014. His death sparked months of protests in Ferguson and drew nationwide focus on police treatment of Black people. Source: Scott Olson/Getty Images
So yes, the Movement for Black Lives is a modern-day version of the Civil Rights Movement. At times, the Movement for Black Lives has even mobilized millions more people than the Civil Rights Movement did. But after the whirlwind moments subside, the infrastructure isn’t as able to harness those who have been inspired and create new, forward strategic action. Most of the mobilizations of the Movement for Black Lives have been reactions to publicized police killings, not forward campaigns and strategies like, say, the Nashville Sit-ins of 1960.
There’s a lack of understanding of the organization of the 1950s and 1960s. That organization is necessary. Without it, a movement has a structural problem. It has a hard time capturing the momentum it generates, or advancing a forward strategy.
Naira: Didn’t the mobilizations of 2020 also lead to the creation of the “ Breathe Act ”—the proposed U.S. legislation that would take money from policing and invest it in other public safety measures and strategies?
Nicole: People came together from the policy and electoral justice tables of the Movement for Black Lives to draft the law, which was unveiled in July 2020. It was an attempt to create a political vehicle to win legislation that was tied to the energy in the streets. And it was a good attempt, but it hasn’t succeeded yet, and that’s partly because it didn’t capture that street energy well enough to push forward the legislative process. By the time it was unveiled, the urgency among the public had dissipated. In fact, the legislation, which is supposed to be an omnibus bill, hasn’t been introduced in its entirety in Congress. It has endorsers, but only pieces of it have been introduced .
“The Civil Rights Movement was extremely strategic and effective. For those of us who grew up in a world where everyone is proclaimed to be equal, it’s easy to forget how wildly unreachable the idea of ending segregation was.”
The Breathe Act’s lack of success so far is a really good example of why there needs to be a structure to build a story around the energy of street mobilizations, and make sure that the story prioritizes legislation. Legislation like the Breathe Act needs to feel like a moral necessity for the public and for leaders. I think about the Civil Rights Act—it was the act, it was on the table in the midst of a deliberately created, escalating, moral crisis, and after years of strategic, highly visible campaigns, its passage into law felt personally important and urgent for people. That hasn’t happened in the same way for the Breathe Act, partly because of timing, but also because the organization you need to continue to mobilize is different from what you need to get politicians to sponsor legislation. It’s not enough to just draft the bill. You have to make it a public and political priority. Awareness versus Activism
Naira: In 2020, there were a lot of reading lists circulating and reading groups established. Reading is not an action, but it seems good that people were really trying to understand how racial structures work. But do you think all this reading is a misdirection of energy—and gives people a false sense that they’re doing activism simply by becoming aware?
Nicole: It’s kind of both. Here’s my diagnosis of what happened. When the movement first erupted in 2014, the conversation was stuck on whether racism was a systemic problem or just a problem of bad apples. The actions that arose in response to police killings from 2014 onward were themselves a form of education—actions are, I believe, how you educate the public. By 2020, there were still some people asking the “bad apples” question, but many people were also thinking, for the first time, about systemic racism.
Some of this interest in understanding racism more deeply had to do with accumulated frustration—people began feeling that the system was broken. I saw this happen when George Zimmerman was acquitted of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2013, and I think the same thing happened in 2020. There was a recognition of the depth of change required, and the lack of a means to make that change. There was a feeling that the entire country needed to change. And there weren’t a lot of places for people to go to actually be a part of creating that change, so many people put their energy into book clubs.
The other side of this, though, is that not all reading is equally helpful to the movement, and some of it leads to other actions that feel like activism, but don’t transform systems. A lot of people read books like Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 White Fragility , which is actually a mis-explanation of where the problems of racism come from and why racism exists, and has gotten us into another spiral, which we will have to undo. Relatedly, the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) reading group initiatives at firms and organizations can be very personally transformative, but they don’t change systems and structures.
Naira: In the UK, Black Lives Matter and the mobilizations in 2020 stimulated a conversation not only about police practices and racism, but also about empire, which kind of undermines British national mythology. In the United States, there’s a very powerful right-wing backlash against teaching history in an antiracist way ( related to the moral panic over critical race theory).
Nicole: American history gives us some examples of how movements can navigate these questions, and still make a strong moral case that is broadly felt and shared.
The attitude of the movement to abolish slavery in the United States was, at first, very much “burn this whole thing down, this country is built on slavery, let’s undo the Constitution.” But as a position, that was a nonstarter. If you wanted to get the country to undo slavery (and the country was the only entity that could undo slavery), you had to tell a story that showed why abolition was in the country’s best interest, and why it was incoherent to continue with this abomination.
There was a split in the abolitionist movement leadership around this issue. But the people who wanted to mainstream the idea that slavery is against the Constitution prevailed, after spending thirty years popularizing and mainstreaming that idea. The idea that the Constitution is fundamentally emancipationist became common sense, and they successfully made a case for why the country had to act to end slavery.
I think that we’re out of practice in creating these kinds of narratives. If we want to reallocate resources from policing and undo these systems of racial hierarchy that are before us, we have to tell a story that shows why doing that is in the country’s collective interest, because even Black people don’t think that right now . This, too, has historical echoes. In the early days of sit-ins in the South, Black people were often very dubious, convinced that nothing was going to change. They also had to be brought along. It took action for them to see things differently.
And that brings me back to this foundational principle that ongoing actions are the key to changing minds and building the sustained critical mass of involved people that is necessary for change.
This dialogue is part of “Transnational Trends in Citizenship: Authoritarianism and the Emerging Global Culture of Resistance,” a TCF project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations. header photo: A protester’s jacket announces support for the Movement for Black Lives, during protests in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 14, 2021, following the shooting death of Daunte Wright in Minnesota. Source: Megan Varner/Getty Images