For change movements in the Golden State, social media are in, social disobedience is out, and the message takes a backseat to the medium.  Is California’s brand of activism going soft?     

Think about all the American casualties in the Vietnam War, add those from the War on Terror, multiply the total by 7, and you would then be approximating the number of children in California -- now alive -- who will die prematurely from smoking.  One would assume the state’s anti-smoking movement to be in full swing, demanding change with as much fervor and dissent as any anti-war movement of days past.  Yet it appears that Californians are even less engaged in anti-smoking than they are in more mundane matters like what’s on TV today in Sacramento, or where to take the kids on holiday.   

The modern proxy for actual, real-life involvement in social issues is social media use.  The conventional wisdom is that the more likes, posts and tweets an issue gets, the more it manifests “social engagement” and a burgeoning movement.  By such a standard, Tobacco Free California, with about 60,000 likes on Facebook, is somewhat less engaging than the capital’s morning TV newscast, Good Day Sacramento, which has more than 90,000 likes, and far less engaging than Legoland California, the Carlsbad theme park with over 240,000 likes. 

In terms of social engagement, obesity prevention in California fares even worse than tobacco control.  Given that 1 in 3 children in the state will develop type 2 diabetes in their lifetime, and other disastrous projections related to obesity, health departments across California launched in 2012 a Rethink Your Drink initiative and would-be movement.  These agencies envisioned sweeping change: entire communities fervently rejecting the sugary excess and marketing seductions of “big soda” – and opting for water instead. 

For all its clinical and anti-corporate wisdom, however, Rethink Your Drink doesn’t really seem to be catching on, online or off.  The initiative apparently has two separate pages on Facebook, one with 68 likes to date, and the other suggesting “Be the first person to like this.”  Bottled water consumption is increasing, but that’s been the case since the 1990s, long before Rethink Your Drink.    

In Alameda County, Rethink Your Drink is tied to an annual Soda Free Summer promotion, which has been prominently advertised on buses, BART trains and billboards, and complemented with a special Soda Free Summer Facebook page (facebook.com/sodafreesummer).  “With this advertising and social media campaign, we’re hoping we can make people move away from sugary drinks to healthier beverages like water,” the County says in a 2013 press release.  At the summerfreesoda.org web site, visitors are encouraged to “spread the word in your community, on Facebook and on Twitter.  Become an advocate and encourage soda free policies.”  Despite such movement-oriented calls to action, facebook.com/sodafreesummer has just over 2,200 likes to date, and on Twitter, @sodafreesummer has 1,028 followers.  The latest Census Bureau estimate of Alameda County’s population is 1,554,720.

Where we see drips and drops of engagement on pressing issues in California, they seem in stark contrast to the torrents of support that the state has generated for social causes in past. Fifty years ago, when California became famous for societal change, powerful mandates were conveyed by media as humble as bullhorns, mimeos, and signs draped from colorful, shabbily-converted school buses.  We all know the resulting movements – in support of farm workers, peace, free speech, Black Power, the environment, and LGBT rights, to name a few.  

Back then, what were we doing right that we are not doing, or are doing less of, today?

At the 2001 Meeting of the American Sociological Association, Marshall Ganz of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government proposed that the study of social movements has largely ignored the power of storytelling, and has focused more on “structural matters of resources and opportunity”.  Drawing upon his firsthand experience with the United Farm Workers Union, Ganz argues that storytelling uniquely summons the emotional and moral resources needed to form a leadership core, launch an organization, and launch a movement.  

In 1962, Cesar Chavez and a small group of collaborators completed a house meeting drive among San Joaquin Valley farm workers, soliciting individual stories of injustice and registering 25,000 workers in a call for change.  These individual stories were woven into a collective story of injustice tied to the history of Mexican farm workers and the Mexican “revolutionary” tradition.  A high point in the movement came when Chavez and his followers marched 300 miles from Delano to Sacramento, where they were greeted by 10,000 supporters – but not by Governor Pat Brown, who had decided to “spend the day with his family” at Frank Sinatra’s house in Palm Springs.  The march, the crowd, and the snub by the Governor, all magnified an already dramatic story.

 

Ganz’s argument that a unique source of social movement power is in the new story it tells and explains why today’s tobacco control, obesity prevention, and other good-natured tries at engagement, are just shuffling along.  For over 20 years, tobacco control in California has been doggedly re-telling the same story of Big Tobacco’s venal deceit, and it continues to air TV ads featuring the recently-deceased Debi Austin, who first appeared in a tobacco control ad in 1996.  That ad, called “Voicebox”, shows Austin speaking ruefully about nicotine addiction as smoke wafts out of a surgical hole in her neck.  Debi’s story as a tobacco control activist may be as compelling as that of any activist, anywhere, but it may lack the newness and scope to reawaken dissent and take California’s anti-smoking movement to a new level.

As California’s culture bends to the norms imposed by its digital media empire – Apple, Facebook, Flickr, Google, Instagram, Twitter, Yahoo! and YouTube are all based here – local activism may be lured into an over-optimistic reliance on new media.  More emphasis might be going into giving people a way to like a story, than a story to like.  Californians may also be more likely to use social media as a way to merely flirt with social issues with a like, post, or re-tweet, but without otherwise getting much involved. 

Proof of the temptation to dabble via social media is provided by journalist Malcolm Gladwell in an October, 2010, New Yorker article, in which he poignantly notes: “The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece.” Similarly, Britain’s The Guardian has advised skepticism about the efficacy of “the social media rah-rah brigade”. 

From these and other observations, softening activism enabled by the internet is clearly not limited to just California.  However, its emergence here is particularly ironic and a bit of a travesty.  California’s history of social movements is famous for its “left coast” moxie, dissent, disobedience, volunteerism, creativity, diversity, spontaneity, earnest righteousness … and hard won results.   It has been anything but bland and ineffectual.

On February 3rd, 1969, the first day of the Santa Barbara Channel oil spill, a dead dolphin washed ashore with its breathing hole clogged, one of thousands of marine animals and sea birds that would perish in that disaster.  Energetic college students, shopkeepers, surfers, and parents with their kids, immediately staged a massive beach clean-up – including a Montecito society matron who was seen transporting oily birds in her Mercedes.  The grassroots environmental movement that ensued collected 100,000 petitions to ban offshore drilling, founded the first Earth Day, launched the statewide initiative to create the California Coastal Commission, prompted President Nixon to sign the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (leading to the establishment of the EPA), and assured passage of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). 

Other stories of bold, California activism include those of Jack Weinberg, Brian Wilson, and the deceptively tame-sounding Abalone Alliance.  Weinberg, of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, sat under arrest in a police car for 32 hours, surrounded by as many as 3,000 students using the car as a podium for continuous discussion until charges were dropped.  Wilson, one of a group of peace activists protesting the Contra wars by blocking the railroad tracks at the Concord Naval Weapons Station, was hit by an oncoming train, suffering a severe skull fracture and ultimately losing both legs below the knee.  Between 1977 and 1984, the Abalone Alliance staged multiple occupations at California’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant, with almost 2,000 people arrested during a two-week blockade in 1981 – the largest number arrested at an anti-nuclear protest in the United States. 

Way to be, California.

But that was then.  Recent social movements of consequence have originated elsewhere – most notably New York, Cairo, and a proposed country called Cascadia.   What has made these movements consequential is the new and timely qualities of their message, not of their media. 

Consider these words from the Occupy Wall Street Principles of Solidarity:

We proudly remain in Liberty Square constituting ourselves as autonomous political beings engaged in non-violent civil disobedience and building solidarity based on mutual respect, acceptance, and love.  It is from these reclaimed grounds that we say to all Americans and to the world, Enough!  How many crises does it take?  We are the 99% and we have moved to reclaim our mortgaged future.

These Principles, as stated, validate Ganz’s insight that “social movements are not merely reconfigured networks and redeployed resources. They are new stories of whom their participants hope to become.” Huffington Post reporter Paul Taylor described “We are the 99%” as "arguably the most successful slogan since Hell no, we won't go!" of the Vietnam War era. 

Writing about the Arab Spring, Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, suggests that “It is tempting to be swept away by this narrative (in the popular press), which suggests that social media prompted hundreds of thousands, and then millions, of Tunisians and Egyptians to pour into the streets and peacefully demand change.”  Closer to the truth, Alterman believes, is that the revolt started in Tunisian hinterlands, a place with very low internet penetration and social media presence, and spread primarily with the help of Tunisian General Trade Union members and TV news reports by al-Jazeera.   

The initial, catalyzing event that set Tunisian protests in motion was the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, in protest of harassment and humiliation he received by municipal officials for vending without a proper license.

When Internet activists got involved, they drew just a few hundred of their half-million followers into the street.  An initial chant of ‘‘Change, Freedom, Social Justice” was not inspiring, according to Alterman. When the chants shifted to pocketbook issues, however, the protests went from the hundreds to the thousands, and from the thousands they began to constitute a movement.  In Egypt, they chanted: ‘‘Hosni, Your Excellency, a hundred pounds for a kilo of meat.’’  Mubarak stepped down after 18 days of demonstrations – succumbing not to the strength of a medium, but of a message. 

Perhaps the most interesting example of a non-California social movement is one that involves its northernmost counties seceding from California – and the United States – to join Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in the formation of Cascadia, a proposed independent nation and shared sense of place. 

The central ideas, messages and story of Cascadia are not new, and in fact trace back to Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a “Republic of the Pacific.”  However, in the current era of colossal national failures to democratically steward the economy, environment, and military, the idea of establishing a local, independent, bioregional democracy seems especially beguiling and timely.  Regional planners, scholars, and policy-makers have made credible and substantive efforts to advance Cascadia, as reported in recent years by the Seattle Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, Forbes, CNN, and other media. Polls have measured support for Cascadia’s independence at 36% in British Columbia and 42% in Alberta, and have found that 22% of Americans now support a state’s or region’s right to peacefully secede from the union, the highest rate since the American Civil War.

While social media certainly play a role in building support for the Cascadia independence movement, Cascadians seem to derive most of their momentum from sequential waves of traditional news media, books (especially Ecotopia), academic papers, documentaries (notably Occupied Cascadia), events, policy forums, and even merchandise (scarves, T-shirts, bumper stickers, etc.) emblazoned with the striking and inspired Cascadia Doug Flag.  In additional to all those definitions and reminders of Cascadia’s story and importance, as of this writing the CascadiaNow Facebook has 2,124 likes, and a good article about Cascadia separatism, posted at occupywallst.org and written by @TysonKendall, evoked a dozen comments in its first 2-3 weeks.  These numbers are not cited here to suggest social media’s shortcomings in mobilizing movements and driving change, but to help temper the effects of what we are likely to view, retrospectively in the years immediately ahead, as a wee bit of new media hype.   

There are still places in California, some of them down unmarked roads to remote coastal and mountain villages, where old school, left-coast radicalism is alive and well with all the trappings – genius crackpots, public discourse, mom and pop support, staged events, flare-ups of social disobedience, home-brewed slogans and logos, sympathetic community organizations, impassioned letters to the editor, and a website or two despite what in some areas is still limited availability of broadband.   These tightly-knit models of folk activism seem to have been the least bitten by the social media bug, and may be the most likely to reveal the power of message as opposed to medium.

Elsewhere in California, where the fusion of technology and communications has created a pervasive sense of social media cool and miracle cure, the temptation must be great to abandon our legacy of radical change, and trade a night in jail or a 300 mile march for a thousand likes online.   

 

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