Harvard profs: Social-protest movement needs clear demands

"After people get tired of living in parks then nothing is changed, would be greater if they could find some leadership," says visiting professor.

Social protest rally in Jerusalem 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Social protest rally in Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
How does Israel’s J14 “social justice” movement look from the outside? According to two visiting professors from Harvard University, movements like J14 or America’s “Occupy Wall Street” needs strong leadership and clear demands in order to affect social change.
“I think [the J14 movement] would need a strong leader to be politically successful and institute change and to give structure to its demands,” James Sadanius, a professor of psychology, African and African-American studies at Harvard University told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
“You need to have the leaders caucus with one another, some system to get feedback from a large number of participants about what they want to change, realistic demands from the political system, high voter turnout, political pressure on the electoral system and political organization,” Sadanius added.
Sadanius and Helen Haste, a visiting professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Bath, England, were in Israel to take part in the the Harvard-IDC Symposium in Political Psychology and Decision Making held at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya's Lauder school of Government, Diplomacy,and Strategy.
Their visit came as the OWS movement has garnered wide-spread media attention in the US, and following a summer of mass protests that captivated the Israeli public.
According to Sadanius, in spite of the media attention and grassroots support, these movements need to itemize their demands through a centralized leadership if they want to translate street protest into real social change.
“[OWS] hasn’t made a concrete list of demands – they’re clear about how they’re opposed to the political system and lobbyists and economic special interests but they haven’t come up with a list of concrete demands,” Sadanius said.
“I think in some sense this is a danger because after people get tired of demonstrating and living in parks then nothing is concretely changed. It would be greater if they could find some leadership and come up with a concrete list of demands.”
Since it started in mid-July, the J14 movement has been beset by criticism that it lacks strong leadership, has no clearly itemized demands and either wants too much from the government or has no idea what its asking for at all.
After an initial avalanche of media coverage and almost two months of protests and camping out in tent cities across the country, public attention began to wane and the momentum started to run out for the movement.
By the time the Tel Aviv Municipality finally cleared the main tent city on Rothschild Boulevard, the campsite had become largely a haunt of homeless people and drug addicts and had lost its centrality as a pressure-cooker of mass social protests.
Sadanius said such a situation could very well take place at Zuccotti Park, the central protest site of the OWS movement, unless they organize well and dig in for the long haul.
“[OWS] participants are aware of that risk and are trying to get the demonstrators to commit to live on the parks and streets all year, so it doesn’t peter out to nothing, because if that happens this movement won’t be successful. So people are aware of the necessity of having this movement remain over the long haul, and if they can’t the movement will have to be seen as a failure, a passing episode with no long-term consequences.”
Helen Haste said it’s important to note that recent youth-led movements have not all been from the left, saying that “we need to be aware that we have broadly leftist protests that are in various forms anti-capitalist but we’re also seeing a rise in right-wing action, which shows a rise in unpleasant anti-immigration movements in Western Europe.”
“We don’t want to exaggerate but we don’t need to ignore it, this idea that the young are all left wing, is not true and never has been.”
Like Sadanius, Haste also stressed the importance of strong leadership.
“I don’t think a movement can survive very long without some sort of leadership, [without leadership] it won’t have a visible set of demands that the press can focus on...also a government has to negotiate with someone, and that’s what they would need leadership for.”
In terms of how much such movements – from the mass protests in Spain and Greece to those in Israel and the cities of the United States – can make a difference in policy, Haste said “as far as policy, every government is concerned with public opinion and support so a government will take note of [demonstrations] in order to gauge how widespread the opposition or support is.”
“So if you get a mass public movement, the government will take notice at least to reach out to leaders. But the idea that social movements change policy is naïve; they do change policy but only in that they change public opinion which can change the government’s policy.
“Holding a banner in the street thinking you’re changing the world is naïve.”