Sample: Movements at the Millennium: Cybermobilizing for Social Justice 1999-2000

Here is the abstract and the introduction to my 100-page Senior Thesis written for my major at UC Santa Barbara in 2000. This paper helped me to win the Genesis Award for innovative research and graduate with Distinction in the Major.

ABSTRACT

The demonstrations in Seattle in November 1999 against the World Trade Organization Millennial meeting took the world by surprise. People began to wonder what the WTO was, and how people dressed up as turtles found common ground with steelworkers as they tried to shut down the WTO summit.

Protest begins with sense of unfairness. How does this arise? NYU’s Tom R. Tyler suggests that if decision-making procedures are fair, people will accept the outcomes even if they disagree with them substantively. Fair process then maintains a belief in the legitimacy of political institutions even when we oppose what they do.  My study is a deviant case analysis that replicates many questions from Tyler’s work with this unique group, the citizens who found common ground in dissent at Seattle, and at subsequent actions. I probe their social characteristics, experiences and background to search systematically to see if Tyler’s theory holds true for protesters — and, if not, how they differ.  Specifically, I examine whether they differ from Tyler’s results in their response to political decisions they view as substantively unacceptable. Perhaps they are unlikely to   accept procedural fairness as a substitute for just outcomes.

It seemed to me that maybe this was what made protesters more likely to question the legitimacy of political institutions. I drew on the rich data on the 1999-2000 protests from Seattle to D2K at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. I explore some of the main characteristics of these recent protests against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, specifically, SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the women’s movement and the anti-War movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Using participant observation of D2K organizing and protests, in-depth interviews with protesters and leaders of D2K and three participating groups, with more limited surveys of protestors, I used this mobilization as a laboratory to explore both the motivations of those who join  protests and the structure and dynamics of movements today.

Introduction

According to the seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke, governments exist via the tacit consent of the governed. The idea of tacit consent means that members of a polity accept both the benefits and obligations of that polity. The difficulty is, what ought to be looked upon as a tacit consent, and how far it binds, i.e., how far any one shall be looked on to have consented, and thereby submitted to any government, where he has made no expressions of it at all.

And to this I say, that every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment, of any part of the dominions of any government, doth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it; whether this his possession be of land, to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging only for a week; or whether it be barely travelling freely on the highway; and in effect, it reaches as far as the very being of any one within the territories of that government (Locke, Second Treatise, Section 119).

Thus, tacit consent is subjective acceptance that legitimates government.  In the view of those who work for social justice in our own millennial era, government allows those who exploit society to exercise control over it and fail in their obligations. This leads some social justice activists to view government itself as illegitimate, as it has abdicated state power to corporate influence. These activists withdraw their subjective acceptance of a government controlled by those who fail to fulfill the obligations they incur while enriching themselves. As this consciousness grows, activists begin to mobilize. The most visible manifestation of this mobilization is protest.

How might these activists come to conclude that such abdication of power or undue influence on state decisions was unfair? In 1994, social psychologist Tom R. Tyler, then at UC Berkeley, concluded from one of his studies that societal dynamics existed that prevented such radical critique. He found that citizens accept governmental outcomes they viewed as unfair if they considered the procedures under which they were decided to be fair and balanced. A majority of Tyler’s respondents concluded that if fair processes were observed, laws should be followed and government should be considered legitimate. The central question I asked in this paper is: how do activists conclude that outcomes are not fair, refuse to give tacit consent, and move to proactive mobilization and protest?

One concrete expression of the refusal of tactic consent manifested at the protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle, Washington in late November of 1999, which took the world by surprise. Beforehand, Americans knew little or nothing about the WTO, formed in 1995 to lower barriers to international trade. When 50,000 people appeared on the streets of Seattle to disrupt the WTO summit, America began paying attention. The seriousness of the activists’ commitment was tested as tear gas, beatings, and arrests ensued. Then, on April 16, 2000, 30,000 people arrived in Washington, D.C. to disrupt a meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The United States had not seen protests on this scale, with a comparable use of police force, since the 1960s. The discovery that a group was planning a protest of similar scale at the Democratic Party National Convention in Los Angeles, during August of 2000, prompted my research project on this new wave of protest. “D2K” signifies the action planned at the Democratic National Convention held during August 14 to August 18, 2000, in downtown Los Angeles.  D2K is a play on the ubiquitous term used to describe the Millennium, Y2K. For a year and a half, the contours of this new activism were probed via participant-observation, interviews, and surveys.

In spirit, the movement echoed observations of Herbert Marcuse in Repressive Tolerance. If we believe that objective truth exists, history is an inconstant struggle toward that truth. One message of this truth, borne out by the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, taught us that we, as a society, are rewarded with a higher quality of life when more of us achieve equality.   As life chances for people of color improve, their cultural and scholarly contributions, invisible earlier in our history, enrich our lives. In this way, social progress and increasing human rights benefit society on a broad level.

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