“Historically, movements have always maintained a tension between being centralized and decentralized. Centralized movements don’t grow, because they depend on the creativity and energy from letting people organize on their own in grass-roots efforts,” said Hahrie Han, a political science professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
BLM has united civil rights protest actions across the country and even internationally — from disrupting campaign events by Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to staging countless rallies against police brutality in the wake of Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri.
“The challenge is, how does the movement harness that into an actual power-building agenda?” Han said.
For some, BLM’s progress, despite its uncertain path, bears similarities to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
“Student protests are in response to great moral wrongs. That’s what happened at the University of Missouri. It’s happening with Black Lives Matter and the movement for global climate justice,” said Mark Rudd, who founded the Weathermen, a faction of Weather Underground, a radical 1960s protest group.
“These movements will grow and utilize a variety of strategies, including economic boycott and political organizing. When and how they will happen is anyone’s guess, but they are happening now, just as they did 50 years ago,” he said.
Willaford pointed out that the politics of respectability played a role in how the Mizzou protests were received by the U.S. public, just as they did in the civil rights era, when leaders strategized about how to make their protests appear respectable so that white people would listen.
“A lot of people are uncomfortable with what really went down during the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore,” Willaford said, referring to events that many media outlets described as rioting. “But those same people who will opportunistically throw militants and hoodrats under the bus will rush to support these college students because they are seen as resisting the ‘right’ way.”
Civil rights actions in the 1960s began from the bottom up, said Han. Successful protests were mirrored across the country, and individual cells slowly began to collaborate. One example, she said, was black student sit-ins at diners, demanding integration. After their success, other black student groups began staging diner sit-ins nationwide.
“It’s really common in social movements to see people copy tactics, so do we expect to see student athletes boycott on other campuses? I can’t predict, but it’s not uncommon to see that copying across communities,” she said.
Once successful tactics catch on in different communities, the question becomes whether these separate actions will coalesce into a broader movement. Han said one marker of that development is the formation of coalitions among groups.
The Dreamers movement, which advocates for immigration reform, provides a modern example. The group began organizing in the mid-2000s, with groups coming together in their communities to stop the deportation of undocumented immigrants.
“They didn’t win all those actions, but that’s where they first experienced the power of collective action,” Han said. “The movement then spread across the country … and began developing relations with each other and coalescing into something that has more national impact.”
In 2012, President Barack Obama, in response to pressure from immigrant groups, instituted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which granted undocumented youths who entered the U.S. as children temporary permission to stay in the country.
Signs that MU protests could grow into a more substantial movement have already been seen. In the days since Wolfe’s resignation, students at other universities have voted to hold their own events highlighting racial issues. Peaceful marches and walkouts are planned or have been held at Yale University, Ithaca College and Smith College.
“What’s powerful about the University of Missouri and a lot of the other activities going around on campuses and communities is the development of a new generation of activists and leaders,” Han said.