Who is the leader of the protests that have swept across America in the last two weeks? Who is its Martin Luther King Jr., its Mahatma Gandhi, its Nelson Mandela? For that matter, what’s the main organization behind it? Its Southern Christian Leadership Conference or African National Congress?
What’s remarkable about this new movement, born from a video of a Minneapolis police officer crushing George Floyd under his knee, is the speed with which it has spread across the country and the world without any central coordination. But this lack of central organization is not unusual these days. The ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have also been noted for their decentralized, leaderless model. So, for that matter, are a number of protests that have swept the globe in recent months, including the anti-austerity movements in Chile, Ecuador, and Lebanon; protests against corruption and inequality from Haiti to Iraq; nationalist demonstrations in Catalonia, and France’s anti-establishment Gilet Jaunes. These movements differ in the events and underlying conditions that precipitated them, but share a nonhierarchical structure and sense of spontaneity.
Many Black Lives Matter activists reject the term leaderless. Patrisse Cullors, the activist who originally promoted the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag in 2013 after George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the killing of Trayvon Martin, refers to it in contrast as a “leader-full” movement, in which individual activists are empowered rather than asked to defer to a hierarchy.
While the concept has deeper roots, particularly in anti-capitalist and feminist activism, decentralized protest movements have become the norm in recent years. The phenomenon first became apparent around 2011, in the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring protests. The most frequently credited reason for this change is the advent of social media. Iran’s 2010 Green Movement was dubbed the “Twitter Revolution.” Wael Ghonim, the former Google employee who became a key figure in Egypt’s 2011 Tahrir Square protests, would often thank Mark Zuckerberg in interviews for developing the platform that made organizing the movement possible. This optimism about the possibilities of social media feels very dated today, but it’s undeniable that the internet has opened up possibilities for organizing without a centralized leadership structure.
“What we see here is a totally different media environment than our foremothers in the civil rights movement had. We have the technology and the access to allow more people to take the lead,” said Meredith Clark, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who has researched the Black Lives Matter movement’s organizing tactics.
But it’s not just about technology. It’s a philosophical difference, too. Clark contrasts the current anti-racist movement’s emphasis on the empowerment of individual activists with “the civil rights movement, and the leadership we saw at that time, which was highly patriarchal, that focused on respectability, that engaged people along very strict lines.”
The discipline of those historical movements could be remarkable. Think of the famous incident on March 9, 1965, when King brought supporters to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, two days after they were beaten by police in the infamous “Bloody Sunday” incident, and had them kneel and pray rather than cross the bridge and risk another violent confrontation. A leaderless movement, for better or worse, would have more trouble ensuring everyone turned back from the bridge.
But rejecting centralized leadership has certain benefits as well. “No individual can claim to speak for the whole movement,” said Carne Ross, a British diplomat-turned-activist and author of The Leaderless Revolution. He recalled an activist telling him during Occupy Wall Street, “Nobody speaks for me.”
The tragic history of the American civil rights movement also points to another limitation of a movement organized around one or two charismatic figureheads. “If that person was harmed or assassinated, as happened with Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, a large part of the movement dies,” Clark said.
The leaderless movement can be more flexible. In Hong Kong, activists have adopted martial arts star Bruce Lee’s Taoism-influenced motto “be water” to describe their resilient and flexible approach. Erica Chenoweth, an expert on nonviolent social movements at Harvard Kennedy School, said there’s research showing that decentralized movements are able to react quickly to challenges and innovate tactics. “A movement that’s overly organized can become too invested in its own tactics.”
The Trump administration’s fixation on the role of antifa, the militant “anti-fascist” activists who make up a very small portion of the crowds, suggests the White House wants to avoid confronting how widespread and diverse the support for this movement is. The very spontaneity of the movement is a large part of its power.
After the last two weeks, no one should doubt that power. In addition to the historic number of people it has brought onto the streets, the movement has also already achieved several concrete victories, including the city of Minneapolis committing to disbanding its police department, major cities pledging to cut their police budgets, and policing policy changes throughout the country. Popular support for police reform has grown, while President Donald Trump has become less popular and more politically isolated.
Still, the decentralized approach is not without its drawbacks. The protests rely on social media to get the message out, plan, and coordinate logistics. “There’s a greater recognition that the same technologies that are used to organize are being used to surveil,” noted Clark. In the movement against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Chenoweth pointed out, “because of the digital organizing space, it was very easy to figure out who was organizing things, even if there wasn’t a formal leader.”
The flipside of tactical innovation, Ross said, is that “there is no mechanism in a leaderless movement to enforce consistent tactics, particularly when it comes to crossing the line into violence. The risk is that the actions of a few will besmirch the reputation of the whole.” One widely shared video shows two white women, perhaps associated with antifa, graffitiing “BLM” on a Starbucks while the woman filming tells them to stop, saying “they’re gonna blame black people for this.”
Other movements have faced this challenge as well. Hong Kong’s protesters were widely criticized after a journalist from China’s state-run Global Times newspaper was assaulted and his hands bound by a crowd during an airport sit-in last August. Other protesters made statements of apology for the incident.
It’s also often not clear who is speaking for the movement. “Black Lives Matter,” for instance, is a slogan, a decentralized movement, as well as the name of a network of established organizations. When D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser last week renamed a street in front of the White House “Black Lives Matter Plaza” and had the slogan painted on the street, she was criticized by the group Black Lives Matter DC, which called the move a distraction from a politician who has supported increasing the budget for the police and had days earlier sent police to crack down on protests.
The big-tent approach of decentralized movements is highly effective at getting people into the streets. For instance, some taking part in the current protests may favor the specific policing reforms advocated by groups like Campaign Zero, while others favor defunding or eliminating police forces entirely.
But a lack of message discipline can also make it hard to sustain movements once the time comes to translate their goals into lasting policy changes. The Gilets Jaunes protests that emerged in France in 2018 were such a big tent that journalists often seemed unsure if they were a movement of the right or the left. Eventually, they lost momentum over infighting. The Tahrir Square protests may have succeeded in forcing Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak from office, but it was the Muslim Brotherhood, a well-established and highly disciplined political movement, that was in a position to take power after him, until it was eventually ousted by another highly disciplined institution: the country’s military.
Then there’s the question of whether these movements are actually as open and egalitarian as they seem. Even the most anarchical movement has underlying power dynamics. In 1970, when leaderless “consciousness-raising” groups were growing in popularity within the women’s movement, the feminist scholar Jo Freeman criticized the approach in an article titled “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” which argued that “there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion.” Thus, she wrote, structurelessness “becomes a way of masking power” that benefits those who best understand a movement’s unwritten rules. Better, she argues, to make the power structure explicit, open to participation and critique by all.
The critique is worth keeping in mind. But a less cynical way of viewing this is that lasting formal structures can emerge from informal movements. Decentralized movements “become organizations in towns and cities where people are active. Narrative control comes from long-standing organizations that have been doing this all along,” said Chenoweth. This was the case with the first major wave of Black Lives Matter organizing between 2014 and 2016. Many organizers of the initial Black Lives Matter protests have gone on to found new organizations focusing on different aspects and approaches to policing and criminal justice.
Whatever its benefits and drawbacks, the decentralized approach is likely to grow more popular. It may be the only approach suited to a world in which there’s growing distrust of large, formal institutions, whether in politics, business, or the media. As they develop and innovate, activists will need to figure out how movements that are inherently mistrustful of power can start wielding it.