Scenes from the Front Lines

Photographs from four decades of social movements.

Frances Fox Piven December 29, 2016

The big and vic­to­ri­ous move­ments of our his­to­ry have done more than com­mu­ni­cate. They have mobi­lized the most fun­da­men­tal source of pow­er of ordi­nary peo­ple: the pow­er to refuse to coop­er­ate with the insti­tu­tion­al­ized rou­tines upon which social life depends. If fac­to­ry work­ers walk out, the fac­to­ry comes to a halt; but if nan­nies stay home, so do the par­ents whose chil­dren they mind; if urban­ites block high­ways, traf­fic stops; if debtors refuse, lenders are at risk — and so is a finan­cial sys­tem anchored to mas­sive debt.

We’ve seen the dis­rup­tive poten­tial of mass­es of defi­ant peo­ple before. It pro­duced the big reforms of Amer­i­can his­to­ry, from elec­toral rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment to the end of chat­tel slav­ery, to curbs on monop­oly, to legal pro­tec­tion of unions, to leg­is­lat­ed civ­il rights for African Amer­i­cans. But sad­ly, there are no per­ma­nent vic­to­ries in polit­i­cal life. This is why we have to rise again.

Frances Fox Piv­en writes on move­ments and U.S. pol­i­tics. She is on the fac­ul­ty of the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, and the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Poor Peo­ple’s Move­ments and Chal­leng­ing Author­i­ty: How Ordi­nary Peo­ple Change Amer­i­ca.
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