Scenes from the Front Lines

Photographs from four decades of social movements.

Frances Fox Piven

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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.

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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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