On Jan. 20, as many as 4,500 people filled the Athens, GA, sidewalks, baring signs reading “Resist,” “Ningun ser humano es ilegal” (“No human is illegal) and “Love Trumps Hate,” amoung other things.
A makeshift marching band blasted along to chants of “I believe that we will win.”
Several older women approached Sean Umbehant, a tall and mildly bearded genderqueer individual and Executive Director of the University of Georgia Lambda Alliance, and complimented them on their makeup.
“That was like a fangirl moment, honestly,” Umbehant said. “I’ve always wanted a sweet granny to tell me that.”
Beyond the spectacle, the chants and homemade signs, the Athens Day of Resistance represented a theme of collective action that is not novel by any means, but has become increasingly more relevant in the current news cycle. The march and rally was not the only public protest in response to Donald Trump’s inauguration, from the global and highly organized Women’s Marches the day after the inauguration to the nearly impromptu dance party on the Vice President’s lawn the night before it.
According to Dr. Pablo Lapegna, a UGA associate professor specializing in social movement sociology, scholars recognize four factors that explain why social movements emerge in some places and not others: resources, framing, emotion and political opportunities.
Organization of Resources
Of the four aspects contributing to collective action, organization of resource is perhaps the most straightforward and apparent.
“The argument is that everybody has complaints or grievances, but those who have enough resources to organize collectively are the people who are able to mobilize,” Lapegna said.
Resources here can include having enough expendable income to board a Washington-bound bus and rent a hotel near the rally site. In contrast, someone who may be interested in a particular social movement but works two full-time jobs likely does not have time to engage in a protest.
“Framing” means the reality of a situation is not evident or readily transparent, so activists frame information in a context that will convince people to mobilize. Those collective action frames are divided into three aspects. The first is diagnosis, when activists diagnose what the situation is and the specific injustices. The second is prognosis, when you activists propose ways to address the issues. The last aspect is motivation, when activists attempt to convince contributors and outsiders that mobilization will have an effect.
For instance, the Lambda Alliance’s general body meeting on Jan. 30 presented the LGBTQA human rights movement as a pervasive and systemic issue. The student-run LGBTQA organization screened a segment of Comedy Central’s Drunk History series entitled Marsha P. Johnson Sparks the Stonewall Riots. The clip tipsily recounted the role of the transgender activist in what is recognized as a turning point in LGBTQA-centric human rights movement.
Asher Beckner, a first year English and psychology major at UGA who identifies as gender nonbinary, said they found comfort in the history lesson, in that it reminded them of what the LGBTQA community is experiencing today.
“There have been generations before us who went through the same exact thing we’re going through now,” they said. “Which is terrible, because we are still going through this, and comforting because we have their experiences to build upon.”
When it comes to framing modern protests like the Athens Day of Resistance, Umbehant said it is important to consider its complexity and the different communities which contributed to it.
“Whenever you see an entire mass community of people coming together, often times– actually, every time– not every single person in that entire community is going to have the same goals, same priorities, same opinions. Just like every other group on the planet, they’re diverse.”
They went on to say that as a white genderqueer person, they cannot understand the specific injustices people of color face solely based on their experiences as a nonbinary individual.
“But I can stand in solidarity with them, and I can listen to them,” they said. “I think one of the biggest things about the Day of Resistance and the marches was to show solidarity across communities. I would say the goal, if anything, is just to show solidarity among all walks of life.”
Beckner, on the other hand, noted the Day of Resistance crowd could have demonstrated better intersectionality, referencing the lack of support toward the transgender community.
“It was very genital centric, like the signs that said ‘This p***y grabs back,’” they said. “It felt very exclusionary to trans women, nonbinary people and genderqueer people in general.”
When social movement scholarship became established, there was an effort on the part of social movements scholars to show that protests are generated through rational decisions, and not the acts of people who are somehow maladjusted. This school of thought originated in the 1970s, in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. Lapegna said scholars wanted to show that people who engaged in the protests and rallies were not moved by irrational emotions, but were acting rationally and should be taken seriously.
Since the mid-1990s, however, scholars have begun to reconsider. Many modern social movement scholars now recognize emotion plays a role in mobilizing people.
“Reason and emotion are not opposed to each other or antithetical or mutually exclusive,” Lapegna said. “Yes, the other factors are important, but all the things that you measure in terms of what you have to win and what you have to lose are usually combined with some sort of emotion that is not irrational. The role of emotions in getting people into the streets doesn’t mean these people are irrational. Emotions can also be part of your rationality.”
Although they were initially intimated by the large crowd that gathered outside city hall for the Day of Resistance march, Beckner said the emotional energy of the crowd drew them in.
“As we were walking around and started doing chants, it was really empowering to walk around and see people react to us,” they said. “It was really comforting to know that we’re not alone.”
Umbehant said they felt a sense of solidarity motivating the community after the Athens Day of Resistance.
“I could feel some people trying to keep that sense of community afterwards,” they said. “They were reminding everyone, ‘don’t forget there’s this many of us.’ Even if you look around and feel isolated, always think back to that night and remember just how many people in the community are supporting you and have your back.”
By “political opportunities,” social movement scholars mean that people tend to mobilize when they see an opening in the political system. Activists who can identify members within a political system who may be receptive to a claim, they are more likely to mobilize. Political opportunities can take on many forms, from a president who is sympathetic to a cause, to a minority faction wishing to overthrow the dominant majority.
Beckner, however, says they protest as a way to express their lack of political opportunities and representation.
“As a transgender, nonbinary person, no one is going to represent me fully,” they said. “I have to represent myself. I know my presence at a political event will be one of the few trans, nonbinary people there. It’s important to have that representation, especially at progressive, queer-centric, feminism-centric protests like the Day of Resistance.”
The role of political opportunities in the organization of collective action is relevant in instances of political injustice, but may not apply to the human rights movement. Lapegna said when traditional social movement scholars give so much weight to the political system, they may ignore protests and social movements that emphasize changing everyday interactions.
“LGBTQA activists can organize to gain acceptability for the community and their rights without ever trying to target institutions,” he said. “The movement could be more about acceptability, adversity and antidiscrimination. “
Umbehant said that as a non-partisan organization, the Lambda Alliance will not advocate for or against any given political party or institution. Instead, the organization will focus on countering stigma against the LGBTQA community on campus, educating the public and keeping the UGA student body safe.
“No matter what your political stance is, we should still care about rights and equity,” they said. “We should still care about the safety of our students, whether they’re gay, straight or anything in between, on or off the spectrum. It’s not a political issue at this point. We’re just fighting for human rights.”
Reflecting on how they want to move forward from the protests, Umbehant said they have recognized the distinction between their role as a politically active individual and their role as a student leader and representative of a larger organization. On a personal level, they want to stay involved in any kind of activism they can in the Athens area.
“I’m trying to choose my battles and making sure I’m making the best impact in the most areas that I can,” they said. “I as one person am not able to fix everything. But I can support my community, support myself, support my friends and keep marching forward… Pun definitely intended.”
This post was written by Casie Wilson. Follow her on Twitter @casiedwilson