The Dangers of Organizing: Combatting One-Off Events With Tangible Goals
Felix Tager is the Senior Class President and on the Board of March for Our Lives NY.
Activism is not just resharing a mass-posted statistic on Instagram or attending one event and moving on. It requires constant dedication, determination, and effort. When I first entered the social justice space, I was in high school. It was after the Las Vegas massacre on October 1st, 2017, when 49 people were killed and hundreds were injured. That was when I realized I should do something. That I could do something. I started with something small, trying to register my classmates in high school to vote. But soon it became something more than that, I wanted to go further. I started doing gun violence work after the shooting in Parkland, Florida. I realized that just registering and encouraging people to vote more capable politicians into office was not enough. Rather than just getting people to vote, I wanted to have a more profound impact on gun violence prevention efforts.
For nearly five years I have been involved in social justice organizing regarding voter rights, education, and healthcare reform and for over four years I have been involved in essential gun violence prevention efforts through organizing and advising officials including former Mayor of New York City Bill De Blasio. My first nonprofit, Shattering The Silence, was created out of an idea I had following the Las Vegas Massacre to work with survivors from an event primarily attended by Republicans, to build bridges and unite to demand tangible change: the banning of bump stocks, passing red flag laws, and implementing universal background checks. We had marches in over a dozen cities and vigils on the one-year anniversary of the massacre in a dozen more including Las Vegas. However, despite us organizing an event from beginning to end in multiple cities, I consider these efforts to be an only limited, partial success. We were able to help get bump stocks banned through combined efforts with other organizations across the country, but we were unable to make as big of an impact as we should have been able to.
On June 11th, I was the lead organizer of the NYC March For Our Lives event, a march that shut down the Brooklyn bridge with an estimated 10,000 attendees. We had celebrities like Aly and Aj, major politicians including Mayor Eric Adams and NY State Attorney General Letitia James, and public figures attending and amplifying our event. I was interviewed by local, national, and international media and images of the event were shared by publications across the globe. One of our volunteers who was assisting with security asked me how I ever got used to this, but the fact is, I haven’t.
Activism is not as glamorous or rewarding as moments like these make it seem. It takes failing again and again and again to succeed. This was the largest march I had ever organized. NBC News was interviewing us in the days leading up to the march, yet the morning of — I was petrified nobody would show up. This is because organizing is not just about the moments when there are crowds of people and the press is actually listening. It is about all the times when they aren’t. When a protest ends, many feel a sense of accomplishment and pride, and that’s important, but it isn’t the end of the story. The fact is that just because we are done marching does not mean this fight is over. It does not necessarily mean we accomplished anything to materially advance our cause. It is the work that we do afterward, that builds off of this momentum that creates real change.
However, just because one event fails or you don’t win everything immediately does not mean that you have to give up. Activism has moments where nobody pays attention to what you do and there are other moments where people will stop what they are doing, watch, and join in. Long-term success requires that organizers be there to harness that energy and run with it when it comes. Usually, when those moments come they are unexpected and out of organizers’ control. That is why it is important not to give up, to keep trying, and to focus on the bigger picture rather than a single protest. Yes, protests have a profound impact on our work, however, they are not everything. Just marching and then patting yourself on the back like you solved the issue of gun violence in one day is a fantasy perpetuated by those who use tragedy for personal gain.
The unfortunate reality is that a major cause of activism’s stagnation between moments of tragedy is a lack of engagement from well-intentioned people who are only motivated to action for brief periods of time. Many of the lead organizers during the 2018 rise in youth-led organizing have stopped organizing, not just because of burnout which certainly happens, but because many got into college and put their attention elsewhere. This constant state of transition causes poor internal communication and cohesion, siloing of work, and ultimately an organization’s inability to progress forward in an effective way.
However, there are other instances where the issue lies in people caring more about notoriety than the issues they are fighting for. It’s why some people did it for the five minutes of fame and the line on their resume, and then moved on. It goes without saying that everyone, including me, has been excited by the glamor of the press and getting recognized for the work you are doing. However, when a moment is just a moment and nothing else, it does nothing.
At Hamilton, we have a student body that, despite the many criticisms that can be made, has turned out and tried to organize when the world around us is burning to the ground. However, here on the Hill, there are two fatal flaws in organizing: it often lacks inclusivity, especially of trans, disabled, and BIPOC individuals at the helm, and the second, which I will be focusing on, is the curse of one-off event organizing.
Last year, there were three major protests at Hamilton: the march for Cuban human rights, the teach-in and protest regarding systemic racism in academia following the resignation and letter by the incredible Professor Durrani, and the protests following the leaked Supreme Court decision regarding Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. All three of these events were cause-centered events without a clear end or goal in sight. While they certainly had an effect on our community and educated those on our campus that may not be informed of these issues, they were all one-off events that didn’t fit into a larger combined effort to drive concrete change. Events such as these must have an ask to truly be effective in achieving a tangible goal. If the goal is just to educate people, that is great, however, it should not be the only goal. The reproductive rights march group aimed to continue their work after the protest, but from what I can tell, the group died off soon after the media attention faded. This is because rather than focusing on a key issue and having the protest be a product of this goal, the goal for many of these organizers was the protest itself.
The day after the June 11th March For Our Lives protests across the country, Senator Chris Murphy announced the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. This was the first gun safety bill to pass in three decades, but it is far from enough. Just because we marched does not mean we stop here, we keep pushing forward. In July, following the signing of the Act by the President, I had the privilege of talking to Senator Murphy about how he was able to accomplish this historic feat. He not only credited the work we did with the marches across the country, but recognized that the ongoing efforts perpetuated by gun violence prevention organizations were significant towards convincing republicans that this was an issue that Americans would not back down about. With tangible, clearly laid out goals our team was able to make an impact.
Instead, at Hamilton, once we march, many pat themselves on the back as if a protest in a closed-off institution in the middle of upstate New York would solve crises that are impacting millions. The reality is that these protests should be the start of the organizing process, not the end of it. So what if we were in the press if nothing was done after the fact? Is then the only reason for the march even existing to get notoriety?
I firmly believe that organizing at Hamilton can be incredibly powerful. Yes, we are arguably in the middle of nowhere, but in a country with a broken electoral system and flawed democracy, the middle of nowhere is exactly where we need to make a difference. Hamilton is positioned in one of the red bubbles of New York. We have a unique opportunity to expand our efforts outside of our campus by partnering with others in the region, yet it rarely happens.
Hamilton has the potential to be a positive influence and catalyst for change in upstate New York. Over the last three years that I have been at Hamilton, I have watched this institution grow and evolve — yet the passion among some to change the world has never wavered. We have the power and the ability to make the world a better place. I am confident in this. With a strong will and a clear goal anything is possible.