“They need a leader.”
This was the response I received after proudly presenting my photos from the immigration rally to a close family friend.
“They need a leader.”
Lorenzo, a 68 year old Vietnam veteran, understood my confused silence and went on to detail his involvement in el movimiento, aka the Chicano movement, after returning home from the war.
The Chicano movement began in the 1960s. It aimed to further the rights of Mexican-Americans who had grown tired of being treated as second class citizens. They fought to reclaim their ancestors’ land, for humane treatment of field workers, and against ethnic stereotypes. It’s difficult to discuss this movement without mentioning the name Cesar Chavez. Chavez is to el movimento what MLK Jr. is to the Civil rights movement; the leader. Chavez organized boycotts, protests, student walkouts and showed Chicanos that they have the right to organize.
As I sat there listening to Lorenzo’s stories about rallies and strikes and peaceful protests gone wrong, I felt dizzy with uncertainty. Was he right? Did this movement, that I felt so passionately about, lack a vital component? In that moment, all signs pointed to yes-- history books tell us that leaders are central to successful social movements and el movimiento was a success, arguably because of the inspirational, compelling man who led the fight.
But this isn’t 1965 anymore.
My phone addresses me by name, chubby spacecrafts are currently carrying cargo to Mars, and well, we still don’t really know what the hell lives at the bottom of the ocean but at least my watch can tell me if I’m about to go into cardiac arrest.
The way Americans live day to day life has drastically changed, why shouldn’t the way we express anger towards the government change as well?
I understand the need for a leader, and I go back and forth on whether or not I believe this movement requires one. Leaders of social movements organize, mobilize, and inspire participants. He/she acts as an articulator, linking a movement to the larger society. All of which are necessary for a successful movement and all of which can now be accomplished through the use of our ever-present righthand man, social media. Even my cat has a twitter account. If you want to get a message out to the world, whether it’s to express an opinion, to share your personal story or to gather people for an event, social media is your most effective tool. While social media certainly has its downfalls, it sure makes for one hell of a podium.
America has seen some great leaders throughout its history but the idea of sole, individual leadership being a necessity for a movement’s success may be a bit outdated. Let’s channel sociologist Colin Barker for a moment: “an emphasis on leaders seems to unfairly relegate the critical masses of movements to the category of followers.” Good point, Colin. How do leaders gain legitimate authority, anyways? Charisma? A charismatic leader guiding his followers into the light of his beliefs? That’s a cult. Besides, followers giving themselves up to a charismatic leader only strips them of their agency. Speaking for myself, I feel passionately about this movement, and my involvement in it comes from my own opinions. No single person has influenced by belief that separating families is a violation of basic human rights, I came to that realization on my own.
All the tasks previously appointed to a leader have been decentralized and dispersed among the masses. These photos show how we are all leading this movement together. We aren’t followers listening to one person’s rhetoric, we are individuals listening to and sharing each others’ stories---joining together in frustration and heartache, to motivate and encourage each other. The choices we’re making are authentic and we are redefining what it means to protest.