On March 31, 2010, Michelle Ryan Lauto, an 18-year-old student from Bergen County, New Jersey, was seriously pissed off. She had just seen a news report about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s proposal for deep cuts to the state’s education budget, and she knew that would mean fewer teachers, more crumbling buildings, and losses for the sports teams, arts and music programs that were already just barely scraping by. "The youth who will be effected by all these cuts need to rise up and do something," Michelle wrote on Facebook.
Realizing that the same Facebook event feature that her friends used to coordinate house parties could be used to organize a protest, Michelle posted a Facebook event calling for a mass student walkout on April 27. And then she invited her friends.
By April 24, RSVPs had grown from a few hundred to over 5,000. Just two days later, sign-ups surged past 16,000. Nervous school officials tried to intimidate the students, threatening suspension, criminal charges and the banning of students from graduation.
These threats compounded an already tense relationship between Newark’s youth—over 80 percent of whom are black or Hispanic—and the local police department. Only a few weeks earlier, three undercover Newark police officers were caught on tape savagely beating 15-year-old African-American student Travis Rettrey. As they weighed whether or not to take the risk of walking out, images of Rettrey’s beating were still fresh in many students’ minds.
But Michelle and her fellow students were not deterred. On the morning of April 27, thousands of students took to the streets across the state. In the small town of Maplewood, 200 students walked out of Columbia High School waving homemade signs with slogans such "We love our teachers" and "We are the future." At Montclair High School, nearly half of the entire 1,900-strong student body gathered outside and chanted "No more budget cuts."
In downtown Newark, a large crowd of students faced down a hostile ring of mounted police to swarm the steps of City Hall, chanting, "Save our schools!" The walkouts made headlines throughout New Jersey, and generated significant press coverage nationwide.
"All I did was make a Facebook page," Michelle told the New York Times. "Anyone who has an opinion could do that and have their opinion heard."
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Tools that enable ordinary citizens to catalyze collective action have never been more urgently needed for the survival of our democracy. January’s Citizens United Supreme Court ruling cleared corporations to secretly spend unlimited billions to swing elections through shadowy front groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. Not surprisingly, the 2010 elections shattered all previous midterm spending records.
This massive influx of corporate money is tearing through our democracy like a wildfire. Concerned citizens need to smartly utilize every resource we can find to help beat back the blaze. And that’s why Malcolm Gladwell’s October 4 New Yorker piece, "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted," which dismisses the role of online organizing in driving any significant progressive social change, has raised a serious alarm.
Gladwell examines the grassroots tactics that have historically triggered major political change, and the organizing structures that made these tactics possible. He concludes that online organizing has no role in facilitating comparable activism today. "The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient," Gladwell writes. As he argues, all Internet-enabled activism only "makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact."