Swarming starlings over Rome.

Swarming starlings over Rome.

by Rivera Sun, author of The Dandelion Insurrection

The word you’re looking for is swarming. The people are rising, resisting, changing, growing, evolving . . . and as they do, they’re swarming like bees or birds in the hundreds, thousands, millions. They’re coming together to stop pipelines, then dispersing and reassembling in a different configuration to speak up and say that Black Lives Matter. They stream off in a thousand directions and then reappear at the gates of Monsanto to protest GMOs. They fly together for LGBTQ rights; they veer off and then show up for peace and ending wars.

We are the Movement of Movements . . . and this is how we roll. We are hundreds of movements and thousands of campaigns, groups, and organizations. We are millions of individuals. We are both protest activists and community builders. We build new systems and launch constructive programs. We blockade, boycott, and strike. Nonviolent actions are the tools we use; creative resistance is our hallmark. We show up, again and again, seeing that all the issues are connected, and that our movements are interconnected as well.

Swarming is a vitally important concept to know in order to perceive how the Movement of Movements operates. Without this understanding in mind, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees, and it’s easy to miss the Movement of Movements amidst the hundreds of actions. Each time one of the campaigns breaks through the corporatized media, or flares up in protest in a visible and dramatic way, it’s common for people to think of that event in isolation, as a singular occurrence coming out of nowhere. But the foundation of today is the long history of the past, and the culture of resistance, persistence, and active nonviolence that has been taught from one generation to the next.  There are people in the Movement of Movements who are as old as Grace Lee Boggs, who died just a few years ago at the age of 100; and there are people in the Movement of Movements who are as young as the children yet-to-come, the ones we carry in our hearts, the possibility of the future that motivates us into action.

We are here, there, and everywhere. We are swarming the edifices of empire and domination, corruption, racism, sexism, destruction, war, injustice, oppression, and greed. The US military has spent decades and millions of dollars trying to use the principles of swarming in its operations, but it is the Movement of Movements that is beginning to actualize swarming’s hidden potential. We are many; they are few.  This basic equation underscores why the Movement of Movements actualizes swarming principles so well. There are millions of us. We are networked in complex patterns of hard-to-codify (and hard to suppress) interconnected systems.

But even within the Movement of Movements, we would be stronger if we saw what we, ourselves, are doing.  Swarming is such an overlooked, underutilized, essential understanding for the complex field of our overlapping movements, that I even wrote about it in my popular novel, The Dandelion Insurrection, to try to seed greater awareness of the potential of our strength in this regard.

The Dandelion Insurrection used the example of the murmurations of starlings or swallows to convey the idea of swarming. This real-life example is one of nature’s most intriguing uses of collective nonviolent action.  When a hawk attacks the nests of the small birds, they rise up together and use a swarming effect called a murmuration to drive the hawk away without suffering harm to themselves or causing harm to the hawk.  Like us, the birds are small in comparison to the power of their opposition.  And like the Movement of Movements, they use their greater numbers and organized, strategic action to hold back the dangerous attacks of a predator.

Brilliant . . . and highly applicable to our situation There are 320 million US citizens. As the saying goes, they can’t stop all of us. In the Dandelion Insurrection, the characters reframe their perception of the struggle (as we could also do) from the feeling of being lonely heroes facing a massive dragon of a hidden corporate dictatorship to seeing that:

“We’re not resisting them . . . they’re resisting us!  They may be an absurdly powerful group, but they’re tiny compared to the forces of the Dandelion Insurrection.  We’re not a handful of radicals. We’re all of Life itself! We are the ivy crawling up the buildings, the moss breaking down the bricks, and the dandelions shooting up in the sidewalks. We’re as vast as the planet and as microscopic as infectious disease.” – from The Dandelion Insurrection

In the Movement of Movements, we, too, are the ivy scaling the bricks, the dandelions shooting up through the cracks, and the birds swarming the hawk. And, we could get better at this. We could become wildly skillful at swarming and self-organizing and acting strategically.

As we race into action for racial justice, climate justice, water protection, peace, trade justice, economic justice, pro-democracy struggles, and so much more; the question posed to all of us is how do we stop running around like chickens with our heads cut off. How do we start flying like smart, aware, and active starlings in this beautiful, massive murmuration of the Movement of Movements?

First, we have to embrace the complexity. The movements are profuse, abundant, fertile, overwhelming, wild, unpredictable, busy, and prolific. That’s life, folks. That’s what a complex living system of change emerging naturally with the challenges of the times looks like in action.   That’s what millions of people, thousands of actions, and hundreds of movements organizing in a non-hierarchical, self-organizing swarm looks like. It ought to be intimately familiar to humanity by now, since these kinds of living systems are the basis of all life on Earth. However, millenniums of dominator culture with violently enforced ideologies of separation have left us believing that we must fear, tame, and try to control this wildly complex system of change.

The first step in fomenting an awake and aware, strategic and skillful Movement of Movements is to help each other surrender to being a part of – not in charge of – this complex, living systems of nonviolent movements for change. We need to learn to watch the flow of the Movement of Movements like sages observing the Tao, looking for the wise and strategic ways to show up and support the pivot points of change. We have to listen for those little voices in our heads that freak out over the seemingly unorganized chaos of it all. Does it drive you crazy that there’s not “one great leader” commanding this massive army?  Check! There’s that dominator ideology showing up again – it’s what got us into this mess, so let’s let it go and try something more effective. Do you keep insisting that, “we have to unite everybody under one umbrella, or get them all working for one platform”? There it is again.  Get quiet for a moment and listen to what the people in the Movement of Movements are saying.  We’re not speaking in one voice, or reciting one script together. We’re singing, in chorus, in harmony, in many parts, for many things. Our message is complex and multi-layered.  We have complex goals and objectives. That’s okay.   We’re up against a massive systemic crisis. There are no silver bullet solutions.

We’re evolving toward something new and different, and – like any ecosystem in a process of change – we’re making millions of shifts and choices. The birds are growing longer feathers; the fish are bumping up against the shore and sprouting legs; the plants are putting down deeper roots; the wooly mammoths are shedding fur and their hides are turning grey. Every person and strand of the Movement of Movements is making one of these essential ecosystems shifts as we evolve together.  Every part of the whole has a role to play . . . and we don’t need to “unite” because we’re already interconnected, overlapping and adapting to one another as we change.  Trust us. We’ve got this like the Earth has got evolution.  Since the dawn of humanity’s existence, we’ve been doing this.  It’s only in the past couple thousand years that some of us have forgotten what this process is all about.

Perhaps the most hopeful sign that humanity might survive its current existential crisis is the emergence of this powerful Movement of Movements.  And, if we can stop fighting our nature, and learn to nurture our complexity, grow our collaborative strategies, and foster our ability to swarm in wise and beautiful ways, then we stand a chance of creating the massive systemic change that we need.

Here are a few steps each one of us can take toward that potential:

  1. Learn to fly. Like the starlings or swallows, if we want to swarm or murmurate, we need to stretch our wings a little. Study nonviolent action, strategy, and organizing.
  1. Practice. Don’t wait for a hawk to arrive to see if they hatchlings can fly. Get into the sky. Start a local action group. Train together. And then organize solidarity actions with what’s going on in the Movement of Movements.
  1. Get connected. Learn to see the Movement of Movements by following movement news. Join some email lists for groups that are using nonviolent action to address social justice issues. Subscribe to alternative journals, such as Popular Resistance’s Daily Digest, which is a great source of information about what’s going on in the movements.
  1. Understand your role. We’re not always the lead bird in the flock. Notice what role you play in each strand of the Movement of Movements. Are you a supporter, donor, follower, organizers, uplifter, trainer, or one of the many leaders in this leaderful Movement of Movements. Each role is essential to the success of the whole. Honor them. Share the roles. Do your best in each capacity.
  1. See the swarm. Perceiving the fluid motions of a swarming living system of change requires training our eyes and minds to see it. Follow the movement news and look for how the movements overlap, connect, support, and advance one another collectively.  Notice when you start thinking of protests or actions as isolated incidences. Challenge that perception, and replace it with an understanding of how swarming works. Observe how people, groups, and organizations in the Movement of Movements gather, disperse, and reassemble as we work on the interconnected issues.
  1. Spread the idea of the Movement of Movements. Awareness is powerful. When we know what we’re doing, we can grow even more skillful at doing it. Share these ideas of the Movement of Movements with your friends and colleagues, talk about it. Explore how the movements overlap and interconnect. Discuss how the concepts of swarming can become guiding principles for how you show up or move into action in these times.

Remember, if the presence of a powerful, swarming Movement of Movements is the saving grace of humanity on this planet . . . then helping to nurture a wise, strategic and self-aware living system of change is one of the most important actions you can do today to help us all in these times.


ARivera New Hatuthor/Activist Rivera Sun, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of The Dandelion Insurrection, Billionaire Buddha and Steam Drills, Treadmills, and Shooting Stars, the cohost of Love (and Revolution) Radio, and the co-initiator of Live Share Grow: A Movement for the 100%. She is a trainer and social media coordinator for Campaign Nonviolence and Pace e Bene. Sun attended the James Lawson Institute on Strategic Nonviolent Resistance in 2014 and her essays on social justice movements appear in Counterpunch, Truthout and Popular Resistance. www.riverasun.com