In his book Doing Democracy, Bill Moyer, a long-time social movement trainer and theorist of the nonviolent direct action tradition in the United States, describes the concept of a “trigger event.” A trigger is a “highly publicized, shocking incident” that “dramatically reveals a critical social problem to the public in a vivid way.” These events, Moyer argues, are an essential part of the cycle of every social movement. They create vital windows in which activists can rally mass participation and sharply increase public support for a cause.
Prominent examples of trigger events include the accident at the Three Mile Island power plant in 1979, which suddenly made nuclear safety a hot button issue. Just days after the accident, a previously planned anti-nuclear rally in San Francisco that ordinarily might have attracted hundreds of participants instead drew a crowd of 25,000. Similarly, the 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus prompted a community-wide boycott in Montgomery, Ala. And the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit seller Muhammad Bouazizi set off the revolts of the Arab Spring in 2011.
Trigger events, however, are only the beginning; they provide no guarantee of change. There are countless instances of oil spills and school shootings, for example, that spark outrage but ultimately have little impact on political life. Likewise, there have been many other self-immolations that did not have the effect of Bouazizi’s.
In truth, the triggers that do morph into explosive revolts are often less accidental than they first appear. Civil resistance works when groups are willing to seize an opportunity and escalate — rallying the power of mass participation and personal sacrifice in order to produce ever more ambitious acts of resistance. Before Rosa Parks, there had been previous arrests on Jim Crow buses, but civil rights groups consciously chose to make Parks’ arrest into a test case for segregation, in part because she was a committed activist herself. In other instances, from the Salt March, to Birmingham, to Occupy, movements created their own trigger events, using disruptive actions to make headlines, prompt a reaction from authorities, and begin a cycle in which new participants could join in to ever-larger actions.