How do ‘people power’ movements succeed when modest proportions of the population participate? Here we propose that the effects of social movements increase as they gain momentum. We approximate a simple law drawn from physics: momentum equals mass times velocity (p = mv). We propose that the momentum of dissent is a product of participation (mass) and the number of protest events in a week (velocity). We test this simple physical proposition against panel data on the potential effects of movement momentum on irregular leader exit in African countries between 1990 and 2014, using a variety of estimation techniques. Our findings show that social movements potentially compensate for relatively modest popular support by concentrating their activities in time, thus increasing their disruptive capacity. Notably, these findings also provide a straightforward way for dissidents to easily quantify their coercive potential by assessing their participation rates and increased concentration of their activities over time.