The Age of Global Protest

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Pro-democracy protesters raise three fingers, a symbol of resistance, during a rally in Bangkok, Thailand, Aug, 16, 2020 (AP photo by Sakchai Lalit).
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Popular protests are on the rise, and they are increasingly going global. Over the past three years, popular movements demonstrating against fiscal austerity and corruption have brought down governments—in democracies and authoritarian regimes alike—from Europe and Latin America to Africa and Asia. And with the advent of new communication technologies and media platforms, what happens anywhere can be seen everywhere. The messages and actions of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, for instance, have inspired and guided demonstrators in other continents.

The Black Lives Matter protests in the United States during the summer of 2020 were particularly resonant. Building on centuries of international abolitionist and anti-colonialist protest, the demonstrations, sparked by the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a white police officer who kneeled on his neck for nearly eight minutes, spread rapidly around the world. In addition to standing in solidarity with U.S. protesters, demonstrators in Europe, South America and Asia connected the movement to their own experiences of colonialism, racism and state violence that have been perpetrated by their governments.

New communication technologies and media platforms are not only raising awareness. They are also enabling movements in different countries to learn from and engage with each other. The leaderless pro-democracy protest movement in Thailand is connected to groups guiding similar efforts in Hong Kong. There is some concern, though, that the ease with which protest methods and tactics can be shared might obscure the amount of work required to organize effective movements that can successfully achieve political change. As a result, nascent efforts could splinter or fail because protesters are not adequately prepared to maintain them, particularly when they are challenged by government forces.

Meanwhile, governments are actively looking to contain the rise in civil resistance, deploying strong-arm tactics and using the coronavirus as a pretext to curb demonstrators and arrest activists and journalists—a strategy deployed from Algeria to the Philippines. Beyond cracking down on demonstrators, leaders like Hungary’s Victor Orban leveraged the emergency to seize powers and pass laws that could continue to limit political speech even after the pandemic ends. Other repressive regimes, like Russia, Belarus and Saudi Arabia, target dissidents for violence and abduction abroad, calling global attention to the practice known as transnational repression.

WPR has covered global democracy and social protest movements in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Will the emerging leaderless protest movements be able to maintain unity and momentum? Will protesters in Myanmar be able to keep their movement alive in the face of a violent government crackdown? In Algeria, will the Hirak protesters that drove former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power be able to overcome new efforts to silence them by the regime that survived him?

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Tiananmen Square Is a Reminder That Protest Is a Fragile Right Everywhere

This year marks the 33rd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. It serves as a bleak reminder of the weighty politics surrounding June 4, 1989, all these years later. It also is an often-overlooked but critical reminder for democratic and autocratic societies alike that assembly and protest is a fragile civil right.

The Power of Protest—and Its Limitations

Globally, the proliferation of protests that marked 2019 has continued, despite the restrictions on movement and assembly put in place to contain the coronavirus pandemic—and at times because of those restrictions and the economic hardships they have generated. Meanwhile, events in Algeria and Sudan, where protesters ousted individual leaders but have so far been unable to dislodge the entrenched military elites that really hold power, have exposed the limitations of civil resistance.

Sharing Technology and Tactics

Global connectedness might be the most significant driver of civil resistance, with protesters exposed to and inspired by social movements they see online. They are also learning from other activists by sharing strategies and organizational approaches. Demonstrators from around the world, for instance, have emulated Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, modeling its leaderless structure but also its tactics, like using umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas canisters and leaf blowers to disperse the gas. But governments are also using technology, as well as transnational repression, to target dissidents, both at home and abroad.

The Global Scope of Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter movement that began in the United States has been seized upon by activists around the world, who are deploying similar language, symbols and actions in very different political contexts. Because BLM, itself, is drawing on the historical Black liberation struggle, there is space for a variety of movements to seize its expansive vision of justice and apply those demands to their own experiences of racism and prejudice.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2020 and is regularly updated.

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