Popular protests are on the rise, and they are increasingly going global. Over the past five years, popular movements demonstrating against fiscal austerity and corruption have brought down democratic governments from Europe and Latin America to Africa and Asia. Pro-democracy protests in authoritarian countries have also proliferated, with several having succeeded in ousting long-ruling leaders, as in Sudan and Algeria. Now the rise in energy and food prices caused by the war in Ukraine is driving another wave of cost-of-living protests.
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, 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 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 was 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.
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Meanwhile, governments are actively looking to contain the rise in civil resistance, deploying violence, as in Myanmar and more recently Iran, to crush peaceful protests. During the coronavirus pandemic, many countries used pandemic-related restrictions on gatherings as a pretext to curb demonstrators and arrest activists and journalists—a strategy deployed from Algeria to the Philippines. 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. How will governments respond to protests driven by the global energy and cost-of-living crises? Will anti-mining protests in Latin America succeed in making the green energy transition more just? Will global protests against Israel’s attack on Gaza alter the course of the Israel-Hamas war? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.
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Fears of a commodities trap are once again inflaming politics across Latin America. The latest illustration of the tensions and tradeoffs at the heart of these confrontations comes from Panama, where recent protests have forced the country to restrict new mining projects and may shut down a globally significant copper mine.
The Power of Protest—and Its Limitations
Globally, the proliferation of protests that marked 2019 has continued, now fueled by the rising food and fuel prices caused by the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, even as new waves of protest have erupted in authoritarian countries like Iran and more recently China, developments since 2019 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.
- Why protests in support of Guatemala’s president-elect might be democracy’s last hope, in Guatemala’s Democratic Transition Isn’t Out of the Woods Yet
- Why Laotian protesters are no longer daunted by the fear of repression, in Unprecedented Protests Are Putting Laos in Uncharted Waters
- What really fueled recent massive protests in Kenya and South Africa, in Protests in Kenya and South Africa Are About More Than the Cost of Living
- Why Israel’s protests are now about much more than controversial judicial reforms, in Israel’s Protests Are a Battle Over the Meaning of a Jewish State
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. But governments are also using technology, as well as transnational repression, to target dissidents, both at home and abroad.
- Why Southeast Asia was in many ways ahead of the global trend of transnational repression, in Southeast Asia Has Become a Hotbed of Transnational Repression
- How Saudi Arabia is using surveillance to punish critics for their social media activities abroad, in Saudi Arabia’s Crackdown on Dissent Now Extends Beyond Its Borders
- How the Milk Tea Alliance is harnessing a virtual community to defy Chinese nationalists—and Beijing, in The Milk Tea Alliance Is More Resilient Than China Would Like
- How emerging AI-powered surveillance technologies will empower the state—and threaten democracy, in Democracies Aren’t Ready for AI’s Impact
The Global Scope of Black Lives Matter
The Black Lives Matter movement that began in the United States was seized upon by activists around the world, who deployed similar language, symbols and actions in very different political contexts. Because BLM, itself, draws 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.
- What’s ahead for the global campaign seeking reparations for slavery and colonialism, in How to Deliver Reparations for Slavery and Colonialism
- Why France’s effort to confront its colonial history must include the racism that is one of colonialism’s principal legacies, in France’s Incomplete Reckoning With Its Colonial Past
- What the world can learn from New Zealand’s efforts to address its treatment of the Maori, in How the Maori Are Pushing New Zealand to Confront Its Past—and Present
- How today’s anti-racism protests are historically linked to the broader critique of imperialism, settler colonialism and capitalism, in As BLM Goes Global, It’s Building on Centuries of Black Internationalist Struggle
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2020 and is regularly updated.