The Age of Global Protest

protests in iran
Protesters chant slogans during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of the morality police, in downtown Tehran, Iran, Sept. 21, 2022 (photo by an individual not employed by the AP and obtained outside Iran, via AP Images).

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 economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, combined with the rise in energy and food prices caused by the war in Ukraine, are 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 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 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.

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 protesters in Haiti succeed in bringing down a government linked to violent criminal gangs? Will Sri Lanka’s protest movement achieve meaningful reforms now that it has driven the country’s former president from power? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

The U.S. and Europe Are Misreading the Protests in Iran

The initial inability of many in the West to fully grasp the scale of what is now unfolding in Iran is the product of three dynamics that reflect deeper problems with how the EU and U.S. engage with the wider world. To avoid repeating those mistakes, the West needs to mitigate such distortions of perceptions and policy.

The Power of Protest—and Its Limitations

Globally, the proliferation of protests that marked 2019 has continued, now fueled by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, but also 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.

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.

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.

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

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