With the gradual lifting of lockdown measures and in the absence of tangible solutions, the frequency, scope and size of protests will likely surge, with more targeted and focused demonstrations expected in coming months
Global protests reached a historic high at the end of 2019, with demonstrations rocking governments across the world. Then, came a twist of fate and we saw the world become eerily still, as COVID-19 forced more than half the world’s population to live under some kind of lockdown.
While some protests continued, most major ones either faltered or subsided. In Santiago, Moscow, Hong Kong, Baghdad and Beirut, the once noisy streets suddenly went silent, as everyone’s attention rightfully shifted to stopping the spread of the deadly Coronavirus. Closer home, in New Delhi, the government disbanded the protest site in Shaheen Bagh, a neighbourhood that had become a central site against the Citizenship Amendment Act that was passed into law in December.
However, even as economic activity came to a stop, politics continued. Around the world, countries such as China, Russia, Hungary, Thailand and the Philippines used the threat of the virus to double back against growing dissent, curb freedoms or accumulate more power.
Add to that the economic pains inflicted by the lockdown, coupled with brutal governance failures in many countries such as Lebanon, Israel and Iraq, and we saw angry populations stepping out to protest, navigating travel restrictions and social distancing to push back against inequity and injustice.
While most protests have been non-violent and focussed on social distancing, in places like the United States, the protests against police brutality and racial inequality, triggered by the custodial death of George Floyd morphed into a pitched battle between demonstrators and federal forces in the city of Portland. US President Donald Trump’s decision to send in the federal forces to the city has kicked off an intense political debate, exacerbating the situation on ground, with similar protests happening in Seattle and Austin.
The Changing Protest Culture
Largely though, as the world goes through an upheaval, creative and careful forms of disobedience have been complementing sit-ins, rallies and sloganeering. Where months ago, tens of thousands of protesters marched over inequality and rising living costs in Chile, some citizens created virtual murals to criticise government policies and projected images of recent demonstrations on public buildings.
In Hong Kong, which had witnessed one of the biggest pro-democracy protests this year, citizens used the viral video game Animal Crossing to stage protests. Faced with the sudden threat of prosecution under the new security law, citizens have now started using wordplay and subverting Chinese Communist Party dogma to express their frustration.
In Israel, in the early days of the virus, strictly standing two metres apart, citizens assembled at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to protest against the erosion of Israel’s democratic system under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since the last few weeks, those protests have only intensified with thousands taking to the streets and gathering outside the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem.
Besides, new protests directly related to the virus also emerged from countries such as Brazil and Colombia, where citizens banged pots and pans from their windows to express discontent with their governments’ responses, as well as organised rallies.
In Russia, the beginning of the lockdown saw ‘virtual protesters’ gathered around government buildings, at a safe social distance, and posted messages demanding more financial assistance from the government. More recently, the country's far east saw thousands stepping out into the streets demanding the release of a popular Russian governor.
In Poland, tens of thousands of women have taken to the streets, across cities to protest government plans to pull out from an international treaty on preventing and combating domestic violence. A few months ago, women activists protested against a legislation to tighten the country’s abortion laws by blocking the roundabouts in Warsaw by using their cars — an action that helped halt the ruling party’s attempts to ban abortions in the country.
What’s Driving The Protests?
Some of these protests are online, some offline. Many are aided by technology and social media, while still others are entirely virtual. The direct causes of many of them vary from country to country, but the underlying reasons are the same: a rage against the presiding political class, and a deep desire to have more say in things that shape their daily lives.
Sure, economics has a huge role to play in this, but concern about the pandemic and its economic impact is far from the demonstrators’ only issue. For many, the risk of the virus far outweighs the risk of not doing anything. Dominating protesters’ minds are things such as lack of economic opportunity, perceptions of rising inequality, and corruption by elites. Protesters are also worried about civil rights, racism, immigration, abortion, uneven access to healthcare, homelessness, and lack of basic government services.
It’s not then a surprise that many of these protests are led by young people, who feel the system is especially rigged against them, with an older generation making all decisions, whose fall out they would have to suffer through. In a recent op-ed, an 18-year-old climate activist wrote, “My generation is giving up our youth — our schooling, our fun and our freedom — so that you can see next year. When this [Covid-19 crisis] is over, you may have to keep giving something up so that we can see the next century.”
With the gradual lifting of lockdown measures and in the absence of tangible solutions, experts say that the frequency, scope and size of protests will likely surge, with more targeted and focused demonstrations expected in the coming months.
We are already witnessing this in Israel, Lebanon, Thailand, Russia and the US, where protests have only intensified, as citizens’ anger has swelled. As the collective mobilisation grows, it will put unprecedented strain on societies and governments. This will not just worsen already strained relationships between citizens and governments, but also cause new rifts. Whether this will move us to a more equal world, or plunge us into deeper disorder, only time will tell.Shikha Sharma is a New-Delhi-based independent journalist and photographer. Twitter: @ShikhaSharma304. Views are personal.