Protests and more Protests

Last year, protests swept the globe in a scale not seen since the 1960s. People took to the streets in over 100 countries, from millions of schoolchildren demanding action on climate change to Hong Kongers calling for democracy. Just months before the pandemic hit, protests were still ongoing in dozens of countries, from Barcelona to Harare.

The outbreak of corona virus extinguished many of these movements as governments ordered people to stay at home to slow the spread of the virus. At the time, some even questioned whether this might be the end of mass protests.

That now appears to have been overstated. Country-wide protests in the US that began over the killing of George Floyd by police in May are still taking place. Belarus has seen its largest demonstrations since Alexander Lukashenko became president in 1994. And there have been anti-lockdown protests from Australia to Spain.

However, in many parts of the world, the freedom to protest has also come under threat. Some governments have seized the opportunity presented by the pandemic to crack down on dissent.

Faced with restrictions on gathering, protesters are increasingly, organising and demonstrating online. In Italy, young activists have turned to social media to build anti-racist movements. 50.50 spoke to students who rapidly created a network of thousands of followers after starting an Instagram account inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.

"The COVID-19 lockdown in Italy has taught people to communicate with each other without being in the same room".

Even protest movements that have been able to mobilise in public spaces are utilising digital tools. The mass gatherings in squares that characterised the protests of the Arab Spring and, later, in Ukraine were spectacular shows of democracy, but also vulnerable targets. In Hong Kong and more recently Belarus, spontaneity kept protesters one step ahead. Telegram channels and VPNs have enabled this new form of dispersed protest. But are they also weakening the potential for political change?

On Can Europe Make It?, Cristina Flesher Fominaya points out that if cyberspace is becoming the arena for social movements, there is a risk that those who are already marginalised may be left out by the digital divide.

Regardless, it's clear that the pandemic has only briefly halted the wave of protests that began last year. And while momentum may have been lost, the movements that birthed them have remained.

Vol. 53, No. 17, Oct 25 - 31, 2020