2019: The Year of the Protest (And What It Means for 2020)

It would be impossible to forget about all the strikes and protests that happened everywhere around the world in 2019. Now, it is time to consider what they meant and how they could shape this next decade.

By Eve Willis

The last decade kicked off with the Arab Spring, arguably a shining exemplar of the modern day protest for years to come: mass mobilisation of individuals catapulted into the limelight and endowed with international significance by the internet.

Throughout 2019, protests have been a pillar of contemporary political culture with displays of “people power” reverberating across almost every continent. In Hong Kong, India, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Spain, France, the Czech Republic, Russia, Malta, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Sudan, thousands of people took the streets, bearing witness to some the decade’s most memorable moments.

Few places were left untouched by these demonstrations of mass resistance, with movements such as the Global Climate Strike and marches for women’s rights uniting individuals across the globe. But are these protests ephemeral reactionary emblems to rapid globalisation? Or are they set to define how politics and people interact in the decade that faces us now?

Confusion often arises when trying to characterise the protests that drew to a crescendo at the close of the 2010s, as it seems quite difficult to discern a homogenous pattern across all of these demonstrations. If you look at the exact causes which catalysed public resistance, you see a diversity of igniting factors, from the threat of imposing tariffs on Whatsapp calls in Lebanon, through government corruption in Chile, to the fight to protect the sovereignty of Hong Kong from mainland China; all complex issues which are undeniably hard to classify.

Yet, it appears that a swelling of mass political demonstrations were to be expected in the 2010s due to the relatively youthful composition of the world’s population and the revolutionary change to global communications. Exactly half of the world’s population is under 30, a demographic which is most likely and able to take to the streets. Some might even be relishing the exciting aspect of being politically engaged in an otherwise mundane life, especially in western countries, where the risk of imprisonment or serious harm is unlikely. The ubiquitous nature of the internet – with smartphones facilitating mobilisation and organisation as well as the dissemination and subsequent longevity of protests – galvanised and sustained protests in a way never seen before.

Many of these protests boil down to the simple fact of inequality of some form and corruption as central driving factors of public resistance. For example, the removal of a petrol subsidy in Ecuador spurred individuals to display their discontent with an inefficient government and a mediocre standard of living. The contagious feminist flash mob in Chile, chanting “Un violador en tu camino” (translated to “a rapist in your way”), also fuelled women’s rights movements worldwide.

Climate change activism too has flourished in the past decade with Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg’s School Strike for Climate being vehicles for many to demand accountability from big business and politicians with regards to corporations’ and governments’ contribution to the climate crisis. Climate change’s gendered consequences and the uneven impact it will have on different economic classes are also being increasingly considered. 

However, wealth and inequality are not wholly conclusive explanations for the cause of protests, especially when evaluating the examples of Hong Kong and Barcelona. Both extremely wealthy cities compared to the likes of Caracas or Khartoum, these modern metropolises have seen years of fierce protests in the name of sovereignty. Whether it be resisting the pull of mainland China or fighting for Catalan independence, it is clear identity and nationality are as important as ever. 

What is unique is the incessant, unified and controlled manner of these protests, such as the Gilet Jaunes in France bringing the country to a standstill –  in a way emulated by Extinction Rebellion  – or the sharing of tactics like the occupation of Barcelona’s airport by Catalan separatists who were inspired by a similar strategy deployed in Hong Kong.

New forms of media and the prominence of online public spaces in particular have altered the way people protest. It is not only in terms of physical organisation but is also seen in the creation of new types of protests in which allegiances are professed, views formed, and boycotts organised on social media. The Stop Kony video of 2012 or the 2014 #bringbackourgirls social media campaign notably come to mind. 

As we have entered a new decade, it is hard to ascertain if the 2020s will give way to the same brand of contagious and viral protests spearheaded by teenage activists, catchy slogans, and an a shared online solidarity among protesters. But as politics continues to become more divisive and discordant, it is unlikely that these seemingly sporadic displays of anger, discontent and indignation will slow down any time soon.

Eve Willis is a final year Liberal Arts student at the University of Surrey.

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