How powerful is protest? Discussing the changing culture of opposition

The culture of opposition is an ever-evolving landscape and the role of protest, as an expression of this opposition, has changed significantly over the last two-three decades. Whilst direct action is just as prevalent now as it was years ago, the motivations and nature of protest are different. This month alone has seen protestors across the world continue to make a statement, from the Nuit Dubout protestors occupying the Place de la République in Paris, to the streets of Brazil where millions have gathered to protest against Dilma Rousseff and her government. Whether it’s directed towards a government, corporation or individual, protest is undeniably powerful; but it is worth exploring how it has changed over the last few decades.


Protesters in São Paulo with a large Brazilian flag

The second half of the 20th century saw protest serve as a particularly effective vehicle for policy change across the world. Some notable examples include the Civil Rights, Anti-Apartheid, and LGBT-rights movements, climate change protests, anti-austerity, and the anti-Vietnam war protests. These demonstrations saw like-minded impassioned individuals come together to rupture the fabric of society and form a targeted and direct challenge to the government. After repeated attempts, often over the course of many years, change eventually resulted.


Anti-Cameron protests across London

Anti-Cameron protests across London. Photo by Bjpcorp via Flickr

The present-day nature of protest is different. Unpacking this change remains complex but in short, protest feels a little insipid compared to its vibrant past. In the last few months, for example, taxi drivers joined together in Indonesia to protest the rise of peer-peer cab services like Uber and the Panama Papers leak sparked anti-Cameron protests across London. When compared to the previously mentioned landmark protests of the 20th century, these more recent events feel much more impulsive. The ability of people to mobilise so quickly in reaction to current events has resulted in the development of demonstrations that are more spontaneous, attracting a more heterogeneous combination of people from a variety of backgrounds and political affiliations. As protest becomes more impulsive, it has meant they can arise in a more unstructured fashion that simply raises awareness without a stated purpose. For example, this recent viral video shows the anti-Cameron protests descending into a rave, as drum and bass music is pumped out across the street.

I spent some time in 2014 at the Occupy Democracy protests in Parliament Square. I spoke to the protestors who had been involved in the Occupy London movement since its inception outside St Paul’s Cathedral on 15th October 2011 – a protest that became the world’s longest Occupy demonstration. Occupy London began as a copycat movement to the Occupy Wall Street protests in September highlighting global inequality in the wake of the financial crisis.


Occupy London

Occupy London

One protestor at Occupy London explained how Occupy differed from other protests he had been to, “previously street action and protest had always been the same old faces, at any action it would be the same people who were there two years ago. Occupy was genuinely different, there were people for whom this wasn’t their usual terrain, Occupy was more expansive.” The impression I gathered from the Occupy Movement was that protest today exhibits a level of inclusivity unseen before. As a result, articulating a ‘we’ to identify the reason for protesting has become increasingly difficult as there is a real diversity in who is attending. Occupy constituted an amalgam of different views, from revolutionary anarchists whose beliefs and practices were inherited from previous protests such as Climate Camp and the Stop The War Coalition, to people who had never attended an event like this before in their lives. On the one hand, the more radical individuals were people for whom the financial crisis resembled a symptom of a wider structural crisis of capitalism, whereas for others they cared less about overthrowing the authority and more about resolving the crisis through policy change within the existing political and economic system.

Mapping the changes

The trends that have taken place over the last few decades, which have changed the nature of protest, can be defined by a series of different phenomenon.

The first concerns proximity. It is now easier to participate in direct action, both geographically and online. Improvements in technology have increased our geographical proximity allowing us to easily participate in direct action and further, the greater interconnectedness of individuals online increases our ability to contribute both easily and freely. If you’re invited to a protest march moving from A to B, a quick search on Google Maps gives you a fairly comprehensive idea of where you’re headed in a way that it did not previously.

The second component concerns mobile technology. The crucial factor in explaining why protests have become more spontaneous in both their mobilisation and how they operate is the development of mobile messaging. Protests can be organised and the details of how and where they will take place can be passed on in a matter of minutes via smartphone technology. With Whatsapp’s recent announcement that their app will use end-end encryption, its use for passing confidential information just received a real boost. As we saw with March’s dispute between Apple and the FBI, retrieving encrypted information is no simple task so the potential for this technology to orchestrate mass movements continues to increase.


Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution. Photo by Studio Incendo via Flickr.

Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution. Photo by Studio Incendo via Flickr.

The third reason concerns the media, both conventional and social. The media has romanticised the role of the protestor as direct action is seen as increasingly iconic. Protests such as the 2014 Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong and Egypt’s contribution to the 2011 Arab Spring in Tahrir Square epitomise this trend. The ability for images to spread via conventional and social media has seen the role of symbolism evolve. It is little wonder that the Bahraini government destroyed Pearl Roundabout in a matter of weeks after Arab Spring protests erupted there. The role of symbolism also allows people to show solidarity to a movement from anywhere in the world as we see ideas transcend borders. Take the idea of occupying a space, it resonated with millions as the movement spanned 746 cities across 68 countries.

An ineffective instrument for change?

If protest has become more impulsive, does that mean it is less significant?

There is certainly an argument to be made that present-day protest has become less meaningful. Participation has diversified and shifted away from being something orchestrated solely by a radical subculture to engagement with the wider public. Protests have therefore lacked clarity and led to their presence coming across more as white noise than a defined message. For example, a Greenpeace protest thirty years ago would have been planned over a series of meetings and attended by dedicated climate activists. Today’s climate protests are attended by anyone with a vague commitment to the climate, which has meant that often the protest emanates mixed and unclear messages. Increasingly, those most committed to the issues no longer feel protest resonates with them. Simply put, increased inclusivity has meant people protest, for lack of a better word, badly. The Million Mask March, which takes place on 5th November to protest against corruption in power, is now attended by any person who can get their hands on an Amazon-bought Guy Fawkes mask and a Twitter account to stay updated. It’s not to say that the issues at hand aren’t important, but the way they are being addressed is losing effectiveness.

This also plays into the hands of another growing trend, the increasing importance of cultivating an online profile. Whether through sharing pictures of you waving banners on the street or the latest online petition you’ve signed, people care more about appearing to be a person who believes in a cause, than actually being someone who does. Changing a belief takes time, changing how you appear can be as easy as clicking a button.

But it’s easy to be cynical and it would also be gross overstatement to say all protest now is ineffective, particularly given the significant changes that have taken place as a result of the Arab Spring in the last five years and the pressure currently being placed on Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. Better put, the mechanisms behind protest have changed and in order to be effective, they need to be taken advantage of to ensure they maximize awareness, rather than depleting it. The increased number of variables that affect how a protest manifests itself has meant it has become harder for a movement to stand out; but not impossible. Therefore, in order to continue using protest as an effective instrument to drive change, we must take time to evaluate how we can use it productively.

Tom Mcgivan, Bizarre Culture

Author: Tom McGivan is a writer and researcher in international politics and economics, with a particular interest in international development, security and emerging economies.


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