2019 was labelled the year of protests with mass demonstrations taking place in nearly every corner of the globe. 2020 has been defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the trend of people taking to the streets to protest has continued into this year, with social unrest breaking out in unexpected places, for unanticipated reasons.
The murder of George Floyd by police sparked protests across the United States. Within days protests spread from Minnesota to all fifty states across America, igniting the biggest protests since the anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movement of the 1960s. Similar mass demonstrations broke out around the world in support and solidarity.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets in Belarus to protest against President Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election on 9th August, which were widely seen to be rigged.
Huge anti-government protests erupted in Russia in July over the arrest of Sergei Furgal, the popular governor of the Khabarovsk region, who was replaced by a Kremlin appointee who has never lived in the region. These have been some of the largest anti-government protests in Russia in years.
Protests have been seen across six continents, in both poor and wealthy nations, in liberal democracies and in autocracies. No political model seems to be inoculated from the kind of uprisings that we are witnessing.
The rise of citizen mobilisation, which traverses distinct national and cultural contexts, represents a major new trend in international politics, underlining the increasingly central role these movements are playing in the political landscape and in defining legislative decisions.
Protests have long been a part of the human story. From the French Revolution to the uprisings that brought down the Berlin Wall and Soviet empire, people have looked to civil resistance to seek transformation.
But why have citizens turned to using people power now more than any time in recorded history?
The spark for social unrest varies from country to country. Discerning a pattern is difficult as all are different, with distinct causes, methods and goals, but a combination of factors appears to bind together the motivations of those taking to the streets: rising inequality, income inequality, persistent corruption, infringements on political freedoms, climate change, and a deep sense of frustration that the political system is not working.
It is too early to say if 2020 will top last year’s unrest, but little suggests these trends are about to go into remission. This may be our new norm: protests as a dominant part of political engagement.