By David S. Meyer

By the time you read this, massive street protests will have broken out somewhere that we didn’t expect. This year seems to be one of extraordinary mass political disruption everywhere. In 2019, national leaders have stepped down from power in Algeria, Lebanon, and Bolivia. Presidents and Prime Ministers have been more resistant in facing similar protest challenges elsewhere, including Chile, Ecuador, France, Haiti, Hong Kong, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Spain, and Venezuela. In addition to the growing list of system-threatening campaigns, protests about climate change, guns, or austerity in North America, Europe, and Oceania have become almost routine. The causes and constituencies vary tremendously, but the feeling we get when we scan the news and see yet another massive protest is that the world is exploding.

Is the moment really different? What’s going on? Why? Will it matter?

To start to answer these questions, we need to think through why people go out into the streets to protest in the first place. Saints and psychopaths will protest as witness regardless of their prospects for success, but most of us pay attention to the world outside when we make decisions and take risks. Larger numbers of people will take to the streets only when they believe that protest is necessary to get what they want and that it might actually work. I doubt that many make precise calculations on a spreadsheet; rather, we all respond to signals from our allies and opponents, and adjust our judgments on the fly. When we think that regular politics, voting or writing to an official, will get what we want, we tend not to carry signs outdoors. When we think that we have no prospect for success and could face severe punishment, we’re also likely to stay home instead of going to the demonstration.

Obviously, governments can deploy severe repression to make protest seem impossible, as in North Korea, or largely unnecessary by incorporating dissent into democratic politics. This is why it is not the greatest injustice or the least responsive regimes that face challenging movements: there needs to be some sense of possibility—as well as urgency—for a sustained movement to emerge.

People also take cues from others like them, creating a kind of accentuating effect.  It’s easier to walk past a group of three or four people protesting nuclear weapons, for example, even if we agree with the cause. Small groups, particularly when they’re peaceful, are easier for anyone to ignore. In contrast, large numbers seem like they’ll be harder to repress and more likely to matter. There is not only safety in numbers, but also the prospect of significance. Importantly, the apparent success of protest encourages others—who may see themselves in a similar position. Relatively safe and successful protests encourage other protests, a kind of demonstration effect—for demonstrations.

Is there more protest now?

Protest movements always seem to come in clusters or waves. Remember, Marx and Engels first published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, claiming inspiration for the wave of workers movements sweeping across Europe that seemed to promise a new era in politics. Workers campaigns emerged globally in the 1930s, responding to a worldwide depression, and playing out differently in distinct political environments. The year 1968 seemed to be another moment of global mobilisation, this time tabbed as a youth movement.  Movements against nuclear weapons proliferated in countries involved in nuclear alliances in the early 1980s, reprising a similar explosion in the early 1950s. People power campaigns appeared globally in the late 1980s, including those resulting in the successful revolution in the Philippines, the fall of six Communist governments in Eastern Europe, the massacre at Tiananmen Square, and the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa. The Arab Spring that began in Tunisia with the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in the fall of 2010, spread across the Middle East and North Africa quickly, and then inspired trade unions in Madison, Wisconsin, and the 15-M anti-austerity protesters in Spain. Occupy Wall Street protesters, citing Tahrir Square as a model, started in New York City, and spread across the United States in the fall of 2011, and then back around the globe. Importantly, activists and analysts were able to find—or claim—kindred spirits in very different situations.

Maybe this moment isn’t unique.

Protests come in clusters partly as a response to common problems or opportunities: economic crises like global depressions; political crises like the collapse of an empire; or environmental crises like a nuclear plant accident. But they also cluster because aggrieved people take hope and instruction from others elsewhere.  And protest seems to come in clusters because when we look for it, we can usually find what we’re looking for, creating cognitive clusters and common causes that activists on the ground might miss. Climate change striker Greta Thunberg gets steady encouragement from scientists and the United Nation, and the coverage she gets encourages journalists and others to look for young activists elsewhere. Those young activists are encouraged by coverage of Greta. In liberal democracies, protests are ubiquitous—and increasingly commonplace in less democratic settings as well. When alarmists or activists look to find protests, they can generally find something somewhere else and promote it. The coverage itself promotes more unrest, suggesting the volatility of the moment and the importance of the movement, and bringing others into the streets.

But it’s not only what we see outside our windows or walking to work. Long ago, organisers would canvass door to door to recruit participants, hang signs, and circulate letters. Later, mass media transmitted information about both grievances and organized challenges. Coverage in the newspaper or on television could underscore the claims that activists made and highlight their efforts, making the cause seem more urgent and even more likely effective. The growth and extension of social media over the past twenty years or so have augmented, rather than superseded, the old media. This means that a would-be citizen activist has many potential sources of information, and a greater chance to be asked to join in. Mainstream media gave little coverage to Occupy when a relatively small group moved into Zuccotti Park. Carrying laptops, the Occupy media team set up live feeds of meetings and other sorts of actions, and before long sympathisers could simultaneously monitor Occupies across the country. It’s easier to get the word out.

Generating large numbers quickly is easier than before. Door-to-door canvassing, wheat pasting posters, and telephone trees are simply less efficient than online communications. And getting word out is easier across the political spectrum. Populist democracy mobilizations are visible, but so are populist nationalist and racist movements, and they feed each other with a sense of urgency. The near simultaneous opposing movements in liberal democracies make it harder than ever for liberal democratic governments to make peace with their constituents, further undermining the legitimacy of governments and effectively encouraging more mobilisation. How will it all matter?

Inspired by the extraordinary bravery and commitment of democratic activists, it’s hard—but very important—to remember that much of their fate, particularly over the short haul, is beyond their control. Success, which is always partial, depends upon social movements finding ways to be abiding, inclusive, and opportunistic. Movements must abide because social change that seems to happen suddenly is the result of years, often decades, of investment. South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, to cite a notable and inspiring example, was active in a long struggle for half a century before taking office in 1994.  Movements must become inclusive, brokering compromises to maintain broad engaged support, because it’s almost always easier for dissatisfied people to try to find an accommodation with power. Finally, movements must be opportunistic, prepared to seize the opportunity offered by the crisis of the moment. The savvy Florida teens who dug into politics in the wake of an horrific school shooting filled and expanded a moment of national attention, but built on the efforts of gun control groups that had been working for years before.  Likewise, the brave young people in the streets of Hong Kong built on the achievements—and frustrations—of the umbrella movement five years ago. The protests capture our attention for the moment, but the efforts for social change play out, often including far less dramatic actions, over a much longer period of time.

I would like to believe, as Martin Luther King famously promised, that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. I’m not sure that’s true, but it’s heartening that democratic activists around the globe are trying to bend that arc.


David S. Meyer is a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. He is an expert in social movements and is the co-editor of The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement.

See Also:

Q+A: Ihumātao: Can protests really change things?

Q+A: Why do people ‘take action’?