Monday, July 01, 2013

The Nature of Modern Protest Movements

PSU Protest 00689
One must marvel at the resurgence of protest movements all over the world. The Tunisians ousted their leader as did Egypt and Libya. In Egypt’s case the transition out of the 30-year Mubarak defacto-dictatorship was relatively peaceful, though a few did still die for the cause. Bahrain, getting by with the help of their friends, the Saudis, managed to brutally suppress the uprising on their island. The United States Navy breathed a sigh of relief, Bahrain is a port used by the U.S. fleet.

The protests in Russia and U.S. were not allowed to last long. Remember the Occupy movements?

The situation in Syria can definitely been seen as a mass protest, a very violent protest against the 42 year dominance of the al-Assad regime.

In May of this year even Sweden was rocked by a week of protests that roiled into riots across the country. The participants were apparently mostly immigrants, the new citizens of Scandinavia, and apparently not all that happy with their economic situation.

Turkey now joins the list of places in active protest for change, as if almost by obligation to all their neighbors.

China has a major protest going on, but government has such a stranglehold on communication there are not many details on the size and scope of the events.
Tibet Protest Poster related to 2008 Beijing Olympics
The sources of unrest in Brazil, though ocean's apart from the other protests, seem to flow from the same sources. A large part of mankind has not enjoyed the benefits of modern society, at least not for very long. They are not content watching the 1% build mansions of glory with little concern for the source of the sweat that did the actual construction. A few get very, very rich and most just get by.

It is an age-old story, think Communist Revolts, the French Revolution or Roman slave rebellions. These events started out as street protests, then faced a brutal government crackdown and the people came back roaring like a forest fire that destroys everything before it. Governments fell in short order or the protestors turned revolutionaries died in the hands of the army. Very little has changed with those outcomes though the means of communication allow the whole process to play out in days, not years.

New Approaches for a New Age

Some unique protest movements consist of only one person, at least at the beginning. The former NSA network administrator, Edward Snowden, announced his protest against U.S. government surveillance from China, of all places. Mr. Snowden did not garner much sympathy from the very citizens he seeks to protect. He did get some sympathy from other CIA and NSA whistleblowers. Julian Assange and team at Wikileaks love Mr. Snowden’s approach though the amount of support they can offer is questionable.

Perhaps too many average citizens were still rattled from the recent Boston Marathon bombings or the Newtown slaughter. At this point many people want the U.S. government to just do whatever it takes to stop the next gruesome attack. Protests of any sort seem unable to attract enough support, ie. keep people from watching their television shows, eating or rest.  America's last two organized protests, the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party seem stark compared to these vast crowds gathered in town squares all over Egypt, Brazil, Turkey.

Once Is Not Enough

Nobody can assume one regime overthrow will be enough. Mubarak has been gone only a few years and now his successor, Morsi stands under a similar threat. The young people of Egypt now know the ropes, they get out and march quite effectively when protest leaders text.

The focus among researchers becomes a search for the reasons. The how is just as important as the why to leaders all over the world. While each nation does offer unique circumstances for upheaval the common threads are all too obvious. 

They may not exactly know why they have decided to protest on any particular but there they are nonetheless. Turks seem to be reacting to Islamic rules creeping into a relative secular society established by Ataturk more than just the loss of a public park. The park was being replaced with yet another mosque.

Egyptian protests seems to be another reaction to the Muslim Brotherhood leaders weak attempts to impose sharia in one way or another. Morsi probably has squandered this brief opportunity.

The Brazilians did not want to spend one more dime on bus fares while new football stadiums were being built everywhere. 

The Syrians want a brutal leader overthrown.


Social media sites, blogs, email and text messaging are tools young protest leaders easily master. Presidential candidate Howard Dean may have been the first to use these tools on a national scale. Self-publication through blogs and email distribution lists is an easy and cost-effective way to distribute a message, any message at all. The gun lobby has managed to convince millions of the canard that criminals will only be thwarted when everyone carries a firearm. Electronic media such as blogs and industry-supported web sites supplement mass postal mailings from the industry-backed NRA.

Mass movements can and often do have stealth sponsors among the billionaires and corporations. The Tea Party is one example, the Wahhabi sponsorship of the Taliban is yet another.

Leaders of protest movements and rebellions are getting trained in the importance and use of electronic media. A smartphone like the iPhone makes a photojournalist out of an amateur teen that just got caught up in events. Pressing that Send button lets a visual message be automatically posted to a popular web site. Other media outlets can arrange to show the most compelling videos taken moments ago at most protest sites.

How To End Protests

Giving in to the demands of those who protest is not the route most often taken.

Sitting governments can try to block protestor’s telephones from using cell sites or viewers from viewing certain banned web sites. Competition in the cell phone market and the ease of switching web sites typically negate these efforts. Stricken leaders typically haul out the riot police and tear gas when threatened. As soon as leaders do that photos of the government-sponsored violence become fodder for those working to get more protestors to join the movement. The largest protests become beasts feeding on themselves almost round the clock.

Unemployment certainly make a revolution more likely. People with nothing better to do than go out and protest, will do just that if the cause is something they support. Protest movements will typically rail against corrupt leaders and their extravagant spending. The right to vote for a leader is popular cause as well. 

There are hidden drivers mingling in all the protest movements. Religious leaders fire up everyone with provocative sermons on holy days. Easy to remember catch phrases make the ideas quite portable. Those who attend these sermons carry the messages out to many others. Government leaders find it hazardous to jail a popular imam, minister or rabbi. Non-sectarian protest leaders are easier to jail but harder to find.

Religion must not be discounted in nearly every great upheaval. Sunni and Shiite, Arab and Jew still show few signs of settling down together to live in peace. 12-foot high walls do not in fact provide the right conditions for good communities to prosper.

The Taliban cause can even been seen as a type of protest again Western values. Some people actually do believe that blowing up girl’s schools and murdering the teacher is cool. Luckily many do not agree with this particular movement, though the Wahhabis seem willing to continue supporting it.

There’s even a major stealth protest or two going on. A computer hacker group called Anonymous has announced intentions to attack various Internet sites, based on diaphanous set of guiding principles. Still this does fall under the category of a protest.

Gandhi and Dr. King may not have approved of all the methods in use by all the protest movements around the world. They would likely agree that people joining together to seek meaningful change is typically a good thing. 

No comments: