by Amber FrenchFebruary 14, 2021
In the final post of our “Top 10 Civil Resistance Stories of 2020, Looking Forward” blog series, I am drawn to reflect on a defining pillar of ICNC’s work: the importance of taking into account activists’ skills—and not just the conditions in which those activists are organizing—when studying political change.
The COVID-19 crisis fundamentally altered the conditions in which activists organized in 2020, yet we still observed widespread political mobilization as a result of nonviolent movements. Perhaps then there is some silver lining in this crisis—we are reminded that repression and other unfavorable conditions (read: physical constraints) do not doom movements to failure. Activists and movements develop skills that enable them to overcome challenging social and economic conditions. It’s called human agency, and it’s what ICNC’s work is all about.
That being said, the crisis did reveal new dynamics and trends in civil resistance worldwide. Series blogger Maciej Bartkowksi points out that “Authoritarians have dug their heels and used the health emergency as a pretext to tighten their grip on power.” Yet as blogger Phil Wilmot and others in this series assert, people power was not extinguished in 2020, and pandemic conditions continue to fuel ongoing civil rseistance and even spark new manifestations, despite this hardened grip. Moreover, blogger Michael Wilson Becerril argues that “The pandemic has reaffirmed the importance of building movements that connect our challenges across borders of all kinds.”
It is my hope that this blog series has sketched out these dynamics, trends, and takeaways for us, but to drive the point home, I will take the opportunity to distill them in this post.
2020 saw greater mobilization and emphasis on the intersection between police brutality and racism as a recurring grievance across the world, from the United States to Brazil to Nigeria. In addition, pro-democracy movements consistently captured headlines worldwide, from Belarus to Hong Kong, Thailand and well beyond.
2020 brought notable or increased participation of women and LGBTQ+ in protests, as evidenced in Thailand, the United States, and Brazil's movements for Black lives; Belarus; and the international struggle for climate justice. For example, blogger Rev. Tremaine Combs points out that U.S. representative Cori Bush marched with activists for Black lives, even using her body to shield protesters from police after being tear-gassed herself.
How has this trend in participation impacted movements? As bloggers Janjira Sombatpoonsiri and Michael Wilson Becerril note in their posts, it’s affirmed the importance of intersectional agendas, which help movements “recognize the complexity of the perils” against which they are struggling. Intersectional approaches strengthen movements because they focus on underlying, systemic causes of grievances, channeling the voices of those who are disproportionately impacted by those grievances. However, this is not a given. Rev. Combs reminds us that intersectionality can drive a stake into movements instead of unifying them when not all voices are represented.
Celebrities, musicians, and other widely recognized personalities also replaced more traditional leaders (such as church elders and clergy) in supporting nonviolent movements. According to Rev. Combs’ analysis, the role that clergy used to play in the U.S. Civil Rights movement has largely been assumed by celebrities in the modern-day struggle (what he refers to as “star power”). Meanwhile, Phil Wilmot notes the leadership of pop musician Bobi Wine in Uganda’s nonviolent movement against Yoweri Museveni’s 35-year military dictatorship.
Belarusian and Thai protesters notably used creativity and humor to achieve better nonviolent discipline. Janjira Sombatpoonsiri writes that pro-democracy demonstrators in Thailand "sometimes rely on cheeky and carnival-like actions to sustain their momentum and disarm the authorities," noting the value of creative actions in minimizing violence during protests.
Use of social media to make repression backfire stuck out in 2020 in terms of tactical trends. Conspicuous examples of this are seen in the movement for Black lives in many countries, as well as in the work of pro-democracy activists in Cuba, Nigeria, and Thailand. In the latter country, Twitter hashtags are used to speedily mobilize crowds to counter arbitrary arrests.
Janjira Sombatpoonsiri picks up on the common thread of movement decentralization in her analysis of the current chapter of Thailand’s pro-democracy movement. Thai activists are promoting their specific agendas (labor rights, gender equality, etc.) while framing those issues as part of the larger pro-democracy movement. As Rev. Combs notes, the U.S. Movement for Black Lives has also leaned more toward decentralized actions in the past year—for better or worse. The decentralization is not necessarily intentional; it may be the result of the movement lacking an “overarching structure or meta-narrative that allows for cohesion across locations, outside of just anger,” he argues.
What can we learn from 2020 movements about organizing in the new global context?
First, movements can pursue parallel struggles—planning nonviolent actions to raise pressure on powerholders while also negotiating reform from institutional channels. Blogger Omar Lopez indeed noted this trend, citing 2020 cases in Venezuela and Nicaragua. Perhaps the physical limitations bred by the Covid-19 crisis will make this choice a strategic one this year.
Secondly, democratic states as well as international civil society actors can and should support nonviolent movements in their struggles for rights, justice and freedom. Blogger Victoria Tin-bor Hui raised our attention to this in her piece about Hong Kong, where government repression hardened significantly in 2020, leaving the pro-democracy movement there with very few options for organizing. Blogger Svetlana Kabanova denounces the lack of international response to Belarusian forces' use of violent repression on nonviolent activists.
Though movements worldwide affirmed the strategic significance of nonviolent discipline, Rev. Combs reminds us that this should happen alongside emphasis of a moral compass and underlying philosophy—especially for movements seeking to promote the value of human lives.
Lastly, we can learn from U.S. activists’ effective use of social media and engagement with domestic and international media to amplify voices in the movement for Black lives. Their success is evidenced by similar movements springing up in countries in South America, Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere last year. Blogger Deborah Mathis argues that we observed matured news coverage of nonviolent movements, perhaps as a result of movements' effective media outreach efforts. "Honest, insightful reporting… serves as a form of resistance all its own,” she reminds us.
Bartkowski, Sombatpoonsiri and others note the trend of "autocratization" this year: autocracies increasing in number, in parallel with aspiring autocrats emerging in democracies. But we are not to despair. As Bartkowski points out, there has been a “tsunami of popular nonviolent upheavals against the autocrats of the world,” and 2020 has been no exception to this trend, even despite the Covid-19 crisis. People are actively pressuring repressive rulers through organized, nonviolent action, “even under—and also because of—the added constraints on physical movement as a result of the pandemic,” as Bartkowski argues.
Is the COVID-19 crisis making the conditions in which activists organize more challenging, or just different? I would argue the latter, because people power can adapt to any circumstances. This is what bloggers in this series set out to chronicle. And I believe we will continue to witness the hopeful trends of activists honing their skills, as well as movements learning from each other, as they forge into the new year.