“World Protests: A study of Key Protest Issues in the 21st Century”, a joint work of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the Institute for Policy Dialogue, and Global Social Justice, follows a similar study done almost a decade ago in the wake of the Arab Spring and Occupy protests. The authors pored through data about thousands of protests and protest movements from 2006 to 2020 in 101 countries representing 93% of humanity. They studied the composition, message, attendance, success rate, and other factors for each protest.
Article 20 Network has read through their study and want to highlight a few interesting details. But first, let’s take a look at the paper’s key findings:
- Since 2006, the number of protests per year has tripled. This rise of protests is reminiscent of civil uprisings in the 1830s-1840s of Europe and the 1960s in the United States.
- Early in this period, the top grievance of protests was economic inequality and austerity. This has since shifted to failures of political representation. The authors propose that this shift is a result of political inaction on the earlier demands.
- Protests organized by “traditional agents” such as political parties and labor unions are giving way to assemblies led by civil society organizations and grassroots organizers.
- Protests are growing in size with some of the biggest protests in history during this period. (India, the world’s most populous democracy, can produce staggering numbers. One labor protest was joined by 250 million people!)
- There are unsurprisingly fewer protests in countries where the right to protest is most repressed. It matters to reiterate this as Republican politicians have been moving to restrict protest throughout the United States.
As close followers of protests and related issues internationally, Article 20 Network found ourselves returning to certain topics in the study, trends that we will need to get more attention in the coming years.
- Since 2013, the number of protests seeking to deny rights or to reject equal rights has doubled. Big jumps were also seen for protests for personal freedoms and patriotic issues. The freedom of assembly has long been viewed as the refuge of those who are marginalized and will not otherwise be heard. The far right is curiously adopting the freedom of assembly while antagonizing against it – rhetorically, politically, legally. This creates a growing problem for law enforcement who have been struggling to keep competing assemblies separate and peaceful.
- As previously noted, grassroots organizations and civil society organizations are more frequently the sponsors or organizers of public demonstrations. Their membership and audience is more diverse by class and race than say a union’s membership. This may account for the fact that more middle class people are joining in protest, even for protests that affect the more vulnerable. Per the study, “Mass middle-class involvement in protests indicates a new dynamic: a pre-existing solidarity of the middle classes with elites has been replaced in countries around the world by a lack of trust and awareness that neither the prevailing economic system nor the existing political system is producing positive outcomes for them.”
- The period between 2011-2013 was marked by a global rise in protests, encompassing the Occupy and Arab Spring movements. Since those protest movements faded and the number of protests per year dropped off, the number of protests has steadily climbed again and surpassed the highs of that period. As the world lurches from crisis to crisis (the Ukraine War being the latest) it will be interesting to see if the Occupy/Arab Spring spike is our new baseline.
- We are seeing protests with a broader slate of grievances, what the study calls “omnibus protests”. Occupy, anti-Trump protests, and more reflect the advocacy or rejection of a world view or a slate of policies. While one-issue protests still dominate, they are giving way to, say, anti-democracy or anti-authoritarian protests. This could be exacerbated by controversial and polarizing political figures.
These four areas of interest require additional research in the coming years. As the world is increasingly characterized as a competition between autocracies and democracies (the preferred foreign policy framing of President Biden as well) and illiberal regimes that straddle the line, it will be interesting to see where these protest trends lead us.
Article 20 Network welcomes this study’s effort to characterize an otherwise under-studied part of human life: the public assembly. The world is shifting dramatically, and it appears so far that public assemblies have a big role in the 21st century.
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