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Protest works. In Myanmar, Palestine, Thailand, and around the world, people are taking to the streets to resist repression and win change. Because protest works, governments try to stop it: In country after country, new restrictions have been introduced and protesters face police violence.
Things got worse under the pandemic, as governments used lockdown restrictions as a pretext to restrict rights. But despite the constraints, people still protested, and often in the face of difficult odds, won breakthroughs. Here are recent examples of major protests that led to change.
Global: Black Lives Matter
The police murder of George Floyd in May 2020 resonated around the world, forcing people to the streets to demand real change to respect Black lives and Black rights.
While systemic change is needed, the movement won some early impacts. Politicians acknowledged they need to do better at combating racism. Huge corporations pulled social media advertisements over hate speech. In countries including Belgium and the U.K., new bodies were set up to examine colonial legacies. For the first time, police reform was put on the agenda in major U.S. cities.
These are small steps in a bigger journey, but they happened because of global mobilization.
Chile: A Radical Constitution in Prospect
A few days ago, people in Chile overwhelmingly voted for progressive, young, and feminist candidates in the assembly to write Chile’s new constitution. This directly elected body was set up after a landslide vote that followed huge protests in 2019, demanding a new constitution to replace the old one written in times of dictatorship. The protest movement, with many young people and female leaders to the fore, refused to back down. Protesters successfully insisted that half of the new assembly’s members will be women, and that Chile’s excluded Indigenous groups will be represented.
Argentina: Abortion Legalized
A mammoth fight for rights came to fruition in Argentina in December when abortion was legalized. A generation of young women made this their defining struggle, and alongside political advocacy, mass demonstrations showed the popularity of support for change, with people clad in the movement’s signature green colors. Protests were crucial in arguing back against conservative forces determined to uphold the status quo. The movement hopes to inspire similar change for women’s rights across Latin America.
India: Farmers Fight Back
India’s authoritarian government is rarely willing to listen. But it did not predict the backlash from small farmers when it unilaterally imposed major changes on farm laws stretching back decades. Tens of thousands of farmers marched on Delhi and remain there today, demanding the laws’ repeal. In November, a strike of about 250 million Indians showed that the farmers’ protests had touched a national nerve. After failing to dismiss and then repress the movement, the government was forced to offer concessions.
Guatemala: Public Spending Cuts Reversed
The November 2020 announcement by Guatemala’s government of its plan to slash education and health care funding provoked outrage, because these were the services most strained by the pandemic. Thousands were moved to protest at service cuts, long-running corruption, and endemic violence, and although the government’s initial response was brutal, it quickly backed down and withdrew the budget.
Sadly, it took the killing of a young woman, 22-year-old Shannon “Darlikie” Wasserfall, to spark outrage in Namibia. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in October 2020 under the banner of #ShutItAllDown, insisting that life must come to a standstill until the pernicious violence against women was tackled.
After initially being met with security force violence, the movement eventually won a meeting with the president, who acknowledged that more must be done to fix the problem, and a commitment to introduce dedicated courts and a sex offenders’ registry.
Italy: Sardines Turn the Tide
When the far-right League party looked to win in Italy’s central Emilia-Romagna region in early 2020, the Sardines movement mobilized to make clear that many remained opposed to racism and hatred. The plan was to squeeze like sardines into public squares to prove that not only the far right could gather numbers, and show people they were not alone in opposing the League.
The Sardines were an instant success, bringing together a reported 15,000 people at the first gathering, and the tactic was quickly adopted further afield. The League failed to win the Emilia-Romagna election, with turnout at the vote vastly up, galvanized by the Sardines.
Japan: Protest Success Against Fossil Fuel Funder
Japan’s climate protesters struck a blow against the coal industry in March 2020, when they protested outside the headquarters of the Mizuho Financial Group, one of the world’s biggest financiers of coal power plant construction. Backed by an online campaign and business press ads, protesters also submitted a shareholder resolution. The pressure worked, and the next month Mizuho committed to stop financing new coal plants and end coal loans by 2050.
Malawi: Protests Help Force Election Rerun
Malawi saw a historic first for Africa in June 2020, when its general election was rerun after an election riddled with irregularities the year before. Months of civil society-led protests played a vital part in keeping up the pressure for democracy to be respected. The ruling party was ousted in the rerun, offering hope that democratic values run deep in Malawi, providing inspiration across the continent.
Peru: Protests at a Political Coup
The ousting of a president was the catalyst for protests in Peru last year, when nonpartisan President Martín Vizcarra was forced out in an elite coup. Many young people took to the streets for the first time, making amply clear their disaffection with conventional politics and the corruption that has stained successive governments.
Protests continued in the face of lethal state violence, and in response to the pressure, the right-wing interim president stepped down after only five days. With voting for a new president in June, whoever wins should not expect a free pass on corruption.
Andrew Firmin is editor-in-chief at global civil society alliance CIVICUS, a network of over 10,000 activists and civil society organizations around the world. These protests are featured in CIVICUS’s State of Civil Society Report 2021, which documents the major mobilizations of 2020 and 2021.