October 29, 2020 — Throughout history, people around the world have turned to protest, and particularly mass mobilizations, as a tool of struggle against different forms of oppression. There is no doubt that mass mobilizations have served to elevate issues, create pressure points, educate, and channel widespread discontent. Yet, despite this immediate impact, mass protests, by themselves have largely failed to bring about tangible and sustainable change. Conditions of structural oppression in any given society derive from economic, social, political, and cultural systems that keep the status quo in place. In this blog, we will explore some of the struggles carried out by people in the United States of America, and across the Americas in recent years. We hope this exploration can begin to answer a basic, and yet complex question: How can people who are struggling against systemic oppression achieve tangible and sustainable changes that benefit the majority of people? What must accompany mass protest to break through the entrenched systems of oppression?
The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to peacefully assemble, thus the country has experienced a rich and long history of protests, mobilizations, and riots that have sparked changes, many of which have gradually brought us closer to a better, more just society. Some protests have clearly served as building blocks for further gains. The Boston Tea Party of 1773, an act of economic sabotage against the British Crown, protesting British tax laws, was credited as one of the triggers of the Revolutionary War. In that era, protest actions, sometimes violent, were part of a comprehensive political strategy which had a very clear and inspiring goal: Getting rid of the colonial rulers and declaring the 13 colonies as an independent union, as imperfect as it has been.
The women’s suffrage movement went on for decades. In 1919 that struggle resulted in the largest extension of democratic voting rights in the history of the U.S.; and although we know that Black women and other ethnic-racial minorities were not guaranteed the right to vote until decades later, protests were a critical part of securing those rights. Later in history, the Stonewall Riot in New York did not end discrimination and oppression of LGBTQ communities; however, it was the catalyst to the modern LGBTQ rights movement that has led to many sustainable victories in the U.S.
Protests for Black liberation and civil rights have been taking place in the U.S. for many decades. Time and again, Black communities have engaged in protest, often in coordination with other political strategies. But, despite notable victories along the way, racial discrimination based on the ideology of white supremacy persists, having been engraved into US history from its earliest days. In recent days and months, the vivid images of Black people being killed at the hands of police officers in different parts of the nation has led to a resurgence of a sustained wave of massive protests in the US and abroad. The unifying cry has been that Black Lives Matter. Some Black leaders in this wave of protest have rightfully pointed out the need to understand the pernicious link between systemic racism, and economic oppression. They note that it would be hard to get rid of racism, unless we also address the set of economic policies that keep wealth and income flowing into ever fewer hands, at the expense of the majority of people, and particularly Black and other ethnic and racial minorities in the US.
On March 9th 2020, women all across Mexico formed mass protests against the discrimination and violence they suffer, which is expressed in the workplace, in the criminal justice system, and in the alarming rates of women who are killed, sometimes for the simple crime of being women (femicides). These unprecedented mobilizations swept across Mexico, but were minimized by the government. Frustrated women protested again in September and seized the Human Rights Commission of the State of Mexico (CODHEM) building, from which they were then violently evicted. A few days later, a group of women occupied the main offices of the Federal Commission of Human Rights in Mexico City to demand a response to impunity in the cases of murdered women. These protests have echoed the same frustration over impunity in murders and forced disappearances.
Measures that restrict mobility due to covid-19 have had a disproportionate impact on women, and they are demanding a response. Femicides increased by 5.4% in the first seven months of 2020 compared to 2019. Women in Mexico are living another ignored yet lethal pandemic, that of violence. The September protests took place in at least 25 of Mexico’s 32 states. On September 28th, the Global Day of Action for Legal and Safe Abortion, women took to the streets again in Mexico City and were violently repressed. The demands of Mexican women have not received an answer, and frustration is growing.
In Latin America, Chile has been an example of how citizen protest can lead to social transformations. It was the first country in the region to democratically elect a Socialist president in 1970, only to be overthrown by a military dictator that maintained power for 17 years, carried out massive human rights violations, and established a neoliberal political and economic regime. Over more than a decade, Chile made a cautious and timid transition to democracy, through a referendum that ultimately maintained the 1980 constitution and economic framework of the dictatorship. Social discontent began to manifest in 2006 in the form of marches and protests by high school students and the Mapuche indigenous people, who were then joined by university students, finally detonated one year ago in the “social outbreak, as Chileans call it. The mass protests have been repressed particularly violently by the police. The last twelve months have generated a transcendent social movement, rooted in economic inequity and demanding profound reforms. On October 25th, Chileans voted in an historic referendum to express support for or against the drafting of a new constitution, as well as regarding whether to form the constituent assembly with or without members of Congress. This will be the beginning of a process with potential to achieve profound changes. Social and political movements throughout the world are watching attentively and hopefully.
But the limitations of protest alone to create durable change, cannot be ignored. In Central America, the 2015 “Primavera Chapina” in Guatemala stands out. Citizen outrage and mass protest over corruption contributed to the fall of Otto Perez Molina’s government. These protests filled the country and region with hope, yet subsequent governments have done little to change the nation. Neighboring Honduras has had more than a decade of social unrest and repression since the coup against Manuel Zelaya’s government in 2009. Though protests in these countries have been constant, they have been unable to change the relationship between States and citizens.
What is important to highlight is that the efforts to bring about changes that truly improve the lives of most people, require a well-developed and broadly shared political agenda. One that is deliberate about defying economic, social, and political power in a society. It also requires the harmonization of multiple strategies, including ever more effective protest campaigns. Advancing an effective change agenda will take time, but clarity of purpose, and broad agreement on what it will take to get there, will make a difference, and will allow us to get there sooner, rather than later.
These are only a few of many examples of mobilizations in 2020. This Friday in the third critical analysis session of the Alianza America Leadership Assembly, “Power and Solidarity towards Transformation”, we will discuss the case of the Arab Spring in Egypt, as well as the protests in Mexico and Chile, in order to identify elements and factors that allow protests to result in transformative changes. In this new discussion space, we hope to consider relevant elements for the protests and rights movements that are taking place in the United States as well as Latin America and the Caribbean.
Register here to participate.