Nick Webb looks into the protests and demonstrations of our recent past, and explores their common concerns.
Photo by ev
Everywhere you turn, no matter where you are, the news is full of protests. From the current spate of anti-lockdown and anti-mask demonstrations to protests against climate change, university fees and cuts in the transport industry, it seems that everyone is taking to the streets.
New studies have shown that there has, indeed, been a marked rise in different groups demonstrating and protesting: a movement that some are calling ‘Age of Dissent’. David Bailey, a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Birmingham, has studied the rise of global social unrest, in particular noting the general increase since the economic crash of 2008. His research also shows how there has been a general shift in the groups of professionals and workers who are protesting: lawyers and junior doctors, for example, who had not previously taken part in as many formal demonstrations, both took to the streets in the last decade.
How are people protesting?
Throughout this recent development, the tactics have evolved. While the most common practices have included peaceful demonstrations and marches, there has also been an increase in more innovative forms of protest. In London, gas masks were placed on statues by Greenpeace protesters to highlight the effects of pollution, and sheep were herded down Whitehall in opposition to Brexit.
As the life-span of news stories and attention-span of the public remain short, these new and innovative forms of protest aim both to receive more media attention and ignite the imagination of the wider populace. While these protests do not necessarily intend to bring about change in and of themselves, they often instead aim to promote public awareness and increase the level of conversation surrounding an issue. As a result, protests focusing on wider issues are no longer being viewed on just local and national levels.
The rise of the internet and social media has allowed for networks of interconnected groups to coordinate multiple synchronised events around the world. The Guy Fawkes masks, for example, became an iconic symbol of dissent in the 2010s, with multiple groups wearing them in solidarity with other causes, so as to hold world governments accountable to improving conditions for all.
Why are people protesting?
The more progressive demonstrations can be seen as part of an emerging trend of people standing in support for other groups and global issues, such as climate change and the Extinction Rebellion movement. Environmental protests, for example, made up almost 45% of reported protests in 2019, and the participants included school children.
The 2010s also saw an increase in anti-protests, as multiple groups demonstrated opposing views at the same time. While the trend has largely been peaceful and non-violent, these clashes of ideologies have created the most tension with police, such as the far-right protests lead by Tommy Robinson. However, the counter-protests fighting against this new rise in far and alt-right ideologies, which themselves sought to disrupt more progressive ideas, were simultaneously being brought into the public eye.
This new Age of Dissent has emerged as visibility within parliament and the ability for public involvement is decreasing, with fewer opportunities for the general public to directly influence the way the country is run. However, the protests which are able to attract the attention of the media are more likely to reach the attention of government officials, and can therefore have a greater influence on the way policy is written.
The rise in protesting in the UK is a reflection of a decade of political frustration with a government whose policies are seen, in the eyes of its critics, as being increasingly out of touch and standing against the judgement of the public at large. For example, the UK’s controversial decision to leave the Europe Union was decided by less than 4% of the votes, which shows a stark demographic split throughout the country.
Nevertheless, in response to an apparent lack of political accountability, coupled with a rise in austerity and the increasing concerns of social and cultural inequality, the British public is now more willing to look for the flaws within political systems rather than hide them. Many protests, for example, hope to shine a light on gender and racial inequalities, while others aim to prevent ecological and environmental disasters.
This widespread systematic deconstruction of the world's governments will likely continue long into the future: should we pass through a period of dissent, the resulting landscape will be one of improved living conditions, equality and opportunity for all.
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