Before COVID-19: back on the 2019 Global Protests
An overview of what linked the protests that defined 2019 together and the changes they were able to spark.
When we look back at 2019 in a few years, we’ll remember the Australian fires and Trump’s impeachment. But above all, we’ll remember the global wave of protests that reached dozens of countries across the globe in just a few months.
From Hong Kong to Catalonia, Sudan to France, Indonesia to Chile, fragile economies made of staggering inequalities, prices rising exponentially, the inaction of leaders in the face of climate change, the omnipresence of corruption and a desire for more democracy pushed millions of people to the edge as they took it to the streets to voice their revendications.
The parallel between 2019 and 1968, another year of huge global protests was almost immediately drawn. “At a time when nations and cultures were still separate and very different, there occurred a spontaneous combustion of rebellious spirits around the world,” American journalist Mark Kurlansky wrote in “1968: The Year That Rocked the World.” “There has never been a year like 1968, and it is unlikely there will ever be one again,” he predicted. But he has been proven wrong as 2019 saw a very similar tsunami of riots that overthrew many government leaders.
A student participating in a climate strike in Edinburg, Scotland
Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Many of these protests stemmed from unrest in 2018. Greta Thunberg’s “Skolstrejk för klimatet” began in mid-2018 and united millions of young people and scientists through 2018 and 2019 to urge leaders to take action. In France, the “Yellow Jacket” movement began in 2018 and continued into 2019. The Sudanese revolution, perhaps the most change-inducing of these global protests began on the 19th of december 2018 and grew throughout 2019. These were joined by the Kazakh protests and Algerian Hirak in February 2019, the Hong Kong protests in march, and the rest of 2019 saw social disobedience spread to Russia, Egypt, Porto Rico, Tunisia, Bolivia, Iraq, Chile, Iran, Spain or India, all sparked by triggers like a Whatsapp Tax or a speed limit law. These seemingly insignificant causes were the last straw for millions.
A university student folds paper cranes as a part of the anti-Beijing protests.
2019 protests were not only linked together by the common desires of militants for a more democratic, more ecological and more egalitarian society. Political scientist Erica Chenoweth said that what made the 2019 protests stand out was that “People are not picking up guns as they did in earlier eras. They’re instead looking to civil resistance to assert their claims and seek transformation.”
Of course, there were still violent manifestations and harsh clashes with security forces. But many of them had origins in a desire to express discontent through novel and non-violent ways: In Lebanon, streets were filled with protesters singing and cheering to express their discontent. In Chile, students initially jumped subway turnstiles to protest fare prices. In Hong Kong, tiny paper cranes filled the streets of the city to commemorate those who had died.
Sadly, these initiatives were often overshadowed by bloody opposition between militants and government forces with heavy consequences: more than 2,600 people were injured in Hong Kong, and as many as 1,500 were killed during the repression of Iranian protests. This raised new debates on the role of security forces, as NGOs like Amnesty International documented major human rights violations by governments during the repression of these popular insurgencies.
What set these social revolts apart from previous movements were how intertwined they were. Much like during the 2011-2012 Arab Spring, social media and the Internet were crucial: they helped advertise movements and watched them grow, and rallied symbols of social disobedience across the globe.
The Bruce Lee inspired “Be Water” slogan that was first adopted by Hong Kong Protesters spread to Catalonia and Chile. The masks from Money Heist or The Joker or the Guy Fawkes masks from V for Vendetta became popular symbols of the insurgency against inequality and governments were sported by crowds in Beirut or Santiago as the characters’ struggles echoed with their own.
Sudanese protesters in capital Khartoum.
Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images
These long months of protesting had very visible outcomes in many countries. In Sudan, the Sudanese Coup d’Etat of the 11 April 2019 overthrew President Omar Al-Bashir after thirty years in power and began leading Sudan towards a fragile but functional democratic transition. In February, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned after an estimated 3 million protesters in Algeria demanded an overhaul of his regime. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales fled to Mexico after he was accused of election fraud.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi quit after protests against government corruption and influence from both Iran and the US. China withdrew the extradition law that triggered the Hong Kong protests. In other countries like Ecuador or Colombia, agreements were reached between protesters and governments. In others like Indonesia, the passing of controversial bills was delayed.
However, many other protests and political crises were abruptly halted by the sudden spread of COVID-19 in the beginning of 2020 and left unresolved. As drastic measures of confinement were taken, protests against the widely criticized pension reform in France stopped and the bill was passed anyways.
56 weeks of Algerian protests swiftly ended, and streets were emptied in Chile, Venezuela or Catalonia. Protests were moved online or on balconies, but their efficiency was deeply crippled as many do not have access to proper internet facilities. After the present crisis subsides, reconstructing the economy and overcoming the trauma of the experience will take months before movements can regain visibility.
Despite this sudden stop in the Global Protest Wave, the insurgency is likely to return. This series of events indeed reflects a deep disillusionment and the failure of an entire global economic and political neoliberal system that fosters inequality, marginalisation and corruption in an era of globalization.
For many analysts and political and social scientists, these protests are not a passing crisis but are here to stay until deep changes are made to governing systems. For others, they echo a common feeling of helplessness and fear in the face of an uncertain future characterized by environmental degradation and the widening economic gap between social classes.