These last few years have certainly challenged long-standing concepts of what it means to protest and why people do it. Russian “hacktivists” instigate racial protests in the US from around the world. Children in Germany march against their parents’ smartphone use. Neo-Nazis take to the streets to argue that human rights for all are a violation of their human rights.
Concepts that shaped our public protest discourse, concepts like Strategic Silence and the Spiral of Silence, now have to be reevaluated as technology and new media transform politics, value systems, and cynicism. Even that benchmark of extreme defiance—self-immolation—barely gets a notice in the press these days.
But if activism has become synonymous with raising awareness, then protesting is increasingly about attacking how publics look at the world by trying to break through the static of daily life. In some places that static is indifference, in others, it is hyperpartisan ideological differences, and still, in others, it is systematic oppression. In every context, the mundane becomes political.
This article looks at some of the most unique and bizarre ways in which people have protested over this past decade. Some of these attempts are twists on the conventional. Others utilize new technologies and still, others move in directions previously unseen.
Dildos vs. Guns
The University of Texas at Austin was the site of one of the more colourful protests to shake the USA in the recent past. Citing the absurdity of Texas’ concealed carry laws, the Campus (Dildo) Carry, started by alumnus Jessica Jin, took a stand using sex toys.
In August 2016, Texas passed a law allowing gun owners over the age of 21 to carry firearms on college campuses. The Cocks Not Glocks protest handed out sex toys, mainly dildos, for free and encouraged people to openly brandish them while others held signs with slogans like “You’re packing heat, we’re packing meat”. Protestors said they wanted to cite the absurdity of the situation: guns were approved for university campuses under the belief that they will prevent mass shootings, while the public display of sexual paraphernalia is considered indecent and against university standards, even though dildos, and dildo-wielding citizens, kill significantly fewer people than gun users.
While the protest drew lots of publicity and colourful reporting all over the world, mass shootings continue in the states. Subsequent protests concerning gun laws in the USA have taken different tones, with some using other methods on this list.
Belarus Holds the Applause
Belarus is one of Europe’s less celebrated locales. While much of the former Iron Curtain has seen economic growth and more tourism, Belarus remains isolated. It is the only European country that is not in the Council of Europe or the European Union. This is because Belarus is still a dictatorship, and a brutal one at that.
Inspired by the Arab Spring and other protests in 2011, Belarussians took to the streets, and President Lukashenko responded with a brutal crackdown. Faced with little freedom to voice concerns, citizens turned online and organized. People started gathering in public. They didn’t chant or march or make demands. They clapped. These unified applause sessions gathered steam, and the government responded by beating and arresting protestors under charges of hooliganism.
The situation became more absurd. Clapping was banned, except in special circumstances like when applauding veterans. This backfired when Lukashenko gave a speech on Belarus’ independence day and was met with silence. Later, a man was fined for clapping in public. He only had one arm.
Protestors also experimented with other coordinated acts, like timing their cell phone alarms to go off at the same time and stomping their feet publicly in unison.While crackdowns continued and protests abated, Belarus remains an example of how people can make pedestrian, routine behaviour into political gestures.
The Sound of Silence in Turkey
Turkey under Erdogan’s rule has dismayed western coalitions and human rights groups. The Gezi Park protests showed a brutal side of the government, while the botched coup ushered in a wave of unembarrassed illiberal rule.
In the midst of these events came an iconic moment of modern protest. Performance artists ErdemGunduz stood still for hours in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, unmoved by passersby or authorities despite heckling and harassment. During his first eight-hour stand, he only moved once, unbuttoning his trousers in anticipation of a strip search by the police.His stoic act of defiance inspired hundreds of protestors primarily in Turkey’s two biggest cities. The protest went viral as #duranadamor “standing man”.Images of silent steadfast protestors facing police in riot gear came to define a new era of repression in the famously secular country.
Since the failed coup attempt, Erdogan’s government has enjoyed a sweep of populist fervour which has allowed the government to expand its powers, rewrite the constitution, and imprison opponents. While the government often discredits protestors by calling them violent and claiming that they throw rocks, the Standing Man protests recalled the sit-ins and non-violence movements of the past. According to Gunduz, this was a way of drawing attention to the unheard voices of the Turkish public.
China Will Not Return to Pooh Corner
China doesn’t try to hide its lack of concern for rights to free speech and assembly, with Tiananmen Square and the Great Firewall examples of its less-than-stellar tolerance for openness. Its internet “harmonization” policy, which heavily censors online content, means that users must get creative when they want to express certain views, and Winnie the Pooh has been caught in the struggle between enterprising netizens and government censors.
Internet users often use Pooh as a stand-in for leader Xi JinPing due to what some consider a resemblance between the increasingly powerful Chairman and the jolly, good-natured bear. Images and memes are known to surface during visits with other foreign leaders. When Xi met with Obama, images of Pooh with Tigger were posted side-by-side photos of the leaders’ meetings. Whenever China and Japan have a meeting, expect to see pictures of Pooh and Eeyore next to Xi and Japan’s Prime Minister Abe. Netizens have even taken to referring to Xi as “Emperor Winnie”.
Displaying a characteristic lack of humour about the issue, images of Winnie the Pooh evoking Xi Jinping are wiped from the internet. With news that Xi has eliminated term limits, effectively paving a path to unlimited power, it’s fair to assume that Pooh will remain a controversial figure in China.
Three Billboards Outside Anywhere
Movies are a frequent source of inspiration for protestors, and references to popular films can draw a lot of publicity. Protesters against the destruction of the Amazon took a page from Avatar, even getting support from James Cameron while women dressed as the sex slaves from The Handmaid’s Tale to protest the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh.
Since its premiere in the autumn of 2017, Three Billboards… has claimed a place in the public consciousness. In the film, a woman who is equal parts angry and aggrieved over the unsolved rape and murder of her daughter rents three billboards to hold the police to task. Following the film’s release and spotlight as a prestige awards contender, the stark image of black text over a red background has been used in numerous places for numerous causes and in several languages.
Billboards appeared outside the UN headquarters in New York to protest inaction over the Syrian war, in Miami after the Stoneman High School mass shooting, in Naples against an anti-immigrant political party, in Malta over the murder of an anti-corruption journalist, in London on the eight-month anniversary of the Grenfell tower block fire, and in Kosovo where they were set up outside of the main police station to protest domestic violence. In a turn of face for the industry that brought the protest to silver screens, Hollywood got its own three billboards treatment when right-wing extremist Sabo trolled the Academy Awards using billboards to reference the industry’s inaction over child abuse.
Indian Farmers Want Permission to Die
India is the largest democracy in the world, and it has a storied history of protest, gaining its independence through the non-violence movement led by Gandhi. But one form of protest that is decidedly violent is often ignored by the international community.
The suicide rate among farmers in India is shockingly high, and it is estimated that more than 12,000 farmers have killed themselves every year since 2013; however, this unfortunate trend has been going on for decades. While several parties have sought to explain why the most widely held reasons are droughts caused by climate change and government inaction.
In August 2015, farmers formally took the government to task. 25,000 farmers in the state of Uttar Pradesh requested permission to commit suicide on India’s independence day, citing the governments’ unfulfilled promise to compensate them for lost profits when much of their land was submerged.A month earlier, seven farmers in the Maharastra state visited their local government to personally submit their suicide requests having waited months for aid that hadn’t come.
While these requests are often met with increased attention by local governments, many of India’s farmers remain in volatile situations, caught between the ravages of climate change and debt traps.
#hashtags and meme magic
Technology’s effect on protests is so great that social media has been credited with both inspiring democratic revolutions and undermining democratic elections, and some credit must go the vessels of virality that allow messages to flood the internet: hashtags and memes.
Consider April Reign, a former lawyer who turned to Twitter as a vehicle to promote social change. Her #OscarsSoWhite campaign was the catalysis for sweeping diversity measures in Hollywood. Or Tarana Burke who started #MeToo on MySpace in 2006. Retweeted more than a decade later, the hashtag has become a rallying call around the world, with other countries adding their own takes (in France, for example, it’s #balancetonporc, or “rat on your pig”). The hashtag has become a sign that, in the right industries and at the right times with the right framing, a simple phrase can shift societies.
There’s also meme magic, a popular topic for the right-wing netizens. Some media outlets reported that online Trump supporters view their viral efforts as the cause for his victory, but the oft ironic trolling of these communities makes it difficult to tell if they’re serious or not. The explosion of hyperpartisan information dispersal also makes it difficult to discern what effect images like Pepe the Frog had on voters. Still, it’s hard to deny that these communities have mobilized and mainstreamed views that are shaking the public consciousness. The alt-right’s memes probably aren’t evidence of a magical ability to will things into existence, as followers tend to state, but they have had an effect.
People Under the Hairs
In 2017, Saudi Arabian women finally received the right to drive after decades of protest. Across the Persian Gulf, in Saudi’s regional rival and enemy Iran, the female population has been waging a different protest.
Like the effort against the driving ban in Saudi (which doesn’t exist in Iran), it is a protest that has been going on for years, decades even. It is a protest about hair. Since 1979, it has been mandatory that women cover their hair when in public. Like other entries on this list, this is an example of one individual continuing a long-standing campaign emboldened by social media.
In 2017, activist Masih Alinejad started the White Wednesday campaign, inviting Iranian women to send pictures or videos of themselves removing their hijabs—the name for the headscarf—in public. During one of the economy-focused public protests at the end of the year, a woman named Vida Movahed removed her hijabin protest of restrictions on female dress and was promptly arrested. This inspired other women to stand on utility boxes, as Movahed had, bearing their hair and waving their hijabs as flags.
In the past few months, more women have taken to the streets in protest of mandatory dress requirements with 29 women arrested in a February protest after removing their hijabs in public. Protestors have emphasized that they are not protesting the hijab, only the mandatory requirement to wear it. As such, many women who wear the hijab willingly have expressed their support for the movement.
Buckets of Justice
Putin’s Russia isn’t known for its fairness or sympathy for protestors, but one group sought to curb what they saw as a rampant injustice using blue buckets.
When an emergency vehicle flashing its blue siren is on the road, all other cars must pull over and allow it to pass. The wealthy and elite have taken to using these vehicles as private transportation or attaching blue lights to the top of their cars to speed through traffic, often disobeying traffic laws and sometimes endangering pedestrians.
The Blue Bucket Society began in 2009-10 as a way to speak out against this abuse of privilege. Resentment of VIP cars with blue sirens grew after high profile collisions between luxury cars carrying prominent politicians as opposed to hospital patients. Members attached blue buckets to the tops of their cars in protest. They have also coordinated slow motorcades through Moscow and posted videos of luxury cars with affixed sirens driving recklessly and disregarding traffic laws.
Despite the levity of the gesture, the government sought to curb the protestors. Following a one-man protest in which protestor Leonid Nikolaev donned a blue bucket and climbed atop a VIP car, the Duma restricted such protests, accusing the Blue Bucket Society of being a foreign-backed effort to undermine Russian society. In 2012, the Russian government ordered USAID out of Russia, claiming that they were funding anti-Russian organizations within the country. This included the Blue Buckets.
Many of the items on this list show that the most basic, everyday things can become the objects of political protest, be they sex toys, hair, buckets, or the act of clapping, and this has also always been true of perhaps the most basic of materials—excrement, faecal matter, poop, shit, etc. While poo protests have a long, storied history, the last few years have seen an uptick in the creative use of excrement to make a point.
In South Africa, the use of human excrement has been used to show dissatisfaction several times over the last few years. In 2015, students at the University of Cape Town pelted a statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes with poop. A couple months later, residents of a settlement near Capetown attempted to dump their waste on the highway in protest of poor sanitary conditions in their area. In November 2017, two more poop protests occurred, one even stopping a former minister from giving a speech.
In California last year, a rightwing rally was called off after locals preemptively assailed their planned rally spot with dog poop, with dog owners going to the place “in droves” to let their pets do their business in the days leading up to the event.More symbolically, New Zealanders protested the relaxation of water contaminant standards by flooding a Lake Ohakuri with poop emoji pool floats.
But these pale in comparison to Venezuela. As it plunged into crisis, protestors utilised “Puputov cocktails” (alternate spelling: poopotov) in their clashes with security forces. One 2017 protest was even dubbed “La Marcha de la Mierda,” or the S–t March, with protestors exchanging recipes for the crap bomb online.
Read More Gender in Internet Governance
Digital Verification: The Way of the Future
One final item and it is not a traditional protest. Unlike these other entries, it doesn’t rely on social convergence or displays of unity. In many cases, it is an individual or private action that is done only after an event. Much of the time it is done alone or in small groups, and it is rarely dramatic or photogenic, but as fake news and post-truth have become ubiquitous and distracting elements of public discourse, it may become one of the most important, subversive acts against authority.
It is the process of digital verification, by which people use web tools to trace the origins of online content and determine their sources and veracity. While this is seen as the work of journalists and professional fact-checker sites, even basic browser extensions allow anyone to do a reverse image search in seconds.
Amnesty International is currently building a digital verification corps, and organizations are increasingly parsing online content to track and verify crimes against humanity.These are the methods and tools that will drive accountability and justice in the future. When people think of protests, they often think of disruption, chants of power to the people, spiritual dirges, and big speeches. However, as more governments turn to alternative facts and selective reasoning, the true protest may come to mean demanding standards of fairness and objectivity in media and government.
writer Samy Amanatullah European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation Italy
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