Last June, Dr. Jerôme Duberry published a though-provoking piece in this series on the effects of the novel coronavirus on democratic experiences around the globe. It traces commonalities in the social movements that have been making headlines in the last 18 months: Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, and Black Lives Matter. These, Duberry argued, have attracted mass mobilization made possible by the ever-increasing market of new communication technologies for political activity, and by an increased perceived need to ‘work together.’ The latter, he suggests, is cause for hopefulness – an awakening of sorts to the growing interdependence of people and issues. The genealogy of these grassroots movements, Duberry also suggests, can be traced back to the 1960s and 70s, when the Cold War and decolonization triggered waves of activism, which later articulated themselves around causes such as the environment and human rights.
To capture the significance of today’s grassroots movements, I suggest building on Duberry’s piece by delineating two further dimensions. First, that their demographics differ from with those of previous waves of activism. And, second, that the COVID-19 pandemic had a very different impact on each of these movements. Both of these dimensions are reveals something about the experience of democratic politics by the swaths of protesters that have expressed their support for the movements, many of which had no prior experience in activism.
Starting with the first dimension: it is now well-documented that it is young people who are leading the charge behind much of the climate strikes and the new wave of Black Lives Matter protests. Youth and protests have long gone hand in hand – be it in 1968, during the so-called ‘Arab Spring,’ or in Hong Kong since last year. But this time around, the protesters are even younger: ‘As teens, we feel like we cannot make a difference in this world, but we must.’ says Black Lives Matter activist Zee Thomas, 15, to the New York Times. They are below voting age, and thus unable to participate in the primary avenue for the exercise of voice in the liberal democratic system. Instead, their democratic participation first begins on digital spaces, with information about the issues and ways to participate found through personal connections on social media, and then on the streets. This follows the dynamics of the “networked protest,” which differs from movements of the pasts thanks to the ability of digital tools to rapidly amass large numbers of protesters with a common goal (Tufekci, 2017). Channeling the energy and anger of the digital democratic participation into political participation has been at the core of calls by House Democrats to lower voting age to 16.
This form of digital democratic participation comes from self-professed anger at democratic institutions that, seemingly unable to transcend party and institutional politics, have not been able to resolve cross-cutting issues that go to the very heart of their survival. Responding to critics suggesting that young climate activists such as herself or Greta Thunberg are “hysterical,” Jamie Margolin’s answers that she is indeed angry, and unapologetic about it: “ I would love, very much, to chill; there are any number of things [I] would rather be doing, if only adults would make that possible by running the world more responsibly.” To African Americans, the Black Lives Matter movement is arguably just as much about survival than the climate movement is to young climate activists. It is also about anger towards the police force, whose legitimate exercise of authority finds its foundation in democratic processes and institutions (de Lint, 2014).
A second dimension of interest is the varying impact of the pandemic on each of these movements. Environmental movements such as Fridays for Future quickly pressed pause on street protests when governments around the world imposed lockdowns to contain the spread of the disease. This could be in part due to schools closing down and environmental summits being postponed. Indeed, legions of youth climate protesters have adopted Greta Thunberg’s school strike approach – a less impactful strategy while studying from home. Further, the Fridays for Future movement has synched some of their large-scale protests with the global environmental governance calendar: for example, the 21 September 2019 climate strike was timed in accordance to the UN Climate Action Summit. It could also have been out of compliance with the COVID-19 restrictions and a sense that the pandemic at least temporarily trumped climate change in its urgency.
Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, found its casus belli during the pandemic, quickly becoming the largest social movement in US history with ripple effects worldwide. It was a long time coming, particularly after four years of blatant racism from Trump administration. US house speaker Nancy Pelosi famously noted that the Trump campaign slogan should be read as “Make America White Again.” But it was also the result of a perfect storm brought forward by the pandemic: COVID-related deaths and unemployment exposed deep racial inequalities and vulnerabilities – sometimes encapsulated in the term ‘systemic racism.’ Higher infection and death rates among Black and Latino people in the US have been explained, in part, by a higher prevalence of underlying health problems such as diabetes and obesity but also by unequal access to testing, healthcare, and the option of working from home.
The pandemic also increased the digitization of everyday life just as a number of disturbing incidents pitting black Americans with the police were recorded using smartphones and went viral. Among others, there was the Central Park birdwatching incident, when, during a verbal confrontation between a white woman and a black man, the woman attempted to make use of the police’s bias against his race: “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” And there was, of course, the murder of George Floyd, who gasped for air on camera while a police officer sat with his knee on his neck for eight long minutes.
At the heart of Black Lives Matter lies the nexus between race and citizenship, which rippled throughout America: “No one expected the protests following Floyd’s killing to reach Franklin. Not its White people, not its young people and certainly not its older Black residents, who fought to integrate the schools in the 1960s before watching — with horror that gave way, over decades, to dull despair — as things settled back to how they’d been, with Black people living as second-class citizens in fact, if no longer in law,” writes Hannah Natanson for the Washington Post. Terms such as ‘carceral citizenship’ have been coined to speak of forms of second-class citizenship for poor black Americans, as distinct from political membership (Miller and Stuart, 2017). Black Lives Matter protests found momentum and energy in rebelling against stay-at-home orders to protest, and in confronting the very institutions that have hurt them in doing so, i.e. the police in the street, and the carceral system in the event of an arrest. In this way, Black Lives Matter share with Extinction Rebellion the endorsement of civil disobedience, which symbolizes deep discontent with a system. “We aren’t focused on traditional systems like petitions or writing to our MPs and more likely to take risks (e.g. arrest / jail time),” suggest the Extinction Rebellion UK website.
Perhaps, this overlap of crises – health, climate and racial discrimination – is giving way to a moment of reckoning for what democratic participation and citizenship is and ought to be. The pandemic exposed profound inequalities that are impossible to ignore going forward: if the first vectors of COVID-19 transmission were cosmopolitans travelling across the globe, it is the poor that have borne the brunt of devastation. But the perceived need to ‘work together’ does appear to be on the increase, both across causes and transnationally, and a cause for hope – for example, climate activists have been vocal in their support for Black Lives Matter, and there have been expressions of solidarity for both movements across the world. The necessary attention of climate justice for both movements is an important lesson going forward: while the climate strikers may have pressed pause on their protests, recent news have reported an inordinate amount climate change-related disasters. And, what COVID-19 has ultimately shown us is that in any crisis it is the poorest and most vulnerable that suffer the greatest impacts.
de Lint, W. (2014) Police Authority in Liberal-Consent Democracies: A Case for Anti-Authoritarian Cops, in The Oxford Handbook of Police and Policing, Oxford University Press
Miller, R. J., & Stuart, F. (2017). Carceral Citizenship: Race, Rights and Responsibility in the Age of Mass Supervision. Theoretical Criminology, 21(4), 532–548
Tufekci, Z. (2017) Twitter and Tear Gas: Social Media and Political Mobilization, Yale University Press