“The riot is the language of the unheard” — Martin Luther King
2019 was the year of civil unrest. The world witnessed over 150 major protests in a wave of “people power” not seen globally since the 1960’s. From Hong Kong, to Lebanon to Chile to Indonesia to India. Some of these revolutions toppled governments, others were stomped brutally into the ground and some are still open-ended questions as millions take to the streets.
What traits did the successful movements share? Are there common strategies that made them more likely to achieve their goals?
It seems that when it comes to starting a revolution, the chances a movement will be successful are increased exponentially with five identifiable tactics.
Non-violence as a strategy is far more likely to succeed than an armed rebellion. To define the term, this refers to protests in which the movement as whole is inclusive and does not mean a militarized or terroristic approach that requires picking up weapons. Virtually all protests around the world experience some violence and property destruction, such as Ecuador and Chile in 2019, but for the purposes of this article they are not defined as violent conflicts.
Armed uprisings do not fare well historically for a number of reasons. First, they are less inclusive. People are much less likely to pick up a gun than attend a march and therefore movements that require militarization tend to be less popular. A willingness to kill also makes the movement dramatically less sympathetic to world-media and even fellow citizens.
Violence provokes an intense and equally violent response from law-enforcement and state forces in the countries in which they occur.
Responding to State-Violence with armed action is generally a self-defeating strategy.
Erica Chenoweth is a Harvard researcher on popular movements.
“If campaigns use (state repression) as a pretext to militarize their campaign, then they’re essentially co-signing what the regime wants — for the resisters to play on its own playing field,” she stated in an interview with the Harvard Gazette. “And they’re probably going to get totally crushed.”
When a government feels it has been pushed into to the brink of civil war, it tends to respond forcefully and with vigor; often with less repercussions from the world community than it would repressing a mostly peaceful movement.
Successful non-violent protests toppled governments in 2019 in Lebanon, Sudan and Puerto Rico. Sudan in particular, faced a particularly brutal regime and yet prevailed against Bashir, forcing him from power.
Non-violent protests continue to endure in Iraq, despite more than 500 deaths, and Iranians have endured bloody repression as well and yet still take to the streets.
Peace, it would seem, is powerful.
Decentralized leadership and organization
Campaigns that rely on one leader are much less likely to achieve their goals than movements that have a decentralized leadership.
A movement must be organized to prevail. It must posses the ability to organize manifestations, communicate with participants and remain adaptable. Reliance on a centralized leadership structure however, creates a critical weakness.
The State can simply discredit, co-opt, arrest or even kill the leadership, effectively cutting the head off of the movement.
A campaign with debilitated or detained leadership simply fades away, as is currently the case with Juan Guaido in Venezuela. In January, Caracas was rocked by biggest protests in years as hundreds of thousands took to the streets.
After nearly a year of stalemate and corruption scandals, Venezuelan protests are a mere shadow of what they were, and Guaido has an approval rating on par with the deeply unpopular administration he sought to depose.
Protests in Hong Kong, Iraq, Lebanon, France and Chile however, were organized largely through social media in a more adaptable and leaderless model that has shown considerable durability.
In Hong Kong, users even submitted their “five demands” to online vote, and tactics are regularly organized horizontally, with independent groups self-organizing specific demonstrations.
Technology allows for a level of information dissemination and collective decision-making that was unimaginable 20 years ago, and some movements are utilizing that as a powerful tool.
In many ways, protests are a battlefield of ideas. Protesters present demands for justice and the State tries discredit them; painting them as agitators, agents of a foreign power or criminals and terrorists.
A critical component of any social movement is attention from world media, which in the 20th Century was difficult to capture and sustain.
Especially in repressive countries, where governments regularly control the narrative, protesters were dependent upon a fickle foreign media to amplify their message, but that has changed.
Although still an important factor, protesters are now able to frame their own struggles and brand their own movements.
Hong Kong in particular has harnessed this power in a way the world had previously never seen with crowd-sourced images, photography, videos, public performances and creative demonstrations that attract journalists from around the globe.
Phrases such as “Be Water” and “Blossom Everywhere” describe ever-changing and creative tactics in protests that continue to capture the imagination of world press.
Protests in Chile and Colombia have been extremely colorful as well, with acrobats, drum circles and even songs, such as “A rapist in your path” from Chile, which has become a feminist anthem around the world.
In Colombia the dance parties aren’t just for show, they are a response to violent police aggression.
“Music is our armor,” said one protester in Bogota. “They can’t say it’s a riot if we’re dancing.”
Media messaging and protest strategy are combined to serve as protection.
Concrete goals, both short and long term, and the ability to communicate clear demands are critical traits of any social movement.
Unfocused movements, or those that don’t communicate clear intentions, are less likely to recruit fellow citizenry and equally less likely to attract lasting global attention. Lebanon, Hong Kong, Ecuador, Sudan, and Bolivia were all successful movements of 2019 that defined their demands clearly and immediately.
The Yellow Vest movement in France at first offered a clear demand; an end to fuel tax hikes, but since then the demands have multiplied. From climate change action, to nationalization of companies, to progressive taxes, to pension reform to full-blown revolution. In the beginning they enjoyed an 80% approval rating within the country. A year later that number has slipped considerably.
The Yellow-vest protests have had remarkable staying power, but now lack focused messaging and consensus among the varied groups participating, which is hurting both their approval rating and their ability to attract media coverage.
The longer a protest lasts, the more likely it is to succeed. Governments often use attrition and delay as a tactic against civil uprisings, sometimes to great effect, such as in Venezuela. They hope that over time a movement will dissipate either due to an inability to sustain itself economically or due to fatigue.
Protests that can mount sustained campaigns for months however, with changing tactics and continuous pressure on the government are much more likely to elicit concessions from the States they struggle against.
Ongoing Chilean protests have already elicited promises from the government to hold a Constitutional referendum, and in Hong Kong the extradition bill that sparked the mass-movement has been officially withdrawn and the recent election was swept by pro-Hong Kong politicians.
Neither movement however has had its core demands met, but the longer the protests can be sustained, the more likely it becomes that the governments will eventually negotiate, particularly if the movement is inflicting economic pain on the State through disruptions or blockades (Ecuador and Hong King being 2019 examples of this strategy).
So what’s the takeaway?
There are factors and backgrounds in each state that make each movement unique and varying levels of challenges that make comparison difficult- such as the willingness of the State to use violent repression. (Iraq, Syria, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua and Iran faced particularly brutal governments to name just a few.)
There are often geopolitical considerations unique to each movement beyond their control as well.
This is not a comprehensive look at the reasons for each failed movement of 2019 (an article I plan to write another day), nor is it a profound analysis of the circumstances behind them.
Looking at the protests from 2019 through a general and non-ideological lens, however, shows successful protests despite considerable repression (Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and to a lesser extent Indonesia).
Some have succeeded against considerable geopolitical expectations (Bolivia, Iran, the lasting power of the Hong Kong Protests and even the July Russian uprising to a degree).
Protests that failed generally did so because they failed to demonstrate a majority of the above qualities. Just because a protest was not successful however, does not mean it should not be deeply respected.
This note should in no way be interpreted as an attack on the incredible bravery it requires to risk one’s life in the streets against any State forces — the contrary in fact. My respect for the valor and idealism of such people is impossible to overstate.
Government should be the servant of the people — those who forget that and rule by iron fist with tyranny and terror deserve to be overthrown.
Our world is rapidly changing, and the citizenry of the globe stand at a precipice.
We can allow our connectedness to unite us in a struggle for good, demanding liberty and justice from the nations we live under, or we can allow an avalanche of disinformation and nationalism to continue to drive us apart.
If I possess a bias, it is not a loyalty to a political ideology, but rather a pressing desire to be on the side of the people in their quest for self-determination.
And for that reason, I deeply hope we choose to stand together.
Long live the revolution.
Joshua Collins is an independent journalist based in Bogota, Colombia. for more stories on revolution, Latin America and a lot of questionable takes, you can follow him on Twitter.