Every day, it seems a new brush stroke is added to the dystopian picture we call 2020. The canvas is the coronavirus pandemic that is disrupting civil society globally. As someone who spent the last two decades as a nonviolent movement leader, the pandemic has caused me no slight amount of worry. A recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace outlined how lockdowns and physical distancing measures are confining people to their homes and upending their ability to meet, organize, and advocate. Social distancing measures effectively disabled some of the most popular forms of protests (rallies, marches, etc), and for a time, whenever you spoke to human rights and democracy defenders, you would hear that it has become very difficult to engage people in talk and action about democracy and human rights.
George Floyd, whose name will forever be ingrained in protest history, died in Minneapolis on May 26, his neck under the knee of a policeman until he stopped breathing. The event was recorded on video, and then, everything changed. Within a week we saw mass protests, mostly nonviolent, shake over 80 U.S. cities and many capitals worldwide, calling for an end to police brutality and racial inequality.
Now is a good time to take stock of protest movements around the world, and how they have been impacted by the pandemic, and by the rising global tide of autocracy/
Why external threats and crises are an autocrat's best friend
External threats, natural disasters, and epidemics were always fertile ground for seeds of authoritarianism and despotism. Throughout history, external threats have regularly been utilized by autocrats to limit freedoms and disrupt independent checks and balances to their power. I lived through the state of emergency proclaimed in Serbia in March 1999, after President Slobodan Milosevic's confrontation with the West, and his ambitions for ethnic cleansing, brought 78 days of NATO bombing to my country. Happy to increase his wobbling grip on power, Milosevic proclaimed the state of emergency and relished it in much the same way my two kids would enjoy a candy store. He imposed absolute censorship on his critics, enforced the closure of independent radio and TV stations, thrived on arbitrary arrests, and led a propaganda witch-hunt. The state-sponsored assassination of Slavko Curuvija, editor and owner of Serbia's largest opposition newspaper, caused some of us troublemakers to temporarily flee the country.
So, there is no wonder that illiberal leaders are taking advantage of the COVID 19-crisis, tightening their political grip by weakening checks and balances, imposing censorship, and expanding state surveillance -- all at a time when civil society groups are less able to fight back.
Take a look at Thailand, where a vivid student movement has been challenging a military junta that recently achieved a slim majority through controlled elections. Only weeks after the pandemic started, on March 26, the government invoked the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations (2005). Under Article 9 of the decree, officials are empowered to censor or edit any information they deem to be false or distorted, with a possible penalty of up to two years in jail.
Looking elsewhere, Russia is using supposed “COVID tracking measures” to install surveillance-camera facial-recognition systems, which activists know will be used to monitor and crack down on dissent. Then there are at least three cases of healthcare workers who mysteriously died “falling from windows'' after some of them criticized the government for the lack of protective equipment they had received.
Even in democracies such as Poland or Hungary, and hybrid democracies like my own country, Serbia, we see the extraordinary appetite of political leaders to sideline democratic institutions, concentrate power, and rule by decree.
But despite these depressing conditions, there are growing signs that movements are increasingly adapting to new circumstances.
Adapting to crisis
From Hong Kong to Bolivia, activists and peacebuilders are confronting the need to innovate tactically and adapt their strategies amid national lockdown orders, social distancing, and other measures intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The first action of many activists was to go online, turning to digital platforms to inform and educate citizens about COVID situations. Some of these activities have scaled up quickly. In Tunisia, for example, more than 100,000 people joined a Facebook group bringing together volunteers to help fight the virus. Some of these campaigns, like the one in Poland that pushed for postponement of presidential elections, are also combining what you do in a virtual space with real individual protest acts such as banners draped by activists from the windows of their homes, which are then uploaded on social media.
The second example of creative adaptation may be physical protests which include disciplined social distancing. Israeli protesters outraged with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's securing of a new term and possible avoidance of a corruption trial gathered in Tel Aviv`s main square on April 20. X marked a spot where someone could stand under Israel's social distancing guidelines (2 meters away). Though protest organizers marked 2,800 spots for protesters to stand, twice as many people showed up to protest, with many people standing on the surrounding streets. Similarly, in one of most iconic videos of the latest racial-equality protest wave in the United States, Denver activists used a disciplined “lying on the ground while social distancing tactic” to mimic the last seconds of George Floyd`s torture, launching into the cry, “I Can’t Breathe.”
The third adaptation that we are increasingly seeing might be a shift toward creating disruption without mass gatherings. On April 14, Polish feminists made headlines by blocking traffic at Rondo Dmowskiego, the intersection of Warsaw’s two main boulevards. Responding to a call on social media, they paralyzed traffic at noon as they stopped their cars and bikes adorned with banners. This "our vehicles are broken” type of protest was used to address situations where the conservative government led by the PiS party is using the pandemic to push controversial laws banning all abortions -- laws that had previously been stopped due to mass protests.
The last adaptation that we are seeing is that with limited options for large concentrations, activists increasingly resort to what we in CANVAS call “tactics of dispersion.” Faced with the world`s second-largest outbreak of coronavirus, and the epically incompetent response from the government, people in Brazil have expressed anger at President Jair Bolsonaro's mishandling of the pandemic by banging pots and pans together on balconies. Croats used a similar tactic to protest the mayor of their capital, Zagreb. For more than 10 days in a row I personally enjoyed the “noise from the balcony protest” that lamented the situation in my own country, Serbia, with two of our kids contributing. They had a blast.
All of these adaptations show that despite the crisis, activism may be still around, alive and kicking. But protesting is so much more than strategic nonviolence. There is a deeper phenomenon transforming our societies for the better: civic resilience.
The lasting vaccine to the authoritarianism virus?
If we treat individuals’ tactical adaptations to pandemic restrictions as an immediate treatment to the autocracy virus, then a more strategic approach is civic resilience. We could see it as a long-lasting vaccine that will prevent the autocratic infection of our societies in the future.
In short: Societies with strong community bonds and a history of united action are more likely to contain any attempt of manipulation coming from either governments or non-state actors. So if civic resilience is, like some form of antibody, already spread in the population, developed through some form of civic engagement, can it make our societies more immune to crises like a global pandemic?
Many times in the history of social movements, human rights defenders, and even small NGOS, have operated with some acknowledgment of Albert Einstein’s quote that “within every crisis lies a great opportunity.”
Remember Burma in 2005? Using the fact that the military junta was completely unable to provide for victims of a devastating tsunami, civil society and NGOs stepped in as first responders. Civil society did what the military junta could not: It helped villagers bury their dead, prevent cholera outbreaks, and meet basic needs. As a result, civil society, which was at the time mostly underground, gained both prominence and legitimacy, recruiting thousands of volunteers -- some of whom were crucial in voter mobilization in the years to come.
Another example of a political movement gaining from its strategic reaction in crisis is “Occupy Sandy," an organized relief effort created to assist the victims of Hurricane Sandy in the northeastern United States. The effort has worked in partnership with many local community organizations.
When a forest fire struck the “lungs of the planet,” causing millions of acres of Amazonian forest in Brazil and Bolivia to burn, we witnessed how environmental groups quickly filled the vacuum left by an unresponsive government. They built a network of aid and volunteers to help immediate victims, won the hearts and souls of the local population as well as firefighters and doctors, and later leveraged that support into large anti-government protests. If it wasn’t for the Amazon, Evo Morales would probably still be ruling Bolivia.
The strategic advantage of these popular movements lies in the fact that they correctly recognized vacuums that appeared during crises. They seized the empty spaces created between the immediate need for support in the face of disaster and governments' absolute inability to deliver, and then used their numbers and organization to help people in need. This allowed civil society to build new layers based on reputation, and to recruit thousands of supporters through community and humanitarian work.
Take a look at Hong Kong, where, with the government flailing, the city’s citizens decided to organize their own coronavirus response. Hong Kong Governor Carrie Lam dragged her feet in closing the city’s borders and never fully closed down the land border with China. The hospitals suffered from shortages of personal protective equipment. Lam wavered on masks, and even ordered civil servants not to wear them. There were shortages of crucial supplies and empty shelves in stores.
The civic resilience of Hong Kong stepped in. Thanks to a previous wave of protest, it seems that “civic resilience antibodies” were already within society. In response to the crisis, Hong Kongers spontaneously adopted near-universal masking on their own, defying the government’s ban on masks. In response to the mask shortage, the foot soldiers of the protest movement set up mask brigades. They acquired and distributed masks, especially to the poor and elderly, who may not be able to spend hours in lines on their own. An army of volunteers also spread among the intensely crowded buildings to install hand-sanitizer dispensers and keep them filled. During the protest movement, Hong Kongers developed shared digital maps that kept track of police blockades and clashes; now similar digital maps kept track of outbreaks and hand-sanitizer distribution.
So amid the government's sloppy response, the people of Hong Kong took their defense into their own hands, effectively surviving the virus with minimal consequences. The secret ingredient of Hong Kong’s response was its civically resilient population and, crucially, the movement that engulfed the city in 2019.
Similar support networks, with pro-democracy activists turning their organization into societal hubs, are filling in gaps left by governments to provide essential services, spread information about the virus, and protect marginalized groups. In some places they are partnering with businesses and public authorities to support local communities strapped for economic relief. They are also forging new coalitions to hold their governments to account. We witness their growing role, numbers and reputation across the globe. We can take a look at dozens of examples in Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.
Is there a new global protest wave ahead?
How can we explain the latest post-COVID wave of protests in the United States, and can we somehow predict the future of protesting at this dramatic moment?
History teaches us about a very interesting phenomenon called rallying around the flag. Even at the very dawn of humanity, we always had our disputes and quarrels -- where to hunt, who would marry whom within the tribe. And we had complaints about leaders at that time as well. But then an external threat appears, and for a moment all quarrels cease. Instinctively societies rally around their leader, even a bad leader, until the outside threat passes. We haven't changed much. Look at the ratings of world leaders in times of crisis: The classic example is George W. Bush, whose approval ratings skyrocketed in the days following 9/11.
But once the immediate external threat is out of picture, another phenomenon happens. People start asking questions. When the state of emergency was lifted after the NATO bombing of Serbia in June 1999, Milosevic seemed invincible, and our opposition was in disarray. Eighteen months later, in the autumn of 2000, the butcher of the Balkans was ousted in an electoral landslide amid million-strong protests.
So it is now. The sooner we see the normalization of life, the sooner people will start asking questions about how the crisis was handled. Take a look at Belgium, and the iconic video of healthcare workers silently turning their backs to the prime minister's motorcade to protest her handling of the pandemic, which resulted in Europe's highest death rate per-capita. Soon you will get an idea of what may be happening everywhere.
Expect first responders to be on the front lines of accountability campaigns, demanding checks and balances from their officials. Strikes and other noncooperation tactics are already erupting as labor unions try to defend essential workers who are forced to appear at work without enough protective gear, like in the case of the New York branch of Amazon. Very soon we may be witnessing a wave of protests targeting businesses who are trying to hastily reopen without necessary testing, or firing workers en-masse, like what's happening in the French auto industry.
Others will follow. Though crises like the pandemic can resurrect the political prospects of some leaders, as 9/11 did for President Bush, and as the pandemic has done for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, they can also present a dire threat to other leaders -- those less lucky, less skilled, less able to lead properly in times of disaster. People will be back. Many of them will be angry. Unfortunately, in many cases, they won’t have much to lose -- they have already lost their loved ones, or jobs, or perspective. So they will be more willing to take risks. And they will have more time on their hands to do it.
Below the dystopian surface of a post-pandemic world hammered by health and economic crises, as well as by shrinking freedoms and vanishing human rights, peoples' creativity and civic resilience may be resurging. Watch carefully and remember: Societies are as healthy and vital as are their citizens.
Srdja Popovic, co-founder, and Executive Director of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions (CANVAS), has trained activists in over 50 countries to promote democracy, accountability, and human rights. He is also the author of “Blueprint for revolution”. Theodore Weiss is a former research analyst at CANVAS and a board member of Build A Movement, is based in Colorado. The views expressed are the authors' own.