The Pandemic Has Invigorated Protest Movements—and Repressive Governments, Too

Columbia Politics Collective
April 23, 2021

The coronavirus has profoundly affected protest movements by simultaneously empowering governments and activists. In doing so, it has set up a race between protestors and governments to win the social media war—a drama that is playing out in different ways across the world.

Although messy and nonuniform, social movements under COVID-19 fall into two broad categories. First, governments that were under siege from ongoing protest movements before the virus have harnessed the threat of the virus to crush dissent. These governments have often fought skirmishes in the digital world. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote in her 2017 book Twitter and Tear Gas, governments “have learned to control the networked public sphere” through tactics such as “mobilizing armies of supporters or paid employees who muddy the online waters with misinformation, information glut, doubt, confusion, harassment, and distraction, making it hard for ordinary people to navigate the networked public sphere, and sort facts from fiction, truth from hoaxes.” Chile, Hong Kong, and India fit this pattern.

Second, the collection of protest movements that erupted during the height of the pandemic have had to negotiate public curfews, strict lock-downs and disdainful media coverage when making their demands for social justice heard. The killing of George Floyd in the U.S. was the catalyst, but protesters have taken advantage of social media to organize and share ideas across borders.

In many ways, the eruption of protest in the British city of Bristol typifies the way contemporary social movements operate. On the one hand, events like Floyd’s killing in America have shocked millions of people on social media and mobilized activists around the world to express solidarity with the unjust treatment of Black Americans. On the other hand, an abuse of power almost 4,000 miles away also provided the opportunity to address local grievances, from Minneapolis to Sydney to Helsinki. Bristol had its own racial history and injustices to deal with. Protesters demonstrated against deaths in police custody and Bristol's communities of color being devastated by the novel coronavirus disproportionately, a pattern that also occurred all across America. “It was a tragic incident that ignited the fire in people to get out and say enough is enough,” said Cleo Lake, a city councillor and former Lord Mayor of Bristol, who was the first Black woman to hold the ceremonial office. 

When the statue of British slave trader Edward Colston was toppled and dumped into Bristol Harbor on June 7 by Black Lives Matter activists, Shawn Sobers was watering his allotment, avoiding the crowds. It wasn’t until later that evening that Sobers, an associate professor of photography at the University of the West of England, walked down to take a look. By 7pm, the growing twilight was charring the blue sky grey. Then, he saw it—the empty plinth. Sobers felt disoriented. “My head was spinning,” he told me.

Colston was a slave trader with the Royal African Company who donated a vast endowment to the city of Bristol upon his death, in 1721; his bronze statue was erected in the center of town in 1895. Sobers initially advocated for adding a plaque to re-contextualize Colston’s legacy. As a photographer he supported a visual public record of slavery and feared removing the statue would sweep it “under the carpet." But when the proposed plaque was rejected by city planners, he became convinced the statue must fall. To him, it felt like a reminder that the Black population of Bristol was deemed unimportant compared to Colston’s crimes against humanity. “I don’t think there’s any redemption for it,” he said. “It should just go into a museum.”

That evening, Sobers was with Rob Mitchell, his co-founder in Firstborn Creatives, their production company that makes films on the history of slavery. Mitchell bounded up the empty pedestal, and, when he was aloft, dropped a knee and thrust a fist skywards. Sobers quickly snapped a photo and uploaded it online. The image, titled “The Day Colston Met The People," was retweeted dozens of times, and was eventually displayed at Bristol’s MShed museum.

Two days after the Colston statue was torn down, an idol of Belgium’s King Leopold II, known for his genocidal colonization of the Congo, was removed in Antwerp. Monuments for figures like Christopher Columbus and Robert E. Lee were destroyed or defaced in the U.S. “[It] seemed to ricochet back to America, to Europe, to Belgium,” Sobers said. “You had people like Ice Cube tweeting about Bristol!” As Sado Jirde, director of the Black South West Network, a non-profit organization working for racial equality in Bristol and southwestern England, put it: “The fight for racial justice is a global one.”

* * *

Repressive Virality 

On October 6, the Chilean government announced that the subway fare in the capital Santiago would be raised. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Chile had become perhaps the most prosperous country in South America thanks to years of economic growth, but Chileans had grown discontented over the country’s vast inequality. According to the Gini Index used to measure income distribution, Chile ranks as the most unequal nation among the 36 wealthy, developed democracies that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development. The fare hike provoked demonstrators to set subway stations on fire, and they waged lengthy, violent protests that included demands to change the Chilean constitution, which was a legacy of the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet. On October 25, over a million people marched on the streets of Santiago, calling for the resignation of President Sebastián Piñera, a billionaire businessman who seemed to epitomize all that was wrong with Chile.

A few months later, the protests abruptly ground to a halt. On March 18, Piñera announced that Chile had 238 cases of COVID-19 with no deaths, and declared a state of emergency. The move gave Piñera extraordinary powers to close borders and restrict movement, although coronavirus cases would continue to rise for months, peaking at almost 7,000 new cases a day on June 14. Chile became one of the hardest-hit countries in South America, with more than 10,000 coronavirus deaths by August 9. A referendum on elections for the constitutional assembly, which had been a major victory for the protesters, was postponed from late April to October. Demonstrators who had long taken over Santiago's Plaza Italia retreated. 

For months, Piñera had been forced to detour away from Plaza Italia, citing security reasons. But one day in April, Piñera drove to the empty square and sat down on the foot of a statue in the plaza, and with his shirtsleeves rolled up, he posed for a picture in front of graffiti that read: “Takedown Piñera.” Social media exploded. Piñera was sitting at the epicenter of the protests, mocking his silenced critics.

Many protest movements have ceased across the world, but other governments have pursued more brutal responses.

Before the pandemic hit India, a protest movement, largely led by Muslim women, had been building for months as activists in Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim-dominated neighborhood in Delhi, began demonstrating against a new law that discriminates based on religion. At issue was the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which fast-tracks Indian citizenship to migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but excludes Muslims. Critics fear that the CAA could be used in combination with the planned National Register of Citizens (NRC) to strip Muslims of citizenship. Activists say that the law threatens the secular foundations of the Indian constitution by including a religious criterion for granting citizenship. In February, communal violence broke out in Delhi’s after a clash between protesters opposing CAA-NRC and those supporting it. The riots left 53 people dead, around two-thirds of them Muslims.

India’s Muslim minorities have often stayed away from protests in the past. But the citizenship act questioned their Indianness, urging them to act, said Delhi University professor Apoorvanand. “The anti-CAA movement was the political assertion of minorities in a [Hindu] majoritarian state,” he said. 

However, the pandemic put a stop to over one-hundred days of protest when, in March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a strict lockdown. Soon, some activists associated with the protests were arrested. According to  court affidavits, the police claimed that the February violence was planned under the garb of anti-CAA protests. Activists have accused the police of building a narrative that puts the blame of the violence on anti-CAA protestors. The police maintained that it was doing its job impartially and that the arrests made were “based on analysis of scientific and forensic evidence.”

Critics say Modi's government used the lockdown period to arrest activists and organizers and charge them under anti-terrorism and sedition laws, which means making bail has been difficult. At least three political activists have contracted COVID-19 while in jail. The U.N. has called on the Indian government to release protest leaders and said that the arrests seem “clearly designed to send a chilling message to India’s vibrant civil society that criticism of government policies will not be tolerated.”

Finding legal counsel was difficult, too. “If a person is arrested, they need a lawyer," said Mishika Singh, a Delhi-based attorney. "But that access to legal defense became very limited during the lockdown.”

Like in India, thousands in Hong Kong had been protesting against the government for months before the virus arrived. And at the height of the pandemic, authorities there also took the opportunity not just to quash dissent and criminalize activism, but to accelerate their plans to elide Hong Kong’s constitutional distinctions with mainland China.

July 1 is a date imbued with multiple meanings for Hong Kongers. Usually, on this day, the stage is set for political theatre, as Hong Kongers publicly tussle over its conflicting identity. Officially, it commemorates the day of the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 from the U.K. to China, a holiday celebrated by extravagant displays of fireworks. To pro-democracy Hong Kongers, however, it is a day to turn out in large numbers, when people march for the preservation of civil liberties and universal suffrage, as the 50-year deadline under the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement creeps closer every year.

Nearly midway through the 50-year deadline, it has appeared for some time that Beijing is fast-tracking the integration process. The coronavirus pandemic provided a legitimate excuse to ban large gatherings on the pretext of social distancing. On June 4, the annual Tiananmen Square vigil was outlawed. 

Unable to protest freely during the pandemic, Hong Kongers turned to social media. They joined the lockdown boom on Animal Crossing, flooding onto islands they decorated with anti-government protest banners, such as “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.” Soon afterwards, the game was banned in China. 

Then on the eve of the July 1 holiday, China seized the opportunity to pass a draconian national security law for Hong Kong. Police banners now explicitly spell out warnings for protestors: “Anyone holding flags or banners, or shouting slogans containing messages related to secession or subversion of state power, may be charged under the national security law.”

Protesters still turned out in droves on July 1 to rally against the sweeping new law, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Police cars fitted with water cannons patrolled the streets, blasting protesters and journalists alike, and pepper spray was used to disperse crowds. Hundreds were arrested. 

The new law is a disaster for activists, who, a year ago, managed to kill a highly controversial extradition bill that many at the time feared would be used to arrest and send political prisoners to mainland China. The new national security law is even more far-reaching and powerful. This time, Beijing's National People's Congress did not reveal details of the law until only after it was unanimously and secretively passed, giving the public little time or ammunition to organize. 

On Twitter, pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Agnes Chow announced on Facebook that they were stepping down from their political party, Demosisto, which is now effectively dismantled. The three were the faces of the 2014 youth-led Umbrella Movement, and have since grown from student activists to political contenders. The next day, Law, who in 2016 had already become the youngest elected legislator in Hong Kong, fled the city hours after testifying online in a U.S. Congressional hearing about the national security law, which puts him in danger of imprisonment. In a message on Twitter, he wrote, “Should I have the fortune to ever return, I hope to still remain as I am: The same young man with these same beliefs.”

Animal Crossing protests, although powerful expressions of solidarity, proved powerless to prevent it.

Embattled regimes have found themselves operating in a new realm of freedom, able to demonize or even criminalize the right to protest. Governments have fought and won digital battles. As the virus raged, many social movements were outflanked.

* * * 

The Glocalization of Protest

The Black Lives Matter protests condemning the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin have been novel in three ways: unprecedented white support, sheer scale, and globalized nature. According to an analysis by the New York Times, the killings of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor became the rallying cry for the largest movement in U.S. history, uniting not only all fifty states, but cities across much of the world—despite a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

 Karissa Lewis, national field director of the Movement for Black Lives, whose role now includes “social distancing training,” believes the energy released was so powerful because usually separate issues became connected. Issues like police brutality, health inequality, and racialized poverty have merged like “multiple storms converging at once, created by the most visible arm of racial capitalism—police terror—leading to mass uprisings globally,” she said.

The reason the 2020 movement has been so large may be due to the mass quarantine measures enacted by most countries across the world, making online networking a necessity for professional and social life. The spark for the protests was the horrific video of Floyd's murder, which was viewed and shared hundreds of thousands of times. As the protests gathered steam, a common image shared by Black Lives Matter supporters was a guide to protest gear that recommended carrying or wearing goggles, face coverings ("to counter facial-recognition technology"), gas masks, heat-resistant gloves ("to throw hot tear gas canisters back at police"), and umbrellas ("protection against rain and pepper spray"). The guide was repurposed from the Hong Kong demonstrations from the summer of 2019.

Lewis was prepared for this. She had traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2018 as part of a core group of 20 black-led organizations to share tactics with black organizers. She came back with a novel understanding of how to to force change—how a multilayered convergence of groups made ending apartheid possible. So, when the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, Lewis and her team used the imagery of protests from South Africa to connect struggles. A solidarity video that included South Africa’s dance of protest, Toyi Toyi, used during Apartheid, made by their friends across the Pacific, was distributed along digital arteries. And, during Juneteenth this year, the cross-pollination climaxed in a global, digital celebration with participants across the world.

The swift spread of the Black Lives Matter protests is best understood as a form of “glocalization”; protesters marching in solidarity with Floyd also took the opportunity to address local injustices. The movement began in Minneapolis and spread to other American cities, then went beyond the U.S. to countries around the world. Western nations in particular have been racked by questions about their colonial past. In the Netherlands, demonstrators have called for the end of Zwarte Piet, the racist tradition of putting on black face during Christmas. In France, Belgium, and the U.K., activists have called for taking down statues with links to colonialism and slavery. In Australia, the treatment of Indigenous people, from colonization to today, is back in the spotlight, as protesters demand justice for hundreds of Indigenous people killed in police custody.

Rallies in Bristol were not just about a slave trader who died almost 300 years ago. As census data from 2011 shows, the city scored the third worst for educational inequality between white and Black residents in England and Wales, and Black people are five times more likely to be unemployed than the white British population. 

In the Finnish city of Jyväskylä, activists were inspired by Black Lives Matter to start their own demonstrations in early June, albeit while ensuring that no more than 500 people were gathered, due to coronavirus restrictions. 

One of the organizers, Amani Al-Mehsen, grew up in a town where her family members were among the few people of color; outside the capital, Helsinki, Finland is a predominantly white country. The protests were both in solidarity with U.S. racial injustice and an opportunity to highlight local causes. “There is racist profiling here, too,” Al-Mehsen said. “It feels very important to me, having discovered that there are people who share the same experience as I, as a colored person, do. When it’s just me alone experiencing racism, it feels smaller in a way.” 

The coronavirus has transformed social movements all over the world, forcing protest organizers and repressive regimes alike to adapt to new realities. Governments have used the virus to disrupt or criminalize dissent, but activists have shown that an explosion of massive protests at the height of COVID-19 lockdowns was still possible. Their response has been defined by a spirit of transnational connectivity and a willingness to share tactics and goals. Fighting the social media war is now a crucial determinant of success for social movements and governments alike.


The Columbia Politics Collective is a global group of eighteen journalists from the Columbia Journalism School’s 2019-20 MA-Politics program. This is a series of dispatches on how the COVID-19 pandemic is functioning like a stress test, laying bare the strengths and weaknesses of political institutions around the world. Each article in the series will focus on a single underlying structure of government. Meet the journalists here.






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