What Makes a Successful Protest?

The year of lockdowns was simultaneously a year of protest and citizen action. Throughout 2020 numerous hashtags on social media demanded our attention to protest movements, accompanied by sometimes inspiring and sometimes horrifying images. #EndSARS, #BlackLivesMatter, #ShutItAllDown, #zwartepietisracism, #NotMyPresident, the list goes on; all demonstrating to us the commitment and often fearlessness of ordinary citizens across the world asking for equal treatment and concern.

For the Common Futures Conversations community, where young people from Africa and Europe discuss key international issues, the impact of protests and citizen action also became a central focus. Not least of course because many of the protests in both continents are led by young people demanding the future they deserve.

Many of the protest movements we have seen this year are catalysed by single events: a moment where long-held grievances and worries are ignited. The most internationally recognizable is the murder of George Floyd in the United States, but there are many more examples of deaths or serious abuses that created this spark. While this has meant sudden and intense swells of support, it also means that protest can be unorganized, repeat previous mistakes and communicate demands poorly.

In the face of crisis, panic and retrenchment, many protests found their voices demanding the change they need to survive. Beyond the call for us to find our humanity, these examples demonstrate that protests are still and perhaps increasingly a method of crucial political participation. This also means that society must become better at protesting. We have to learn from previous protest movements’ successes and failures, from their tactics and methods, and from their determination to be inclusive.

Protesters are often painted as disruptors, terrorists and a nuisance, yet across the world demonstrations and direct action have been a vital form of political engagement: providing women the right to vote, people of colour the right to citizenship and people everywhere the right to stand up against populism.

Protest should always be seen as a legitimate avenue towards policy change and influence, and one that must therefore professionalize to make politics be more reflective of societies’ wants, needs and demands. To this end, ten members of the Common Futures Conversations community discuss impactful protest above.

Leah de Haan, Project Coordinator and Junior Editor, Communications and Publishing; Hugo Santiago Barrail, Member, Common Futures Conversations; Ella Burdett, Member, Common Futures Conversations; Mateusz Ciasnocha, Member, Common Futures Conversations; Clinton Dangote, Member, Common Futures Conversations; Ashiru Ayuba Dannomau, Member, Common Futures Conversations; Salome Nzuki, Young Adviser, Chatham House; Digital Media and Communications Consultant; Zakaria Ouadah, Member, Common Futures Conversations; Barima Peprah-Agyemang, Member, Common Futures Conversations; Laura Sanzarello, Member, Common Futures Conversations and Paula Stuurman, Member, Common Futures Conversations.

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