Were they worth it?: Key protest movements over the years

The protests that left much of the world in a haze of tear gas last year were slowed by a pandemic – until the death of George Floyd sparked a global uprising against police brutality and racial inequality.

From Hong Kong to Khartoum, Baghdad to Beirut, Gaza to Paris and Caracas to Santiago, people took to the streets in 2019 for in pursuit of freedom, sovereignty or simply a life less shackled by hardship while few prospered. It seemed as if the streets were agitated everywhere but the United States.

Now, after the death of Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who died in police custody when a white officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes, protests rage around the globe.

Police or military brutality and racism are universal dynamics that are experienced in many societies.

The very nature of a protest suggests a desire for change, the need to right a perceived historical injustice. It is a means to an end. But to what end? Depending on the government, the activists are demanding change from, the results can be varied.

Demonstrations were held last week in solidarity with US protesters as Floyd’s death resonated far beyond US shores because of those lives lost in similar circumstances.

As the coronavirus crisis eased in China, protesters in Hong Kong began to emerge again. And Beijing moved swiftly to quash the movement that caused unrest for months last year, enacting a national security law that would effectively end the existence of one country, two systems.

A democratic government that is amenable to changes may enact legislation, or a change of leadership can be forced at the ballot box.

An authoritarian regime, however, does not often bend. Protesting against it can be a life-or-death struggle; it may require activists to make a deal with the country’s military, or it may backfire, bringing in a more dictatorial leader or a ruinous civil war.

Here’s a look at some of the key protests of recent decades and what they achieved or failed.

The protests that erupted across the US last week had the unusual characteristic of being largely leaderless, though the Black Lives Matter movement was focal.

During the critical era of the 1950s and 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr, who led the 250,000 strong March on Washington in 1963, and Malcolm X were colossal figures representing two different tracks: mass non-violent protest and getting favourable outcomes “by any means necessary”.

The Civil Rights Acts, initiated by the Kennedy administration, and Voting Rights Act were passed by the Johnson administration, which was sympathetic to tackling endemic racism in the nation.

These were key inflection points. But social injustice and the Vietnam War continued to dominate the US decade and beyond, reaching a crescendo of civil unrest in 1968 which has been echoed in 2020.

Democrats in Congress are proposing an overhaul of police procedures and accountability but, like so much in Washington, this has been snagged by partisanship.

Key Democrats, including presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, are also distancing themselves from liberal calls to “defund the police” as President Donald Trump and his Republican allies blast the proposal.

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