When Imarn Ayton jumped across roadworks to join the Black Lives Matter protest in Peckham, she had no idea that she was joining a global movement. She had never been on a protest before, and had only gone out to buy toothpaste. “I had been in such a sad state about George Floyd’s murder, but I saw these girls chanting and felt full of hope — I thought it was down to law and government to make changes and that was what makes the biggest impact, but actually now I have seen what protest can do.” Now, pictures of Ayton broadcasting her message through a megaphone have been shared around the world and she has set up The Black Reformist Movement to eradicate institutionalised racism.
This weekend, thousands of people are marching again in a Black Lives Matter protest to mark what would usually be Notting Hill Carnival. It comes as the world is rising up, for different reasons but all at once — Belarus has just seen the largest demonstration in its history, organised by a 22-year-old blogger using the encrypted messaging app Telegram.
Countries with seemingly little in common are all showing evidence of the same phenomenon — people calling for change, write the academics Richard Youngs and Elene Panchulidze in a Carnegie Europe report on global democracy. In Thailand, schoolchildren are wearing white ribbons to take a stand against the government. In Hong Kong, Zimbabwe and Lebanon, people are protesting in the streets and in Brazil and Chile residents are banging pots on balconies to express discontent at how the pandemic has been mishandled. The demonstrations after George Floyd’s killing broke the record for the number of people at a protest in the United States.
“This year may well come to be remembered as a year of crisis and global revolt,” says Joe Couzens, a teaching fellow at UCL who specialises in the history of protest. “It will rank alongside the years 1848 and 1968 as an important moment of international political crisis and transition.”
There has been no equivalent of the Berlin Wall’s fall in 1991, but as with the revolutions in Europe in 1848 there is widespread dissatisfaction with leadership. What’s new is that technology means it has never been so easy for messages to be shared around the world and for solidarity to spread.
At the same time, Covid-19 means there are more reasons to protest, with authoritarian regimes using the pandemic to crack down, mass unemployment, and black and ethnic minority groups not being adequately protected when they are more at risk from the virus. So are we at a particular juncture and will it change the world or fizzle out? “I don’t think the protests would have been as big as there were had there not been a lockdown,” says Ayton. “A lot of people had time to think and wanted to become better people. All the people on the march were feeling disgusted at what they had seen regarding George Floyd’s murder. I watched the video of it and cried my eyes out as if it was a family member.
“I felt depressed, which was strange as when you have those feelings they are usually to do with your own life. That was why I was on that walk to buy toothpaste — my mum told me to go for a walk and I put on a blonde wig to cheer myself up.”
Couzens says this has been coming for a few years — the International Labour Organisation’s Social Unrest Index was at a record high in 2016 and last year also saw huge protests. “The current protests may have something to do with the persistence of high levels of social inequality in countries throughout the world,” he says. “It may also be indicative of the growing anxiety that our present political systems are ill-equipped to deal with global challenges, like climate change and Covid-19.”
Youngs and Panchulidze found that the way communities began to organise in lockdown contributed to how effectively people have been able to rise up. In Tunisia, more than 100,000 people joined a Facebook group to fight the virus — that is now a base for a movement. This also happened in the US, Poland, Algeria and Zimbabwe.
Youngs says “activists are debating how to best turn the crisis into an opportunity to grow the movement’s support base and articulate new demands”.
“Social media means we can see everyone is on the same page with BLM — looking at other protests everywhere from Japan to the US,” says Aba Amoah, who was involved in the organisation of the first Black Lives Matter protest. “That sense of fellow feeling definitely helps because it gives you the energy to keep protesting.”
While many protests are building on a history of collective action, the way recent unrest manifests itself is different. “Social media may play a new and important role in bringing together otherwise disparate groups, who share similar social or political outlooks and ambitions,” says Couzens. The protests in Belarus were co-ordinated on a channel called Nexta Live on Telegram, which tells people where to go and then shares videos to spread the message. In London, the BLM protests were announced on Instagram, which is also being used to keep up their momentum and celebrate what they have achieved. Amoah mentions the setting up of a new inquiry into racial inequality.
Ayton is aware of the need to keep up pressure for reform. “If it is not now then I don’t see this movement coming back around in my lifetime,” she says.
“Protests are the easiest part of the journey. There is only so much protest you can do, you need to find a way to get tangible, realistic change and I think that happens behind closed doors. I am trying to get people to discuss the root causes of racism so we can rectify a problem that has been going on for hundreds of years.”
She thinks people saying they can’t see where BLM is going is “an excuse to diminish the movement — this is working, it is a form of lobbying but on a bigger scale”. There are also divisions over how politicised these movements are. Ayton classes herself as “non-partisan”, adding: “That was not the reason thousands of people joined together on the streets, it was because we were all mortified by what we had seen.”
Amoah disagrees. “It is always going to be political. It can’t not be because we need to change the system and that involves government action. The protest part is a way of mobilising people, there is a long history of that.”
She sees a difference between her generation and her parents, who came to London from Ghana. They went to the Brixton Riots protests in 1981 but they were afraid. “They were immigrants from Ghana and they protested but not too much because they were concerned about their job security. At the protests now we don’t have that worry, it’s just a case of we believe something so we are going to stand up with it.”