In recent weeks, over 50 demonstrations occurred across the United Kingdom, focussed on a broad range of issues ranging from environmental concerns to rising living costs1.
While driven by different triggers and motivations, these instances are not unique. The last few years have seen an increasing prevalence of demonstrations related to civil liberties and human rights. New technologies and social movements have enabled campaigns to gain traction and spread globally, encouraging their potential to become hugely influential.
Despite this, the latest Global Peace Index highlights a number of worrying trends. Violent demonstrations have risen by almost 50% since 2008. During this period, 126 countries deteriorated in their violent demonstrations score, compared to only 22 countries improving.
Positive Peace is defined as the attitudes, institutions and structures that create and sustain peaceful societies. While the other domains have improved since 2008, the attitudes domain has deteriorated by 1.8%, demonstrating a clear link between Positive Peace and the global trend in violent demonstrations.
From the Salt Marches to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, history is littered with examples of peaceful protests having a powerful and lasting impact; shaping the world to become a fairer, freer and more peaceful place.
Building consensus is a critically important part of ensuring movements maintain momentum. The use of violence in a protest movement risks undermining that consensus and can alienate those who would otherwise support a cause. An example of this consensus building can be seen with the Salt Marches of the Indian Independence Movement.
Led by Mahatma Gandhi in 1930, during the height of Britain’s colonial occupation of India, dozens of activists marched over 240 miles to collect salt from the Arabian sea to protest a law preventing Indians from buying or selling salt in the country. This act of resistance was met with a crackdown from the British authorities, leading to the imprisonment of 60,000 people. That a peaceful protest was met with such a response drew publicity for the Indian Independence movement, garnering support from all over the world. This event was a significant turning point, triggering widespread civil disobedience that eventually led to India gaining its independence in 1947. The actions of Gandhi and his peers also heavily influenced the American civil rights movement.
Furthermore, the use of non-violence does not necessarily mean taking to the streets in protest. Techniques such as boycotts and strikes can be equally effective ways of making a change. Economic disinvestment and boycotts of South African goods, for example, played a key role in helping to end apartheid. In 1955 perhaps the most famous coordinated peaceful boycott occurred, Montgomery Bus Boycott. African-American activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on the racially segregated public transport system in Alabama. This triggered a 13-month mass boycott of public transportation by protesters, which had an enormous financial impact. The protest ended with the US Supreme Court ruling the policy of segregation unconstitutional, a watershed moment in the civil rights movement.
While mass boycotts are effective, even protests with a small number of participants can communicate messages and achieve change. Research suggests that it only requires 3.5% of the population to engage in non-violent resistance for these movements to be effective2. One such example was the infamous Black Power Salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics. After winning medals in the 200m sprint, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists while wearing black gloves during the American national anthem. This powerful message was seen around the world, drawing attention to the civil rights movement in America.
More recently, in 2018, 15 year-old Swedish school student Greta Thunberg decided to sit outside the Swedish parliament for three weeks. She held a sign reading “School Strike for Climate” to protest her government’s response to the growing climate emergency. What began with an individual protest by one teenager, triggered student-led protests all over the world and became part of a global movement against climate change. Thunberg’s activism has given her a platform, through which she has inspired millions. Thunberg’s actions and the actions of the 1968 Olympians show how it is possible, even for individuals, to make an enormous impact and inspire change.
While the impact and influence of protests and demonstrations continue to grow, this is being met with a wave of aggressive legislative restrictions, policies and responses designed to limit their effectiveness.
For example, 93% of the protests against racial injustice in the United States in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer were peaceful; however, the narrative around the protests was that they were largely violent demonstrations and as such triggered an excessive police response3.
In Sri Lanka, which ranked 90 on the Global Peace Index (GPI), the new government responded to protests with the widespread use of draconian emergency regulations. These laws granted the authorities sweeping powers to suppress protests and detain and punish activists4. The rise in demonstrations, and the violent crackdown, will likely be reflected in Sri Lanka’s ranking in next year’s GPI.
The United Kingdom ranked 34 on the GPI, has also recently strengthened its anti-protest laws; granting the authorities greater power to disrupt and limit protests, particularly those such as the Extinction Rebellion5. Furthermore, a number of territories within Australia (ranked 27 on the GPI) have recently passed anti-protest laws granting authorities more powers to specifically target non-violent environmental protesters6.
In their early days, digital tools such as social media played a key role as a tool for mobilisation. However, increasingly they are being weaponised by authoritarian states and used as a tool to quell protests and identify protesters.
As can be seen with the violent crackdowns on protests security forces often carry out – protests, demonstrations and social movements are not without their challenges. More often than not, the establishment does not support change and protesters are often vilified as well as legislated against.
The expansion of legal restrictions and obstacles to protest presents a growing challenge to non-violent resistance. Despite this, non-violent resistance remains an incredibly effective tool for triggering substantial, supported and long-lasting social change. The research suggests that non-violent resistance is approximately 10 times more likely to lead to democratisation than violent resistance2.
Peaceful protests are a way for ordinary people to have their voices heard. Inherent power imbalances in society can result in people feeling marginalised and disenfranchised. Non-violent civil movements can offer anyone the opportunity to become involved and have a voice.
Between climate-related threats, widespread conflict and displacement, and increasing food insecurity, the challenges facing the world are complex and innumerable. Time and again, the power of peaceful protest has been proven as a tool to meet these challenges and make a positive change.
The interconnected and globalised world in which we live enables movements and ideas to spread, despite the many challenges they face. It is this power that continues to drive activists to the streets to pursue change.