The Power of Protests

In August 2011, a little under a year before the Olympic Games kicked off in London, the city was gripped by rioting and looting which shocked inhabitants and launched headlines across the globe. Now, as the dust settles on Brazil’s hosting of the Confederations Cup – a dress rehearsal for next year’s World Cup, also less than a year away – cities across that country find themselves under a similar spotlight, as mass protests continue.

I was in Brazil as the first waves of protests developed, stealing updates on TV screens in bars, restaurants or shop windows. Although I may not have understood the language on the protesters’ lips, the overall sentiment was clear; people across the country were taking the opportunity to make their feelings known as the eyes of the world watched on.

On my flight home, it seemed natural to compare these two events.

Certainly, there were some key similarities. In both cases, the sustained, synchronised nature of events owed plenty to our modern age, as people used their phones and their Facebook feeds to arrange meetings. As we reached the top of the huge Christ the Redeemer statue which dominates Rio’s skyline, our tour guide was glued to his phone, liaising with friends on the best places to meet on his return so that he could join the protests. In London, two summers ago, participants famously used BlackBerry Messenger to organise rendezvous away from the eyes of officialdom.

Yet, the overall tone of the two events felt markedly different. The demonstrations in Brazil had a keen political edge; those who joined did so to talk about difficulties with housing, transport, health, education and more. Although the 2011 actions in the UK clearly said something – about the police, and about the lives and opportunities of many young people – these messages were not largely on the minds of the majority, who instead seemed caught up in some warped, real-life episode of Supermarket Sweep.

In fact, the better comparison for current events in Brazil would be the UK student protests of 2010, where thousands took to the streets against proposed changes to higher education funding.

Though very different in message, these events can also be seen as part of a global trend for direct, organised protest. These have swept across the Arab world but also into many other, more democratically sound nations, evidenced not least by large-scale actions in recent weeks in Turkey, Egypt and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, Sweden.

These types of protests seem unlikely to disappear, and we should celebrate a world that allows people to share and vocalise their thoughts and feelings. Yet, amongst the peaceful protestors, there will always be those more base, or simply more bored, who take an opportunity to flex their physical muscles rather than philosophical ones. Those are the types you will more likely have seen on the news – whether the report was sent in from Sao Paolo or Stockholm, London or Limassol.

As members of this glowing city, we should laud vibrant political outcry of the type that has pock-marked Brazil in recent weeks. The advantages of the modern world allow more people than ever to have their say, as they have done in London and elsewhere.

Yet we also must remember that it is all too easy to focus on the reckless minority, egged on by the more sensationalist sides of the media as they hunt for more scandal. Though the criminal element might feel threatening at times, the greater crime would surely be to remove the freedom that has bred so much positive action by so many, in Brazil and far beyond.

Image by Valters Krontas courtesy of Flickr

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