For some people, joining or leading social movements equates to starting chaos or violence. This connotation about social movements and protests goes back around a hundred years. But, this is all wrong. Social movements, whether big or small, create transformational change. Major social, political, and economic conditions lead people to feel oppressed, frustrated, angry, and/or hopeful enough to try to bring about change in society.
All social movements from civil rights and women's suffrage have a common goal of raising awareness about a certain issue or problem and usually have some agenda in mind. According to Harvard Business Review, a general management magazine published by Harvard Business Publishing, successful movements begin by mobilizing their active allies and core supporters. They would also reach out to passive supporters and bring neutral groups over to their side. Social movements allow people to come together, speak their hearts out, and make others aware of an important issue in our society.
Social movements allow people to practice their right to free speech and organize peaceful protests while making a difference in the world they live in. Fortunately, new generations are not failing to pursue social change amidst human rights issues, inequality, and oppression. Previous reports show that education and healthcare remain the first and second-highest social issues of interest for millennials, at 29% and 25% respectively. Other issues that matter most to millennials include employment/wages with 23%, human rights with 19%, national security with 15%, LGBTQ+ and women's rights with 11%, and poverty with 9%, among others.
Social Movements in Times of Crisis
Throughout the years, social movements never fail to encourage people to take to the streets and fight for their rights. But, with a virus rapidly spreading across the world, can social movements still serve their purpose?
The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a public health and economic crisis across the world. Many experts consider it by far the biggest trigger event of our generation. Trigger events refer to situations previously unimaginable quickly becoming reality. These usually happen when sudden events like natural disasters, economic collapses, pandemics, wars, famines, and others change everything. Examples of these include 9/11, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crash of 2008.
Social unrest was also reportedly increasing over the past few years. One study showed that there have been about 100 large anti-government protests since 2017, from the gilets jaunes riots in a rich country like France to demonstrations against strongmen in poor countries such as Sudan and Bolivia. While many of these mobilizations were suppressed by brutal crackdowns and many others went back to simmering until the next outbreak, 20 of these uprisings toppled leaders.
All the said events have had major repercussions on national life, leading to political changes that would have been difficult to predict. According to In These Times, an online site that features award-winning investigative reporting about corporate malfeasance and government wrongdoing, the pandemic is a combination of natural disasters and economic collapse happening at the same time. Trigger events not only create confusion and unease but also make us question the society we are living in. In times like this, social movements emerge to push for a pro-people agenda, where all of us would benefit.
Social movements are incredibly important during a crisis like this to point out the inequality and injustice in many governments’ decisions and plans. However, a different approach is needed in these trying times, considering that we have a pandemic to control. Freedoms are restricted and social distancing makes the typical forms of protest impossible to carry out. Mobilizing people is extremely difficult to plan because we need to consider everyone’s health and safety. Even meeting in small groups is highly forbidden given the very strict limitations that governments have implemented, reducing opportunities for face-to-face encounters.
As governments force their populations into lockdowns, people are forced from taking to the streets or gathering in groups. According to Gulf News, an online site that provides the latest news, even if they do, they risk getting infected and bringing the virus home to their families. This only increases their vulnerability as they are more likely to be sick and less able to navigate complex healthcare mazes. But, this doesn’t mean the frustration and anger that people feel with their governments’ incompetence will die. One way or another, these pressures will erupt.
History shows that human beings do not respond well to forced lockdowns because these only cause fear, frustration, or helplessness. All these feelings are fueled by sentiments that the vulnerable are being taken advantage of and news that the resources needed are not available in places where people are struggling and dying. At this point, anyone will have an almost uncontrollable response that either tells them to stand their ground and fight or turn and run from the danger. But, many people tend to choose the former.
Looking Into Other Alternatives
According to Forbes, a global media company focusing on business, investing, technology, entrepreneurship, leadership, and lifestyle, riots are a predictable part of quarantine. During the 2014-2015 Ebola crisis, for instance, protests carried on for days in the West Point neighborhood of the Liberian capital of Monrovia. But, a crisis like this calls for a different approach. This is where the role of social media comes in.
While digital activism can be less effective compared to staged protests, this is the most effective and safest way to engage people now. Paul Engler, one of the best strategists of nonviolent action, wrote that “we should draw both on the possibilities of new technology that allow for decentralized action and some time-honored lessons from past social movements.” Social movements will not cease to advocate for solutions that will protect all of us, even if it means creating a different approach or looking into other alternatives.
According to Common Dreams, a non-profit independent newscenter, this is the time for organizers to do what they do best: get creative, think outside of the box, and devise new strategies. Some groups have already created a toolkit to help organizations make digital organizing as effective as in-person organizing. With online organizing, we can have more conversations in one day than we ever could with door knocking. This is also effective in mobilizing people to call out governments and ask for accountability.