(editor’s note: I wrote this essay in 2011, but with the vote happening tomorrow in Crimea it felt somewhat relevant)
In 1517, using only a piece of paper, a hammer and nails, a man started a revolution. Using the most advanced technology available to him, Martin Luther printed out his infamous pamphlet “Ninety-Five Theses”, nailed a copy to a church, and distributed it throughout Europe. The core of his protest was against corruption and hypocrisy found within the Church; corruption in both the ideology and the system itself. His protest grew and eventually spawned the Protestant Reformation, leading to various subsets of Christianity throughout the world still being observed today. While the players and targets of protest have changed over the centuries, it is nearly 500 years later and Luther’s process is still used – only now instead of paper, nails and a hammer we are forming protest movements with laptops, cell phones, and blogs. As Luther used current technology to the best of his ability, the current standard of protest movements has evolved alongside technology. But how has technology influenced the way these movements are formed? How do they interact with national governments and global institutions? How has the stage been altered because of technology, and who are the current actors involved?
When the Bretton Woods conference was held in 1944 the world was facing the violence brought on by World War 2. Once the War ended and the dust settled, the world was left with a series of global organizations, which perhaps went unnoticed. Alison Van Rooy writes, “Until the 1980s, few outside the world of international agencies knew what the World Bank was or did. There had been earlier outcries, of course, most notably over projects that affected indigenous peoples and/or fragile ecosystems. In 1973-4 for instance, work began to establish a dam on the Chico river in the Phillipenes…boycotts, armed clashes, and militarized zones marked the years that followed before the Bank beat a silent retreat in 1980…But it was not until the mid-1980s that the broader public became aware of the protest around Bank-funded large infrastructure projects” (Van Rooy 50). At this point in time, the actions of the World Bank and IMF were really only seen by those who were being directly affected by them. The only protests were held by those who were in the affected countries. In 1973 there was no technological outlet to expose global forms of corruption or protest. Personal computers entered the market in 1983, and news could be spread worldwide via printed newspapers, but there was no platform for instant information. However, technology was on the cusp of creating a platform of global connectivity. It wasn’t until 1989 that the World Wide Web was launched, and not until 1995 before it was commercialized and completely opened up to the public. Once technology evolved through the Internet, so did global protests both practically and conceptually.
In her article “Power Shift”, Jessica Matthews explores the rise in technology and its effect on global governance. “Widely accessible and affordable technology has broken governments’ monopoly on the collection and management of large amounts of information and deprived governments of the deference they enjoyed because of it. In every sphere of activity, instantaneous access to information and the ability to put it to use multiplies the number of players who matter and reduces the number who command great authority” (Matthews 204). What technology adds to the public discourse more than just connectivity is a supply of information. New pockets of information, new worlds, and new actors were brought out to public knowledge. However, the broader concept of a ‘network’ is one that carried deeper implications. Matthews continues, “Networks have no person at the top and no center. Instead they have multiple nodes where collections of individuals or groups interact for different purposes” (Matthews 205). The ‘network’ introduced a new concept to the global arena – that of a group of people with no singular leader. Now forming were bodies of actors without a direct leader, but formed around an ideal. This concept of a network of people operating outside of government’s systems is first noted in 1992 with the “50 Years is Enough” protest. Van Rooy explains this protest as “the creation of a long-term focused coalition drawn from around the world” (Van Rooy 51). This protest, which was formed to mark the 50th anniversary of the formation of the IMF and World Bank was focused in “efforts to oppose and reform Bank practice on structural adjustment lending (SAPs) brought together a very wide set of players…an assembly of NGOs rather than an organization of its own, the 50 Years network is made up of some 100 US agencies and another 160 partner organizations in other countries” (Van Rooy 51). This was one of the first globally connected protests, drawing together organizations from around the world without a singular leader. The World Bank would eventually meet formally with the protestors, a clear signal that this type of organization for protest was effective, at least in the sense that it raised attention to global issues on a global scale. The concepts employed in the 50 Years protest set the stage for what many consider the first global, fully electronic protest.
In March of 1997, an agreement was reached in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which would allow for easier access for foreign investors to its member countries. This agreement, known as a multilateral agreement on investment (MAI) was an outrage to many countries, and “A massive Internet campaign was waged along with many of the usual lobbying methods, and combined with negotiation difficulties on the official side, the agreement foundered in April 1998” (Van Rooy 56). The effect of the online protest? “On the last week of April 1998, civil society organizations all over the world were celebrating. Through Internet activism…they achieved an unprecedented and massive victory over the most powerful countries in the world. An estimated 20 million of their members launched a global initiative to stop the MAI. Canadian Trade Minister Sergio Marchi remarked that ‘the lesson he has learned is that civil society – meaning public interest groups – should be engaged much sooner in a negotiating process, instead of governments trying to negotiate around them” (Van Rooy 56-57). A victory on the global stage, allowed by the available technology. Now that information was accessible, governments and global institutions began to realize they were going to be held accountable for their initiatives. The protests themselves moved outward as well. From a protest against a singular dam, now protesters were taking on the institutions themselves. The network and ability to communicate instantaneously around the world allowed for the protest discourse to grow and tackle global issues. The momentum of the MAI protests found its way to Seattle in 1999.
In November of 1999, Seattle was host to the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference. The purpose of the conference was to discuss trade negotiations for the coming years in developing countries. Not only were the discussions held between the various delegates a failure, but the protest held around the conference itself marked an historic moment in the arena of global protest. The protesters, many of whom had helped organize the MAI protests, faced a harsh police presence by the Seattle police force. Pepper spray, rubber bullets, stun grenades, were all reported to be barraged unto the protesters. Eventually the conference had to be moved and would not be held again until 2001. The resistance faced in Seattle was the first physical resistance to a movement that began in the ‘Internet-sphere’. People from around the world gathered together, stood together and fought together for the first time due to the ability to globally coordinate through current technology. The network that began years before was stronger than ever, and due to the media attention the protests in Seattle saw, this ‘network of protest’ was now available and accessible to the world. In fact, the network found its way into Prague shortly after Seattle.
Many organizers from Seattle made their way to the Czech Republic, and as Chesters and Welsh write, “The Prague protests were the first occasion in Europe where anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist groups from diverse social and cultural backgrounds attempted to work together to mobilize against the same target in a particular geographical location” (Chesters 46). The protests in Prague took on a life of their own, as people from around the world found themselves experiencing degrees of culture shock. One aspect to the ‘Internet-sphere’ is that culture is not necessarily taken into consideration. The local must still be taken into account when framing the protest, something that was not taken into consideration in Prague, and at times it was seen as uncoordinated and disorganized. Chesters and Welsh remind us, “Protests with a carnivalesque or dramaturgical elements are complex social events expressing multi-layered cultural meanings which are symbolically coded and enacted with the potential to resonate or clash with wider social representations and perceptions. The action against the WB/IMF bank meeting in Prague on 26 September 2000 contained all these familiar elements but brought together national protest repertoires from across Europe and beyond. Such events are typically known and framed through their appearance within the public sphere in print and broadcast media” (Chesters, 43). Perhaps too eager following the Seattle protests, the protests in Prague incurred many violent confrontations, many due to miscommunication and fundamental differences in culture. Still considered a success in the world of protesters, the protests in Prague opened up communication between Czech and parts of Europe formerly inaccessible, in addition to opening a dialogue with the local government regarding social issues. As the protests evolved, technology evolved, and the interactions with local governments also evolved.
Within this ‘network’, as Matthews calls it, facilitated by technological advances we have seen governing bodies clash with the protests violently. Luis Fernandez tells us of a non-violent confrontation in Miami, 2004. The protest was formed around the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and the city of Miami was preparing for the protesters. As the conference crept closer, tension mounted between the city officials and the protesters gathering. An ordinance was proposed that would essentially make a protest illegal. “The proposed ordinance outraged activists organizing in Miami. Mobilizing quickly, they sent out national bulletins via activist e-mail lists, asking people to contact city commissioners and urge them to vote against the ordinance. The result was thousands of phone calls and e-mails to the city of Miami…as a result, the city commission postponed the voting date for the ordinance and asked staff members to rewrite questionable sections” (Fernandez 71). While they did postpone and revisit the language, the ordinance still passed and banned gatherings of either or more people in one area, with discretion left to the police force as to determine what a protest was and what wasn’t. Arrests were made, the protest went on, and while not as violent as Seattle, what Miami shows us is the local government’s attempt to use its own legal systems to negate any system the ‘network’ attempts to create. Fernandez gives us another example of this, two years earlier in Calgary.
In 2002, Calgary hosted the G8 Summit. Fernandez notes, “housing was a particular issue at the G8 protest in Calgary because the town was too small to house thousands of protesters…Organizers turned to private land as an alternative. They tried to lease land from the Stoney First Nation, a native tribal group with land close to Calgary. On the verge of signing a deal, activists learned that the Canadian government’s security had given the Stoney 300,000 US dollars for the rights to the land. Protesters were left scrambling to find another location…In reality, the government probably paid to prevent anti-globalization protesters from being housed so close to the meetings” (Fernandez 87). Here again we see the local governing body’s ability to supersede the authority of the protesters using its own self-imposed authority. The issue the ‘network’ of protesters ran into was at its own core. While the protest itself might be a network of connected parties, they are still privy to the laws of whichever state they are currently residing. Technology can bring people together; it can create accessibilities, but it still is trying to find its footing when facing policy. Governing bodies seemed to figure out how to deal with the network – take away its physical space. Without physical space to protest, the protest could not exist. At least, this was the rationale held by the Calgary and Miami governments. But again, we will see how technology dealt with this issue and created its own space.
“Today’s globalization movements came together from other histories and peaked at Seattle in 1999 to create heterogeneous, leaderless, multi-tactic, and ideological phenomenon” (Van Rooy 60). The network, the leaderless movement of people which faced confrontations of physical space, moved into cyberspace. Through networks of online medium – Twitter, Facebook, video blogs – the network no longer needed the physical space which governments had just figured out how to take away. However, this transition was still not without violent confrontation. Throughout the Middle East from 2010-2011, in what is now known as the ‘Arab Spring’, technology was at the center of the violence faced by millions. Beginning at the end of 2010, protests throughout the Middle East – in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabi, among others – began to bubble. Issues ranged from food pricing, unemployment, lack of government transparency but the recurring issue was the people’s right to protest. When the protests grew violent and the death toll tallied, the protest took to cyberspace. On Twitter, Facebook and video blogs, people started documenting the protests in a new medium. Now, for the first time, protests could be organized and even held without a physical presence. A Facebook group could now act as a form of protest. A Tweet could act as a form of resistance. Videos were posted to blogs and public websites that aired the issues and aired testimonies of police brutality. The various governments were unsure of how to respond to the emergence of this new form of protest. In Egypt, the regime banned these online spaces. A man, Khaled Said, was even dragged and beaten to death in the streets for posting a video to his Facebook account. The resistance held strong, and eventually some governments realized they could not ignore the growing protest. Iran, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and Bahrain all saw political reactions to the protests and the repercussions were, and still are, felt throughout the Middle East. The protesters’ ability to organize and coordinate completely in an online space set the global stage for the updated protester’s ‘network’. This network would next be tested and expanded in the United States, a few blocks north of Wall Street.
The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which began in the summer of 2011, began as a peaceful occupancy of space. Much like the protests in the Middle East, OWS ranged in a variety of issues and was held together using an electronic fabric. Through Twitter and Facebook, rallies were organized, marches were coordinated and the occupancy of Zuccotti Park grew. The protest gained momentum and eventually did face police violence and issues of their physical space. Much like in Calgary and Miami, local governing bodies found ways to alter the physical space of the protests. However, like in the Middle East, this did not influence the core of the protest. Journalist Nicholas Kristof commented on the movement, “Yet in a larger sense, the furor over the eviction of protesters in New York, Oakland, Portland and other cities is a sideshow. Occupy Wall Street isn’t about real estate, and its signal achievement was not assembling shivering sleepers in a park. The high ground that the protesters seized is not an archipelago of parks in America, but the national agenda. The movement has planted economic inequality on the nation’s consciousness, and it will be difficult for any mayor or police force to dislodge it” (Kristof). As Kristof asserts, the current state of global protests cannot simply be hidden just by moving it physically. If the Arab Spring and OWS movements have taught us anything, it is that technology now allows a global platform for protests that cannot be torn down by a singular governing body. The network, leaderless as it may be, is one with a unifying power that will only grow as our technology grows.
Times certainly have changed since Martin Luther nailed his protest against the church walls. But the means in which he carried out his protest, the process not the content, has progressed accordingly. Protesters have used the available technology to further their agendas and their abilities to coordinate. As technology has allowed the world to connect on a global level, so too did the connectivity of protests grow. As technology allowed nations to travel and create global institutions around the world, so too did the global protests expand. We are all living in the ‘network’ that Jessica Matthews describes. Until this concept is met and understood by both the global institutions and the national governments, it seems apparent that violence will be met by these protests. These protests will continue to evolve and grow, and as long as technology remains a constant staple in the global arena it will support the discourse for global protests. The next iteration of global protests remains to be seen, but it is worth checking your e-mail for updates.
Chesters, Graeme and Ian Welsh. Complexity and Social Movements: Multitudes at the Edge of Chaos. London and New York: Routledge, 2006
Fernandez, Luis Alberto. Policing Dissent: Social Control and the Anti-Globalization Movement. New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2008.
Kristof, Nicholas. “Occupy the Agenda.” New York Times 19 Nov. 2011: SR11. Print.
Mathews, Jessica. “Power Shift.” Foreign Affairs. 1997
Van Rooy, Alison. The Global Legitimacy Game: Civil Society, Globalization and Protest. Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.