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INTERVIEW: The Changing Face of Public Protest

Author

Hywel Jones

May 4, 2023

Street protests are just one aspect of social conflict, but often one of the first that come to mind. Despite the growth of online activism, street demonstrations are as significant as ever.

Professor Jacquelien van Stekelenburg holds a Chair in Social Change and Conflict at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She is Director of Research of the Department of Sociology and cochairs the Institute of Societal Research's Polarisation Lab. Her research mainly focuses on protest participation and societal polarisation, such as processes of identity formation in conflicting circumstances. The Foresight on Demand Newsletter asked for her views on how protest has changed and what the outlooks for the next few decades are.


How is your research relevant to the future?


The future is always difficult to predict, especially the future of protest. Protests are event driven and fluid, but there are trends, and processes that can explain them. Social media appears to be very important. It is changing demonstrations qualitatively, from being organised by unions or social movements, as in the past, to becoming more spontaneous and “leaderless”. This makes them harder to predict and poses a challenge in how to police them. It’s hard to make causal claims, but we now see more young people demonstrating for such causes as Fridays for the Future or Black Lives Matter. I’m also studying social polarisation. There is growing vertical polarisation that is anti-elitist. Citizens are withdrawing from a perceived elite, such as traditional news organisations or government authorities.


Why are social protests increasing?


It depends on the field of scholars you ask: political scientists say that there are more actors using protest as an instrument; if you ask sociologists, they say that more types of citizens are using street protest; social psychologists say that those who participated in protests in the past, might be more likely to protest in the future. And people learn from other successes: “if that worked, why shouldn’t we do the same?” Since 2020, however, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw the rise of a different sort of protest – more radical. The trend is not necessarily becoming more peaceful. The rise in spontaneous protests is perhaps related to social media, which has a “supersizing” effect. For a low cost you can reach larger groups in less time. Now anyone can organise a protest.


Which trends do you see emerging, in terms of topics, formats or demographics?


Based on the data we have, the number of protests has been growing. There is a global dataset that covers street protests of three types – anti-government demonstrations, general strikes and riots – from 1900 to 2012. There is a pattern of ebb and flow over time but, from 2009 on, the level has been as high as it was in the 1960s. The types of protest are also changing: In the 1960s there were more riots, but from 2009 on there are more demonstrations – a “normalisation of protest”. To complement this dataset, we have compiled a Netherlands-only dataset for 2014-22, to see if this trend is continuing. It has exploded. In 2014, there were around 230 applications for demonstrations in Amsterdam. In 2021, this rose to over 1500. And this is not counting spontaneous protests, which have also increased enormously. This image was generated with the help of GPT-3.


How would you expect political and social movements to develop in the next 20 years?


I can speculate on some themes and dynamics. On themes, there has been an increase in “post-material” protests where the perspective is longer-term and international, such as on climate issues, but bread and butter issues have not disappeared. So, we see a combination. We can expect that to continue. Climate change and related environmental issues – such as nitrogen, farming, land-use and housing problems – also pitch different groups against each other, such as farmers vs Extinction Rebellion. Recently, there were two big demos in Den Haag on the same Sunday. And each referred to the other in their speeches. In terms of dynamics, we can see movements and counter-movements, increasingly reacting to each other in this way. For example, in the Netherlands anti-Zwarte Piet demos come into conflict with nationalist demos. We can also expect this to continue. Trust is in decline, whether trust in others or trust in government. Political efficacy is a key indicator. Some people are going to demonstrations to be heard: “they don’t listen to me, but I need to be heard”. Some protest to state their position or claim, but this is different from going to voice your frustration, it leads to a different atmosphere. There is also a small group of people who believe the politicians of today cannot solve the huge problems we are facing at the moment, such as climate change. And this also creates a different dynamic in a protest. Looking at the dataset for 2014 to 2020, international solidarity protests are also growing. Not necessarily in turnout but in number of demos. We found 79% of protests in Amsterdam were expressing international solidarity, such as with Butan, Palestine, wars or incidents. Capital cities are the stage for these kinds of protest. Globalisation and social media create collective identity. And diasporas often feel a sense of urgency if their community is affected. The world is a village and social media strengthens this trend. It is fascinating how fast such demos are organised. During the attempted coup in Turkey a few years ago there were demos in Rotterdam on the same evening. Conflicts from other countries replicate in their diaspora wherever they are.


Looking forward, what major decisions with long-term implications are we faced with at the moment?


Journalists, politicians and police often ask me for advice, and in general I don’t have any, but I see two tricky questions for the future: On the one hand, authorities are there to facilitate a democratic right; on the other, they are responsible for public safety and order. Spontaneous demonstrations make this much more difficult to balance for authorities, so this is a growing dilemma. It’s not just the numbers but the way that protests happen. If authorities expect that demos can get out of hand, then they might suggest a different site. In one example in the Netherlands, police went to activists’ homes, since there was no central organising organisation. This was then reported in the news, leading to more indignation and mobilisation. The second question is around depolarisation. If groups oppose each other, how should we depolarise the situation? In polarised situations you put others at a distance, dehumanise and hate them. Depolarising leads to conversation, restoring trust. But how to do that with groups who do not want to listen to authorities, who distrust them fully? Today, even local government is seen as part of the conflict, part of the polarisation, and not seen as an independent broker.


This is an article from the Horizon Futures Watch Newsletter (Issue I, May 2023) presented by Foresight on Demand


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