This summer’s front pages were smeared with the blood and tear gas of protest. Countless stories and photos tried to encapsulate the size and tenacity of uprisings in Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, and elsewhere. In Brazil, thousands poured into the streets to protest bus fare hikes. The protestors, though, quickly expanded their target, putting government waste and public sector corruption within the ever growing scope of their shouts and signs and sit-ins. In Turkey, a small protest about the planned removal of one of Istanbul’s quickly disappearing green spaces mutated into a sprawling anti-government movement. And of course there is Egypt: a place that has become so closely entangled with notions of “Arab Spring,” that the packed traffic circle of Tahrir Square has become as potent a symbol as the Pyramids and Sphinx. And these are only the countries that grabbed the headlines.
It’s no wonder that these protests have grabbed front pages in the US this summer: they are an attractive media phenomenon. Violence is likely, as is history. In the wake of the Arab Spring of 2011, when three entrenched dictators were thrown to the curb in a matter of weeks, the chance that protests will create real change – at least in regards to who occupies the highest echelons of public life – seems increasingly likely.
The things that make protests an attractive media story may also make them attractive to participate in. Protests are the kind of remarkable social event that humans naturally crave, where thousands of individuals gather with some sense of unified purpose. It’s fulfilling and it’s meaningful. Protests have optimism about them that makes them irresistible, an essential belief that change is achievable. And people radiate to this energy and excitement.
A few weeks before stepping down, Mubarak cut the phone and internet lines, a last ditch attempt to curb the continually swelling crowds. But, as many have argued, this move may have done more to drive people into the streets than anything else. They had to see what was going on, and without the internet or phones to inform them, this had to happen in person. Our desire to be social and our curiosity play an important role in the nature of protest.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the issues are unimportant. If the protests this summer have anything in common, it is that they expanded in scope as quickly as they expanded in size. Protests in Brazil for example, were spurred by bus fare hikes but quickly expanded into protests about corruption and mismanagement of public funds. When protests target such a broad a range of issues, they provide the space in which individuals can tether their own personal challenges to the demands and frustrations of the protest movement. Protests, in that regard, function as one big collective letting off of steam.
In some ways, protest can be a self-affirming activity. When your problems and struggles are seen through the prism of mass uprising, they make more sense. It becomes less about the things you did or didn’t do and more about the pressures and context that our behavior is contingent upon. Protest tells us that our experience isn’t about personal failure, it’s about systemic failure. That is one if the stronger narratives of protest, one that I’ve found to be particularly seductive and compelling.
If my discussion of protest trivializes the issues that drive people into the streets, that’s because it does. And if you are wondering how I can argue that excitement, optimism, and curiosity play important roles in protests, like those by the Muslim Brotherhood following Morsi’s ouster, when people are being killed and injured by the hundreds, then you have fair criticisms.
For me, though, it’s important to understand protest this way. I come at this discussion of protest from a unique perspective: in the winter of 2011, those questionable days before the protests had warmed into the Arab Spring, I witnessed massive protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in Amman and Karak, Jordan and in front of Morocco’s national parliament in Rabat. At some level, I believe that all I’ve discussed above is true. At another level, I think that the above simply helps me explain my experience.
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