“You can’t make change by just talking about something.”
“These protests and marches are useless. You can’t make change by just talking about something.” I was sharing some beers with my friend and I’d just told him about the solidarity stand I’d attended earlier that day. The campaign was in support of the 267 refugees to #LETTHEMSTAY amid the Turnbull government’s plans to send the group (many of them young children) back to the inhumane offshore detention centre of Nauru. “We need to get people to notice. To think about what’s happening in the world” I contested. After two hours of stubborn debate, we concluded that we weren’t going to agree.
I am going to examine current activist movements that are prominent in the political arena at present-day, as well as the modern history of activism, delving into particularly prominent social movements like the Arab Spring. Finally, I will explain why activism is integral to the survival of democracy in a present-day society that represents the views of the few, not the actions of the many.
Kwame Touré (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) correctly observed that: “There is a higher law than the law of government. That’s the law of conscience.” At present we are facing a new era of consciousness, enlightenment if you will. People are no longer accepting the daily injustices we have long been facing, and thanks to technology and social media, we are creating new communities that share a common dream of a fair and just society.
“There is a higher law than the law of government. That’s the law of conscience.”
The United States of America fought against British imperialism in the American War of Independence (1775–1783), yet struggled with its own internal horrors and fighting from the systematic genocide of the indigenous North Americans, through to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, to the failures of Reconstruction, the white lynch mobs of the South, the doctrine that came out of the trial of Plessy vs Ferguson of ‘Separate but Equal’ and to the resulting Jim Crow laws to name but a few.
The civil rights movement and the Black nationalism that followed was seen as America turning over a new leaf and learning from its past mistakes. However, the institutionalised racism of 21st century America and the mass incarceration of Black (and Latino) people has reignited the flame of social activism in the hegemonic state. The failings of the system to acknowledge and act on behalf of the people, instead militarily trying to shut down free speech and social movements, has led to a grassroots uprising that has bubbled to the fore.
In 2012 the Black Lives Matter movement was created in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch volunteer who shot the unarmed 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin, dead. Whilst the institutionally racist system of the US police force continued to reign with the murder of young, Black people like Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, the success of the campaign has been phenomenal. From the ousting of the University of Missouri’s president, Tim Wolfe, to the renaming of buildings named after slave owners in Georgetown, even to the removal of the Confederate flag in public spaces. Arguably the most significant of which being the projection of Black rights into the political landscape- with politicians forced to acknowledge the need to address issues such as the mass incarceration of young, Black men.
The significance of movements such as Black Lives Matter and the climate change activism surrounding the UN summits, is their intentional disregard for state power and systems. The fact that the Black Lives Matter movement refuses to endorse a presidential candidate (though some may disagree with this as a missed opportunity, even though the movement has asserted the distinct lack of focus on Black issues by any of the candidates) is a projection of the power of anarchic systems and the strength of international solidarity in communal issues, instead of increasingly disconnected elections. As Black Lives Matter organiser Melina Abdullah said of the political system in the US: “…being controlled by the two-party system is hugely problematic and is disempowering and oppressive to Black people.”
“…being controlled by the two-party system is hugely problematic and is disempowering and oppressive to Black people.”
I was told by my friend that to achieve change we need one genius, not thousands of ‘common people’ (I attributed his rhetoric to English being his second language). But whilst he and others are waiting around for the messiah’s birth, I would rather be out there, spreading a message and saying NO to the systematic oppression of the West’s ‘subordinates’, whether that be in regards to one’s race, one’s education, one’s sex or sexuality, or one’s age.
Modern day activism, whether signing a petition or attending a rally, creating a blog or organising a march is integral to the survival of non-state actors in a world of realists like Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu. This new era of activism is a driving force of identity politics in a globalised world of individualism and separatism. Whilst the organised political voting systems continue to disenfranchise citizens and voters alike, whether due to factions, corrupt pre-selections, filibustering, voter ID laws or SUPER PAC’s, grassroots movements are gaining momentum.
This new era of activism is a driving force of identity politics in a globalised world of individualism and separatism.
Organisations such as change.org where you can sign (or even create) a petition are integral to a democracy where people are too busy working low-end jobs to go out and protest. In the UK for example, a petition needs 100,000 signatures in order to gain consideration for a debate in Parliament. In the build up to the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement, the parents of Trayvon Martin created the petition, ‘Prosecute the killer of our son, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’ which gained over 2.1 million signatures since it was launched on March 8 2012.
Social movements are vital in an age of mass distraction. Whilst we are learning to use social media to our own advantage, as seen with the Facebook-organised protests of the Arab Spring revolution, the mass media is still very much at the forefront of our consumption, denying the revolutionary messages we are all agreeing upon.
Social movements are vital in an age of mass distraction.
This mass distraction has been particularly prevalent in the post-Abbott/ Malcolm Turnbull government of Australia. Instead of focusing on the failings of the Abbott government via Medicare co-payments, delayed payments for young unemployed people, cuts to pensions, deregulation of higher education, the inhumane treatment of refugees in the detainment camps at Manus Island and Nauru, as well as his highly unpopular paid parental leave policy, the Rupert Murdoch dominated mass media is having a field day over the book about rumours of an affair between the Australian Prime Minister and former Chief-of-Staff Peta Credlin.
As Gil Scott-Heron maintained ‘the revolution will not be televised.’ If the revolution will not be televised then we need to be part of the revolution, becoming activists and fighting for the promises that are consistently broken to us (is Guantanamo Bay closed yet?)
Sometimes it can feel like a never-ending battle. The apathy that is ingrained into us through unideological policy politicians who fail to keep their promises (anyone remember Nick Clegg?) or factions that are built on nepotism stir up an anger that is flared up by demagogues in this unpredictable political climate. But the anger certain politicians build up inside of us in order to promote segregation should be redirected to the movements of the streets.
There can be an illusion of activism equating to violence, action and excitement, but the former two- it must be asserted- are often mere last resort responses to oppression and censorship that strong yet muffled voices face. Excitement is most certainly there, yes, but activism at its roots is a single common issue that people are too tired to put up with anymore. And if that issue starts off as a problem with garbage, then so be it. The courageous but determined Young Lords Party that had originated in Chicago, branched out into New York, where the new group began their activism just so. In 1969 in the Puerto Rican neighbourhood of El Barrio (also known as East Harlem), young Puerto Ricans helped the community that was left neglected and forgotten by the Sanitation department by sweeping up the streets and clearing up the rubbish themselves. With the help of the community, the Puerto Rican independence group built up a barricade of rubbish and halted traffic on Third Avenue by setting the rubbish on fire. This modesty of activism is inspiring to young activists of today where the average age of a Young Lords Party member was a mere 16-years-old.
The prominence of issues in conversations with friends and the scepticism that is held about the mass media are both integral to progression in democratic rights. Nobody is asking for a Professor in International Relations to lead a charge against a bureaucratic state. It just takes a conversation louder than a whisper and the courage to say no, even if you’re alone in saying it. But often one brave person can make the difference. On December 17, a 26-year-old fruit vendor from Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi, felt so helpless against the dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had reigned for over two decades, that he set himself alight- dying not immediately, but in the burns unit of a local hospital three weeks later. This sparked outrage across the Arab world and on January 25 2011 mass protests broke out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in angry demands calling for the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and his oppressive regime over Egypt. A regime which had lasted under a de facto state of emergency since 1981. The success of the Arab Spring saw the resignation of Mubarak, though the effects of the movement have been drawn into question of late, its initial goal at the very least was a success.
As seen from the modern history of social activism through the Young Lords Party and the Arab Spring revolution, grassroots mutualism is key to succeeding rights for the many. We do not live in a meritocratic society in the West, we live in a society of rich, white, male privilege, but prominent, multi-dimensional movements such as that of the Black Lives Matter movement are key to breaking down these oppressive structures.
We do not live in a meritocratic society in the West
So maybe I didn’t convince my friend of the impact of activism, of the power of the many not the few privileged. And whilst our refugee stand stood in solidarity of 20 strong in a university of over 50,000, it must be iterated that power is to act and not just to feel compassion alone.