In a year of general upheaval, 2020 also gave rise to mass protests around the world.
Though some tackled familiar themes like democratic freedoms, women’s rights and racial justice, others found new causes to rally behind as the emergence of Covid-19 sparked demonstrations against government lockdowns and mask mandates. Jowhartakes a look back at some of the protests and civic disobedience movements that marked the year.
Coronavirus sceptics and anti-maskers
Countries struggling to contain the first outbreaks of the deadly Covid-19 virus quickly fell into lockstep on the main strategies for “flattening the curve”: imposing strict lockdowns, social distancing and mandating the wearing of masks when possible. But governments everywhere have had to grapple with fierce blowback from groups opposed to these strategies.
In Europe, Germany has emerged as the epicentre of the anti-lockdown movement, which has attracted an eclectic mix of young and old, far-right extremists, Covid-19 sceptics, anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists. Calling themselves “lateral thinkers”, they are part of a global phenomenon of those who see themselves as defenders of individual freedoms as they eschew masks and defy social distancing measures to congregate en masse for the cause.
On the weekend of August 29, coordinated rallies, some turning violent, took place across Europe. Nearly 20,000 Covid-19 sceptics marched against pandemic restrictions in Berlin while in London, 10,000 gathered to call the pandemic a hoax, some holding aloft signs with “Anti-vax deserves a voice”, “End to Government lies” or “Freedom over fear”.
A policeman (L) uses tear gas against a demonstrator taking part in a leftist counter-protest against a demonstration of people protesting against masks and virus restrictions during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic (novel coronavirus) in Konstanz, southern Germany, on October 4, 2020. AFP – SEBASTIEN BOZON
In Paris, anti-mask rallies in August drew only a few hundred people with marginally larger demonstrations in Brussels, Dublin, Madrid, Rome, Rotterdam and Zurich – protests occurred even in Italy, where Covid-19 took an exceptionally high toll. Anti-maskers have accused governments of manipulating people through fear and claim there is no scientific justification for making them mandatory.
In the United States, anti-lockdown demonstrators and supporters of President Donald Trump – who himself has consistently played down the severity of the virus – joined forces to protect what they claimed was an assault on individual rights, despite skyrocketing infections that would eventually catapult the country to the top of global mortality rates. In some states protesters stormed government offices while in Michigan a group of men were accused of plotting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who had become a lightning rod for anger over coronavirus measures.
By April nationwide protests spiked after a series of tweets from President Trump on April 17, urging Americans in states where leaders had imposed restrictions to “liberate” themselves. Critics have blamed Trump, who has refused lockdowns and other anti-virus interventions, for fomenting the movement.
Echoing the outgoing US president’s sentiments, anti-mask and anti-lockdown advocates say enforced restrictions have come at too high a cost, that of a sinking economy and a recovery that could be years in the making.
Global protests against racial injustice and police brutality
The death in police custody of George Floyd, a 44-year-old African-American man, on May 25 in Minneapolis sparked a wave of anti-racism protests in the US and around the world. Video images shared on social media showed Floyd being held down, a policeman’s knee on his neck, as he repeatedly pleaded for air before he died.
“I can’t breathe,” Floyd’s last words, were brandished on protest signs. It was not the first time a Black man had died at the hands of US police while pleading for air. “I can’t breathe” has been chanted at protests against racism among police ever since the 2014 death of Eric Garner, who was filmed repeating those words as he was restrained by an NYPD officer.
Protesters march during a peaceful protest after a grand jury decided not to bring homicide charges against police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor, in Louisville, Kentucky September 26, 2020. © Eduardo Munoz, Reuters
Just two months before Floyd’s death, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old health worker, was shot dead by police during a botched raid on her apartment. The police were looking for a suspect who did not live at Taylor’s residence. A new round of protests calling for justice for Taylor erupted in September when a grand jury ruled against convicting the officers involved in her death.
These and other incidents revived the US Black Lives Matter movement and the #BLM hashtag that first surfaced in 2013. Across the US, more than 4,700 demonstrations waved the BLM banner with protests against Floyd’s death peaking on June 6, when half a million people turned out in nearly 550 locations across the country.
Outrage against police also spilled onto the streets of Paris, where Floyd’s death shined a new spotlight on the case of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old Black man who died in 2016 after being restrained by French police. His sister, Assa, led several anti-racism protests in which young and old, Black and White, working-class and middle-class were united in their calls for justice for Traoré. In June more than 10,000 gathered in Paris with demonstrations also taking place in Marseille, Lille and Lyon.
In cities as far-flung as Sydney and Melbourne people also marched to highlight high rates of incarceration and deaths in custody among Aboriginal Australians.
Anti-racism activists expanded their message, pointing to the lingering injustices due to the legacies of slavery and colonialism. Others took matters directly into their hands by defiling or pulling down statues of historical figures who profited from or supported the slave trade. In the UK and the US establishments like bars and pubs went so far as to change their names in a sign of solidarity with the BLM movement.
Protests erupt against Lukashenko in Belarus
Women precipitated the largest anti-government protests ever seen in Belarus after a contested presidential vote on August 9 saw the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. The opposition and its supporters have called on Lukashenko to quit, denouncing the election as rigged and keeping up demonstrations with as many 100,000 thronging the city of Minsk.
Solidarity for the opposition remains strong even as leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is in exile in Lithuania. But despite EU sanctions and international calls for democracy to be upheld little has changed
More than 30,000 people are believed to have been arrested in Belarus since mass protests began, many facing fines or even lengthy prison sentences. Protests are now a fixture on the calendar for Belarus’s beleaguered pro-democracy movement and they show no signs of lifting the pressure on Lukashenko’s regime.
Macron sparks anger and a boycott
Muslim voices rose in protest against French President Emmanuel Macron in October after he defended the secular values (laïcité) of the French Republic, denouncing Islamist extremism and vowing not to give up the “right” to caricature.
At a ceremony honouring school teacher Samuel Paty, who was murdered by a Chechen Islamist who was outraged that Paty showed students caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed during a class on freedom of expression, Macron hailed Paty as a hero for representing the free-thinking values of the French Republic, including the right to mock religion.
“I can understand that people could be shocked by the caricatures but I will never accept that violence can be justified,” Macron later said in a speech.
Anger and outrage at his comments erupted in the Middle East and parts of Asia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a boycott of French goods, questioned Macron’s mental health and said he had a problem with Muslims – prompting France to recall its ambassador.
Effigies of the French president along with the French flag were burned as protesters amassed in their thousands in Pakistan, Lebanon, Palestinian Territories and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world.
A Muslim man steps on a defaced portrait of French President Emmanuel Macron during a protest outside the France Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, on November 2, 2020. © Dita Alangkara, AP Photo
Macron’s government was again accused of Islamophobia after it unveiled new laws against “Islamist separatism” on October 2. Macron triggered more scorn by declaring Islam to be a religion “in crisis all over the world” and said the religion could instead be remade into “an Islam of the Enlightenment”.
When the UK’s Financial Times published an opinion piece on November 3 that argued Macron’s words were alienating Muslims in France, the president challenged the piece, saying it contained factual errors. Macron then launched a broader attack on the Anglophone press that included the New York Times and sought to placate Muslims by explaining that France was fighting radical Islamism and not Islam itself.
His tough tone have led some to speculate that Macron is already in campaign mode ahead of a 2022 presidential election, with his hardened stance a possible attempt to lure votes from far-right leader Marine le Pen.
#EndSARS in Nigeria
For nearly two weeks in October, thousands of angry young Nigerians intensified calls to end police brutality and human rights violations by disbanding one of the country’s most notorious police units.
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was set up in Lagos in 1992 to combat armed criminals but was later accused of extreme human rights violations, with victims claiming officers regularly engaged in extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and kidnapping.
Led primarily by youth groups, the protests have been going since 2017 but it was not until they launched a social media campaign under the hashtag #EndSARS that their cause gained wider support, spreading to 21 cities across Nigeria.
President Muhammadu Buhari responded by crushing the growing movement and tossing hundreds of protesters in jail, where many remain today. Their cause has now been taken up by US Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi, Greta Thunberg and even singer Alicia Keys, who are among a coterie of international celebrities to sign an open letter to Buhari for the release of the activists. They have also urged the president to lift a nationwide ban on protests and to allow Nigerians a democratic voice.
According to Amnesty International SARS isn’t the only problem, with the Nigerian police also responsible for hundreds of extrajudicial killings and disappearances every year.
Abortion crackdown, women’s rights
While abortion rights have been hard-fought in many countries, they came under attack in Poland again in October when the top court ruled it unconstitutional to abort a foetus because of defects, thus eliminating one of the few legal reasons to seek an abortion in the deeply Catholic country.
The ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party proposed the constitutional changes to the law in a crackdown that would impose an almost total ban on abortion.
Tens of thousands of women, and men, poured onto the streets in a string of nationwide rallies in repudiation of the changes – and in defiance of a Covid-19 ban on mass gatherings. Holding up signs bearing a red lightning bolt they chanted the slogan, “I think, I feel, I decide” in a message that resonated with women around the world.
Opponents of the Polish abortion ruling argue it puts women’s lives at risk by forcing them to carry unviable pregnancies Wojtek RADWANSKI AFP/File
The anti-abortion protests were among Poland’s largest in decades, not seen since the Solidarity movement of the 1980s that led to the collapse of the Soviet government.
But others have also joined the fray – from farmers to entrepreneurs – swelling protesters’ ranks and coalescing around a common goal of overthrowing the government.
“We are going for freedom. We are going for everything!” was the slogan for the latest demonstration on December 13. President Jaroslaw Kaczyński has called the protesters “criminals”.
Though a final court ruling is on hold in Poland, in Argentina women claimed a small victory with lawmakers backing an abortion bill which will now go to the senate before approval.
A contentious US election
Soon after Election Day on November 3 it became clear that this US presidential election would be contested both at the ballot box and on the streets.
As vote counting continued in several battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Georgia, which were too close to call on polling day, President Trump seized on the delay in final results to claim the election had been stolen. Trump supporters rallied to cries of “Stop the Count” and “Stop the Steal” outside voting centres in multiple cities during regular weekend protests throughout November, at times facing off against Biden supporters who called for every vote to be counted.
On November 14 the post-election protests peaked with a “MAGA March” in Washington, DC. Just five blocks from the White House, thousands of pro-Trump and anti-Trump protesters brawled, some armed with batons, before riot police used stun guns and teargas to disperse the crowds. Several arrests were made and one person was stabbed.
Another flashpoint occurred when a pro-Trump group, Women for America First, organised a rally in the capital on December 12, when disparate groups coalesced and clashed with opponents in yet another worrying show of a profoundly divided United States. A White nationalist group known as the Proud Boys, members of the religious far-right and grassroots MAGA (Make America Great Again) groups were all in Washington in overlapping protests in support of Trump. Scuffles ensued when Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrators and “antifa” (leftist anti-fascist groups), exchanged insults with members of the Proud Boys. Four people were stabbed and several were arrested.
The US president has refused to concede defeat despite the US Electoral College finalising Biden’s victory on December 14. Trump has also lost more than 50 legal challenges filed against the election results in state and federal courts.
French ‘security law’ sparks mass protests
Protesters demonstrated in Paris and other French cities throughout much of November and December against a new security law proposed by the government that would have limited the right to share images of on-duty police online. Offenders would face up to one year in prison and a €45,000 ($53,000) fine.
The government said the proposal was intended to protect police from retribution and online calls for violence against officers. But critics warned the bill would curtail the right to document police misconduct and undermine the ability of journalists to cover police activity, notably at demonstrations.
Reporters without Borders, Amnesty International’s France division and journalist unions called for the provision to be withdrawn. The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights and France’s own human rights ombudsman also voiced concerns that the provision – Article 25 – threatened fundamental civil rights.
The importance of documenting police activity was underscored in late November when Black music producer Michel Zecler was brutally beaten by Paris police hurling racial epithets. Videos of the attack were first published by French website Loopsider but quickly went viral, receiving millions of views. An investigation into the incident is ongoing. “I was lucky enough to have videos, which protected me,” Zecler later said.
On November 30 the government backed down, dropping controversial Article 25 and saying that it would be “completely rewritten”.
Despite the reversal, almost 100 protests took place throughout France on December 5. In some cities, demonstrators clashed with police as vehicles were set on fire and shop windows were smashed. More than 140 people were arrested at protests the following week and police used water cannon to disperse crowds.
French CRS riot police gaz out over a demonstration against the “Global Security Bill’ that rights groups say would infringe journalists’ freedom in France. Photo taken in Paris on December 12, 2020. © Charles Platiau, Reuters