Last year saw a wave of nonviolent action movements, mostly relying on tactics of large public protests and sit-ins as people took to the streets from Hong Kong to Chile to demand greater democracy, economic equality, and social justice. Some of these movements, like the revolution that successfully ousted Sudan’s longtime authoritarian ruler Omar al-Bashir, achieved many of their goals. Others, like the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, were still seeking major demands from the government when news of the rapid spread of a novel coronavirus began coming out of central China.

Protesters fill Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Oct. 26, 2019. Mass protests are declining worldwide in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, so movements are adapting their tactics in response to a changing world. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
Protesters fill Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Oct. 26, 2019. Mass protests are declining worldwide in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, so movements are adapting their tactics in response to a changing world. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

As the coronavirus has grown into a global pandemic, many movements that have relied on street protests have struggled to know how to respond. The evidence of a global slowdown in public protests is striking. As news of the virus spread and public health authorities began recommending a stop to public gatherings with large numbers of people in early March, the number of public protests around the world dropped precipitously. The most recent month of protest activity recorded by the ACLED data project (February 21 through March 21) saw a 28 percent decline in public protests relative to the monthly average last year, and this number is likely to continue to fall.   

Activists in many movements are confronting the challenge of how to practice social distancing while still acting to advance their demands. The ”street agenda” that has been growing in Venezuela to demand a democratic opposition to President Nicolas Maduro has been impacted, and the country’s political future remains uncertain as opposition leader Juan Guaidó has called for mass demonstrations to be put on pause in respect of a national quarantine declaration.

Iraq’s youth-led movement demanding an end to corruption and structural changes to their country’s sectarian political system, already struggling after months of government repression and some high-profile defections, officially ended their nationwide sit-ins on Saturday. The pro-democracy movement in Algeria, which has been holding protest marches every Friday for the last 56 weeks, finally canceled their weekly marches this week. And recent reports show India’s Shaheen Bagh protests—a movement against the Indian government’s widely criticized new citizenship law, and largely driven by Muslim women—were down to just five women at the protest site after initially drawing hundreds.  

So how can movements respond to the challenge of COVID-19? Where should movements turn when gathering people in the streets puts them at risk not just of state repression but of infection? How are activists today creatively responding to this challenge, and what lessons from the history of nonviolent action can help inform responses to this challenge? 

Moving Beyond Public Protests

One important lesson is that nonviolent action includes far more than public protests. While the two are often conflated, protests are only one in a vast array of forms of nonviolent action, and often not even the most crucial or impactful tactic. Pioneering scholar Gene Sharp enumerated 198 unique methods of nonviolent action, and even his list is far from a complete catalogue. While public protests can be useful for getting the word out, it is often tactics like general strikes or consumer boycotts—which directly undermine the economic, social, and political foundations of an opponent—that play a critical role in movements’ success. They also help activists avoid direct confrontation with security forces that may lead to violent repression. 

In fact, an overreliance on public protests may be a weakness for many movements. Sociologist Kurt Schock’s study “Unarmed Insurrections” found that movements that were able to shift between tactics that concentrated large numbers of people in a single place, and those that dispersed people across many different locations, like “stay-home strikes” (a particularly apt tactic for pandemic times), were more effective than those that just focused on protests. 

The historical record of nonviolent action is full of powerful examples of the power of strikes, boycotts, and other tactics that don’t gather large numbers of people in public places. A sex strike by Liberian women helped end the country’s second civil war. In South Africa, cultural and academic boycotts against racial apartheid helped lead to the end of the white-minority government. Mahatma Gandhi encouraged Indians to wear homespun cloth instead of imported clothing to help shift India toward economic independence from its colonial ruler. And more recently in Tunisia, in addition to the mass protests that marked the start of the 2011 Arab uprisings, strikes and boycotts launched by labor and trade unions were key factors in the nonviolent ouster of President Ben Ali. 

How Popular Movements are Pivoting

Today’s activists are already putting this lesson to good use by broadening their tactics to focus on actions that don’t involve concentrating mass gatherings. For instance, in Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters have been gathering signatures for an online petition, and organized Hong Kong’s largest-ever medical workers strike, with more than 9,000 health professionals refusing to work until the government improved its coronavirus response. And in Brazil, millions of people are participating in a massive nonviolent action against President Jair Bolsonaro by coming to their windows at a specified time and banging pots and pans together.  

One critical part of this tactical diversification has been moving activism from the streets to online. While online activism has long been an important complement to real-life action, with public gatherings off the table many activists are making it a much more central aspect of their activities. In Israel, over half a million people joined a Facebook Live online protest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to adjourn the Knesset in response to the coronavirus emergency. Members of the global climate movement are keeping the movement alive through digital protests, posting pictures of themselves holding protest signs in their homes. The climate activists are hoping #ClimateStrikeOnline, #DigitalClimateStrike and other online initiatives will continue to build the movement and keep climate change on the agenda of national governments and world leaders.  

On a more strategic level, movements have also used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to provide services for the general population, to be proactive on health and safety even when governments refuse to and to reveal inequities in the existing health and economic systems. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the health system has finally gotten under control a series of deadly Ebola outbreaks, the citizen’s movement LUCHA has urged the government to strengthen its response to COVID-19. These measures include the creation of provincial-level committees of public health  experts equipped with adequate resources to address the crisis and ensuring everyone's access to water and hygienic products. In Senegal, social movements have also pressured the government to increase the robustness of its response, and launched a campaign to improve social solidarity to fight the virus. Y’en a Marre, a group of Senegalese rappers, students, and other youth, released a music video spreading awareness about the virus and necessary safety precautions. In Nicaragua, a coalition of movements working to bring democratic change, has created a coronavirus emergency committee after criticizing the government for an insufficient response to the crisis.

As the global pandemic crisis continues to evolve, movements’ plans and tactics will evolve as well. The dominance of the street protest as a central tactic of nonviolent action may make this evolution difficult. But the need to shift within the broader range of nonviolent action tactics is also an opportunity for creativity and growth, as activists, just like the rest of us, are forced to innovate in response to a changing world. 

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