Coronavirus has led to a 70 percent decline in public protests worldwide compared to last year—but this doesn’t mean social movements are going away. “There are literally hundreds of other tactics … to express dissent while still following social distancing guidelines,” says USIP’s Jonathan Pinckney.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley (SiriusXM host): You have now seen the sight: it's not necessarily a regular thing, a regular occurrence, but protesters on the street in different places, in this case in Raleigh, North Carolina, protesting to try to reopen their states. This is not the safe distancing that we have seen approaching, or being recommended by experts. As the coronavirus has grown into a global pandemic, many movements that have relied on street protests have struggled to know how to respond. And on the international scene, the evidence of a global slowdown in public protests is striking, so says our next guest. We'll delve into that now with Jonathan Pinckney, a program officer and research lead for USIP’s program on nonviolent action. Tweeting @JCPinckney. Jonathan, welcome. Thank you for being here.

Jonathan Pinckney: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

Tim Farley: All right, so the change, how do you notice this, and what have you been seeing?

Jonathan Pinckney: Well, I mean, the first thing to mention is that, there is, this slowdown in public demonstrations is incredibly striking. One source that measures this is the Armed Conflict Location Event Data project. They've noted that over the last month there's been an over 70% decline in the number of public protests relative to the average last year. So that's a, that's the first thing that really stands out. But I think an important thing to emphasize is that this doesn't mean that social movements are going away, because the kinds of nonviolent tactics that these movements do, go well beyond public protest. There are literally hundreds of other tactics that movements use. And we've seen this in things like public public events in Brazil, where people stood in the in the windows or balconies, of their homes and bang pots and pans together to express dissent. Or like a place like Israel, where opposition parties organized a public demonstration where people had designated spots out in the square, six feet apart, so that they could express dissent while still following social distancing guidelines.

Tim Farley: Safe to say, Jonathan, that some sort of visual reinforcement of the message is helpful. In other words, when you see video on newscasts or even online of hundreds, thousands of protestors, that sort of sends a message that there is a lot of support where it's a little bit more difficult to see that support when you don't have these mass gatherings.

Jonathan Pinckney: Yeah, I mean that's certainly true. You know, public protests, as you said, where you see sort of large numbers of people gathered in a single place, are an important communicative tool that many movements use. But you know, the core way that movements achieve change is by undermining the pillars of support or the sources of power of their opponents. And that's possible to do even if you don't have that, you know, the powerful communicative potential of lots of people gathered in a public place. And you know, there are also, you know, there are also powerful ways to signal dissent even with small numbers of people, you know, through, you know, power through sort of powerful symbols or you know, or other ways that they go to the heart of a of a particular issue.

Tim Farley: Again, we are speaking with Jonathan Pinckney, program officer/research lead for the United States Institute of Peace’s program on nonviolent action. I also note that you have coauthored this piece which indicates the historical record of nonviolent action is also full of powerful example of the power of strikes, boycotts and other tactics. And an overreliance on public protest may be a weakness for many movements. So in other words, it's not just about how many people show up at a march.

Jonathan Pinckney: Exactly right. Yeah. You know, many movements can oftentimes become stuck in the idea that, you know, public protests are the, are the core of what they're doing. While, you know, as I said before, the core of how movements achieve change is by shifting power, by undermining the power sources of their opponents. And that's often more effectively accomplished through things like a strike or a boycott, where you’re sort of directly undermining the way that an opponent functions, other than the more purely communicative function of public demonstrations.

Tim Farley: Jonathan, you made mention of this a little bit, but I also go back to the piece you coauthored. While online activism has long been an important compliment to real life action, with public gatherings off the table, many activists are making it a much more central aspect of their activities. Give us a sense, number one, of the penetration, the availability, of say, internet service in places where some of these protests are key, and whether or not restrictive governments, if indeed that is the target of these protests, can hamper the efforts to use online methods to try to make sure you engender support.

Jonathan Pinckney: Yeah, I mean, so in answer to the first question, it's quite widespread in many of the places where we've seen you know, some of the, some of the largest and most prominent movements say in the last year. You know, the place that comes immediately to mind for me is, is Hong Kong, where even before the pandemic, online activism and various kinds of online organizing were really key part of how that, how that pro-democracy movement was functioning. Now you're exactly right as well though that the digital space gives a number of advantages to repressive governments. And I actually just published a today, a new piece on the USIP website that goes into some of these things in a little bit more detail, but I really focus on three things. First that, because repressive governments typically have a great deal of control over the internet service providers in their country, there's greater potential for censorship. Next, sort of the cost of surveillance of movements is a lot lower. And third, of course, you know, governments have a, repressive governments have a lot of potential to spread disinformation against their, against their opponents. There's just, in the last few weeks, an example where Twitter has taken down tens of thousands of accounts associated with various government disinformation campaigns, including, I thought most striking in this, a case in which a single staffer of the Honduran government had over 3,000 Twitter accounts that were being used to spread government propaganda. So it's really, it certainly is quite hard for, for movements to, to counter these these advantages by repressive governments. But there are certainly some creative tactics that different types of movements are employing to counter that. For instance, by, for instance, by either, you know, sort of creating a broad based alliances of different groups to, to spread true information. Or, you know, adopting tools like end-to-end encryption, or other or other tools like that, to avoid surveillance. But it certainly is a challenge.

Tim Farley: Last question, Jonathan. I feel like we're saying when we last left the world, because everything now is being seen through the filter, and being reported through the filter, of coronavirus in the COVID-19 pandemic. But you mentioned, you touched on Venezuela. I think we've touched a little bit on Israel. Of course Hong Kong was a hotspot and Chile. I wonder, are there some places where you're seeing an especially high temperature, if you will, in the social protests that are going on right now, places that we haven't really been able to pay much attention to because of the overwhelming storyline of coronavirus?

Jonathan Pinckney: I mean, you know, I think it's interesting because I wouldn't necessarily separate the, the high temperature of movements from, you know, seeing things through the filter of coronavirus. That, I mean, even in places where there were existing movements before the pandemic, those movements are also being filtered through through the lens of the government's COVID response. And I think Hong Kong, which we mentioned, is a particularly good example of this. Where, you know, obviously, you know, last year was a, was a huge, we saw a sort of a huge series of mobilizations around demands for greater democracy there. That movement hasn't gone away. It's continuing. We've actually seen some new protests recently. But the movement is also taking advantage of the fact that many Hong Kongers are upset with their government's response to the coronavirus. And so, that's been, become sort of a new mobilization point for the movement in Hong Kong. So I think what we're going to see, what we're going to see is that this is going to be a core part of the grievances that many movements are seeking to address. And as, you know, as people in countries around the world are responding negatively to a perceived failures of government response, we're going to see thatused by movements as a mobilizing tool.

Tim Farley: Jonathan, thank you for spending time with us on POTUS this morning.

Jonathan Pinckney: Yeah, thank you so much. It was my pleasure.

Tim Farley: Jonathan Pinckney program officer research lead for USIP, the United States Institute of Peace’s program on nonviolent action. As he mentioned, he's got another piece up there. There's the most recent one. Popular movements are confronting the challenge of how to practice social distancing while still acting to advance their demands. His Twitter handle is @JCPinckney.

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