So many of the images and videos from the people’s protests in cities across the country … frame mostly young, mostly anonymous people who took to the streets mostly peacefully.” This line from The Indian Express’s editorial on December 20, 2019 could also frame the protests happening right now in the US over the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer.
Instagram timelines flooded with videos from the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the US — where I was raised — harken to a moment not so long ago here in India. Besides the occasional high-profile speech of young politicians such as Kanhaiya Kumar or Chandrashekhar Azad between December 2019 and February 2020, my memory recalls a sea of anonymous faces on the streets, with no centralised leader in their midst.
Past formulae dictate that protests must have a spokesperson. What is the agenda? Who can the establishment negotiate with? Where is the Martin Luther King, the Malcolm X, the Jayaprakash Narayan, the Anna Hazare? It’s a question at new crossroads: Without centralised decision-making, can movements in the next decade convert anger on the streets into collective reform goals?
In 2011, the world watched Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, championing the potential of social media. Time magazine wrote in “The Year of the Protestor”: “Almost all the protests this year began as independent affairs, without much encouragement from or endorsement by existing political parties or opposition bigwigs.”
Optimists argued that previous movements helmed by leaders gave the government more opportunities “to focus on them, to pick them off, to arrest them, kill them, denigrate them. ” In The Leaderless Revolution (2011), Carne Ross writes, “Leaderless protests, conversely, are more difficult to repress.”
However, a decade of Arab Spring, Occupy, Nirbhaya, #MeToo, Yellow Jackets, anti-CAA, Hong Kong, and the recent wave of BLM has brought a disenchantment with social media. Tahrir Square is a go-to example, where a focus only on the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak provided a vacuum, hijacked by another phase of dictatorship.
In a 2014 article, University of California, Berkeley’s sociology professor Cihan Tugal recalled this moment as the “end of the leaderless revolution”: “It spells the end of the fallacy that ‘people’s power’ can result from a scene without an agenda, an alternative platform, an ideology, and leaders …; disorganisation runs rampant and is even reproduced by activists through a cult of leaderlessness.”
The headless beast suffered from “tactical freeze”, writes Zeynep Tufekci in Twitter and Tear Gas (2017). “In the past, organising big protests required getting many people and organisations to plan together beforehand, which meant that decision-making structures had to exist in advance of the event, building the network internalities along the way. Now, big protests can take place first, organised by movements with modest decision-making structures that are often horizontal and participatory but usually lack a means to resolve disagreements quickly… leaderlessness greatly limits movements’ capacity to negotiate when the opportunity arises.”
In India, the “leader” carries historical heft — from the Gandhian image exported to the world to more recent resonance in Anna Hazare. A transition began with the 2012 anti-rape protests. Similarly, at the tail-end of 2019, it was a group of unknown faces, not a political party, that harnessed Instagram and Signal to coalesce anger against the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, not a political party. The fact that one could rarely recognise the speaker on the Shaheen Bagh stage spoke of this. But was the horizontal nature a strength or a weakness?
“Leaderless movements are likely to arise when the issue is not taken up by the mainstream political actors. The anti-CAA protests were a moment of weak opposition, contrasting to the mid-’70s. What social media gave the movement was that it could grow by a kind of replication. You began to see mini-Shaheen Baghs everywhere,” says Pratap Bhanu Mehta, University Professor, Ashoka University.
Moving forward, the relationship between centralised politics and horizontal movements may change. As my Instagram timeline became flooded with first-hand footage of anger on American streets over the killing of Floyd, I see a new tangibleness: posts about the civilian members of Los Angeles’ Board of Police Commissioners, the timing of Atlanta’s upcoming city council budget meeting and the budget negotiation process and details about New York’s police union contract. I also see massive community financing of bail funds and local organisations.
As a result, mainstream media and local politicians are debating a concept that was rarely even entertained in households three weeks ago: defunding the police. “We are seeing things that wouldn’t have been conceded ever before … it takes a highly disruptive protest to push authorities to think we need to do this,” says Paolo Gerbaudo, author of Tweets and the Streets (2012).
Nonetheless, internally negotiating these demands is still messy. At the beginning of the month, a trending graphic of eight police reforms called #8CantWait received significant backlash from others in the movement. Critics replaced it with an #8toAbolition trending graphic, arguing that some #8CantWait reforms would actually increase funding for police. The reformist-abolitionist argument was live on social-media feeds.
The tactics are messy, too. On June 2, BLM supporters posted black squares on their social media with the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday. Seeing that these squares were also tagging #blm, prominent social media personalities quickly tried to spread the message that the trend (with unknown origins) was counter-effectively drowning out informative protest content on their hashtag feed. It was as if the “wisdom of the crowds” had taken a wrong turn, and select drivers were trying to reel it the other way.
The movements are re-envisioning how to coordinate change outside of formal politics. Indeed, just as the anti-CAA protests did not have the Delhi elections at its forefront, the outburst of BLM protests in the US has not focussed on the November national elections.
“So the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics,” US former President Barack Obama wrote in a June 1 Medium article. “We have to do both. We have to mobilise to raise awareness, and we have to organise and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform …”
This process won’t fit previous formulae and will probably continue to be messy. But how movements of the next decade manage in their own unique way to navigate new decision-making structures could be one of their most memorable trademarks.
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