Global activism mobilizes millions – a reason for optimism
Where public opinion matters, direct action makes a difference
Amidst plenty of gloom over the past year, it is easy to overlook one of the most positive developments to emerge from the fog.
When the history of 2021 is written it will be noted that political activism and direct action around the globe reached unprecedented new highs.
Due in no small part to the advent of multiple channels of near-instantaneous communication, activists were enabled as never before to take coordinated action on issues of major importance.
This increased awareness and – increasingly – a positive response by leaders. To differing degrees, it influenced policy outcomes in a positive direction – and will probably continue to do so.
Standout examples of the issues drawing the largest and most vocal participation include climate change, racial justice and police reform.
While the news on these topics may have seemed rather gloomy at times, there is reason for some optimism: never before has public opinion been mobilized on such a massive scale.
The one issue that affected almost everyone on the planet in 2021 was climate change: the list of extreme weather events is long, and many of them were the most severe in recorded history.
The year was barely a monthly old in February when a nine-day series of winter storms brought unprecedented ice, snow and cold to the southern US.
The arctic blast was particularly severe in Texas where it brought down most of the power grid, leaving millions in the cold and dark during frigid weather.
On the other end of the spectrum, Hurricane Ida came ashore in Louisiana in late August, exactly 16 years after Hurricane Katrina, the most deadly ever. Ida was the fifth strongest storm ever recorded in the US.
Also on the list of extreme weather events were fires in California during the summer and a series of dozens of tornadoes in the Mississippi Valley in December.
These examples, among many others, add to the mounting evidence about what climate scientists have been warning for decades: that global warming will result extreme weather events – which used to occur on 100 year cycle – becoming much more common and intense.
It was therefore with great anticipation that the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP 26 was held in Glasgow in early November.
Expectations were not very high going into the 10-day event because of the absence of leaders from the top global emitter of greenhouse gasses, China, and the fifth, Russia.
But some progress was made. The Glasgow Climate Pact adopted by 197 countries was the first to mention coal – a leading cause of global carbon dioxide emissions.
While promising, this was also the most disappointing outcome of the conference when last-minute intervention by India and China weakened a plan to end use of coal, replacing the words “phase out” with “phase down.” But, 40 countries did commit to move away from coal.
On the plus side, 140 countries pledged to meet net zero emissions, which covers about 90% of global GDP. Also, leaders of over 100 countries – including Brazil, for the first time – agreed to end deforestation by 2030.
But climate finance – providing funding for poor countries to both mitigate effects of climate change and transition to cleaner energy sources – remained a sticking point. No new commitments were made. A previous goal for providing $100 billion annually by 2020 was missed, and likely would not be met until 2023.
The limited accomplishments of COP26 disappointed climate activists, who complained that the outcome was not more ambitious.
But there is no doubt the conference and related events focused global attention on the broader issue as never before.
Climate change activist Greta Thunberg and her Friday’s for Future movement criticized the summit, saying “This COP26 is so far just like the previous COPs and that has led us nowhere. They have led us nowhere.”
Fridays For Future is a youth-led and -organized movement that began in August 2018, after the then-15-year-old Thunberg and other young activists sat in front of the Swedish parliament every school day for three weeks, to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis. She posted what she was doing on Instagram and Twitter and it soon went viral.
Today the movement boasts 14,000 members and successfully mobilized thousands of others in the lead-up to and during the COP26 conference.
Few would argue that it has had significant influence on the discussion of climate change in dozens of countries around the globe.
A prime example: Just two months before the COP26 conference, in September the group organized a global “climate strike” in which hundreds of thousands of people in almost 100 countries made their views known.
It made headlines around the world as in this story from The Guardian:
“Hundreds of thousands of people in 99 countries have taken part in a coordinated global climate strike demanding urgent action to tackle the ecological crisis.”
The “strike” was the first worldwide climate action since the Coronavirus pandemic hit.
“In Germany, two days before the country’s general election, Greta Thunberg told a crowd of more than 100,000 people that “no political party” was doing enough.”
The September “strike” was the biggest expression of public activism focusing attention on the conference – but not the last.
On Nov. 6, the second last day when negotiations on the final communique were under way, about 100,000 people marched in Glasgow and a similar number in London, again drawing global media coverage like this story from the BBC which reported:
“About 100,000 people marched in Glasgow to demand more action on the climate crisis, organizers have said.
“The protest was the biggest so far during the COP26 summit and took place alongside hundreds of similar events around the world.”
The public demonstrations before and during COP 26 are an example of what activists can do and a hopeful sign that the future need not be as gloomy it appeared after the UN event in Glasgow.
Another issue that similarly gained traction among activists worldwide during 2021 was race relations and the related movement for racial justice in policing.
One result: The new term “systemic racism” entered the lexicon in many countries.
No other series of events in recent history has focused more attention on this topic than the murder on May 25, 2020 of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the protests that followed and then, the trial of his killer Derek Chauvin in 2021.
Excessive use of lethal force by police and racial bias in law enforcement have long been controversial issues in the US and elsewhere.
But what made Floyd’s murder unique was the horrifying nine minute video that captured it all and went viral on social media.
It was highly disturbing to watch, as Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck while he repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.”
His last words were to become a rallying cry around the globe.
Protests immediately flared up around the world – as people demanded the arrest of the officers involved in the killing and policy changes to put an end to police use of force.
Four days after the killing, Chauvin was arrested, initially on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. More charges were added later.
During the summer of 2020 that followed, hundreds of protests spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement spread throughout the US.
But what began as a purely domestic issue, soon spread to more than 60 countries because excessive use of force by police and racial inequity turned out to resonate in many places, galvanizing public outpourings of support for victims everywhere.
An example could be seen in the United Kingdom on May 31, 2020 when according to this story from the BBC, “Thousands of people gathered across central London to protest the killing of an unarmed black man in the United States. They held up signs saying “Justice for George Floyd,” who died in police custody while an officer kneeled on his neck to pin him down.”
Protests were also held in Manchester and Cardiff the same day.
Less than three months later, the tally of protesters was in the tens of millions.
According to an August 9, 2020 story on CNN, “Before Floyd's killing, the highest estimate for any American protest – the 2017 Women's March – was 4.6 million. Polls indicate that, as of mid-June, 2020, as many as 21 million adults had attended a Black Lives Matter or police brutality protest. They continue today, more than 10 weeks after a Minneapolis policeman knelt on Floyd's neck till the life left his body.”
By the time Chauvin’s trail began in March, 2021, the whole world was watching.
The proceedings received extensive global media coverage, with over 23 million people watching the verdict being announced on live television.
Perhaps the most riveting moment in the trial was the evidence presented by Darnella Frazier, the witness who recorded the widely circulated video that spurred so many protests.
She testified that Floyd was “terrified, scared, begging for his life” and saying “I can't breathe” while Chauvin “just stared at us” with “this cold look.”
On April 20, 2021 the jury convicted Chauvin of two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter. On June 25, he was sentenced to 22-1/2 years in prison.
Even before the Chauvin verdict, however, the protests seemed to be having some effect on public policy.
Police accountability bills have been introduced in Congress – though none have become law.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was passed by the House in March, but it has not been acted upon in the US Senate.
More significantly, a national debate at the state and local level about the scope and effectiveness of law enforcement has been engaged. Many jurisdictions – including Minneapolis – have passed significant reforms.
An example of note was the state of Washington where the Legislature passed several bills that address tactics police can use, the degree of force an officer may use, and factors that law enforcement must consider before using any degree of force, among several other sweeping changes.
In many other ways the protest movement spurred related action: Symbols associated with slavery have been removed in many locations; tributes to Confederates and others who espoused hate are falling. Athletes kneeling during the national anthem aren't seen as un-American anymore.
An insightful analysis The Police Reform Movement Transcends Derek Chauvin’s Trial by Andrew Cohen at the Brennan Center for Justice summarized the situation succinctly.
“The debate over policing in the wake of Floyd’s death will last beyond Chauvin’s trial and has already been shaped by what happened last May in Minneapolis … George Floyd’s death refueled a movement that transcends the Chauvin case, always has and always will, and that’s the truth.”
While some may see the progress on climate change, police reform and racial justice as too slow and too little, it is undeniable that these issues had a higher profile than ever around the globe in 2021.
The engagement of thousands of activists in so many countries and on so many levels has without doubt boosted public awareness and, in many cases, resulted in policy changes that have been responsive to public pressure.
In those countries where elected leaders are accountable to their voters, it is a hopeful sign that expressions of public opinion through direct political action have had a positive impact in 2021.
It’s likely this will continue in the coming year, because much work remains to be done resolving the major issues of our times.
Thanks for reading In the (K)now! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.