While the Fall in the northern hemisphere has more and more become a time of protest in this young century, 2019 is seeing a larger explosion of public unrest than we have seen for many years around the world. Perhaps in part because of the current U.S. president’s hijinks and the never-ending Brexit debacle in the U.K., English language media has failed to really cover large protests in their own backyards, let alone in poorer countries mainly in the global south.
One exception to this has been the 2nd International Rebellion launched by Extinction Rebellion that ran for two weeks starting on October 7th, which was hard for the press to ignore when large actions took place, especially in the U.K., where the group was formed about a year ago.
Less than two weeks after the world-wide student climate strikes that ended on Friday, September 27th, XR took to the streets, not only in the U.K. but in other locations around the world, to force governments to meet their three main demands. These are: 1) that governments tell the truth about climate change, 2) that they act now to address the emergency and 3) that governments convene people’s assemblies to create solutions to the climate crisis and related issues like biodiversity loss.
The U.S. branch of XR has also wisely added a 4th: “We demand a just transition that prioritizes the most vulnerable people and indigenous sovereignty; establishes reparations and remediation led by and for Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and poor communities for years of environmental injustice, establishes legal rights for ecosystems to thrive and regenerate in perpetuity, and repairs the effects of ongoing ecocide to prevent extinction of human and all species, in order to maintain a livable, just planet for all”; a smart move as the group has been criticized in the U.K. as ‘too middle class’ and lacking diversity.
Prior to yet another failed Brexit vote in Britain’s parliament on Saturday, October 19th, mainstream British news sources were filled with stories about XR’s actions in the country. As during the first international rebellion in April, there was a lot of hand-wringing by opinion writers about the group’s tactics, but the level of press attention shows that the civil disobedience, sometimes serious, sometimes playful, engaged in by the group is registering with both the press and the public at large in the U.K.
It’s hard to deny that Extinction Rebellion has brought more attention to the climate crisis we face than traditional methods of protest like marches or turning out your lights for an hour a year, but there’s also an argument that can be made that significant numbers of people will be so enraged by the inconveniences faced during acts of civil disobedience that it could set the movement back.
Because XR does not have a traditional leadership structure and allows anyone to use the name when taking small actions, a group claiming to represent them targeted public transportation in London last week, specifically commuter trains. In one case that played over and over again on British TV, an activist standing on a train in Canning Town during rush hour was pulled down and beaten by the crowd. Another activist filming the action was also assaulted.
While it’s important to make the public aware of the dangers we all face in terms of the climate emergency it does seem counterproductive to target public transportation, which environmentalists have long encouraged the public to use to lower their carbon footprint.
There were also some large actions in the U.S., especially in New York City, where activists staged a die-in outside of the city’s stock exchange, and actions of various sizes in at least 60 cities throughout the world, but poorer countries are seeing large protests for familiar if different reasons, usually focusing on the austerity policies being forced on them by their governments at the behest of the International Monetary Fund.
Across the world from the center of XR’s actions, in Ecuador, those who have long been at the forefront of the movement to protect fragile ecosystems, indigenous people, took to the streets to demand the government reverse its plans to end fuel subsidies that allow many of them to live with a small measure of dignity. In the process, the ultimately successful actions demonstrated the power that these historically marginalized communities can have when motivated to demand their governments address both their day to day and long-running historical grievances.
To the south in Chile, violent protests followed the imposition of increases in the cost of public transportation that poor and working people in the country rely on, with the country’s president declaring a state of emergency in the capital, Santiago. It now appears that the fare increases will not go ahead as planned but the protests continue. Sadly, at present 15 people have died in the ongoing unrest.
As Chilean writer, Marco Anotonio de la Parra explained to the Guardian newspaper with the angry protests as a backdrop, “Over the past decade, the Chilean state has lost touch with these problems. The places that have been targeted tonight are deeply symbolic: transport and energy represent the success of the state and the model it upholds.”
Although western security forces often meet protests with displays of overwhelming force, in poorer countries like Chile, police riots targeting activists are often extreme in their violence. Such has also been the case in Haiti over time, up to and including the current unrest rocking the country as citizens demand the current president, Jovenel Moise, widely seen as corrupt and enriching himself while bowing to the wishes of foreign powers and multilateral institutions like the IMF, leave office.
As Cecile Accilien, of the Institute of Haitian Studies at the University of Kansas recently explained, “We’re ruled by far more powerful countries, the 1 percent, the NGOs — everyone’s playing a game, but most of us don’t know what the rules are or who the players are, but we know this: Everyone is playing Haiti.”
Interestingly, one of the sparks that lit the Haitian protests was that the president and top ministers in his government are accused of either misusing orstealing funds loaned to the country by Venezuela’s oil-rich but embattled government, which they have since denounced, since 2008.
The situation in Haiti is tragic for a myriad of reasons, is the authority given to what’s called the Core Group comprised of foreign ambassadors from Canada, the United States and others for what was supposed to be a limited amount of time after the ouster of former president Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004.
It isn’t only in the Western hemisphere that ordinary citizens are rising. As we might expect after years of coups, war and stagnation in the Middle East, especially in Egypt, Iraq and, most recently, in Lebanon, there have been large protests in this part of the world that have cut across traditional sectarian lines, an important fact that can’t be emphasized enough.
Lebanon especially has had a difficult time with these issues for many years, going so far when the country achieved independence in 1943 to create a system of governance that ensures Sunni, Shia and Christian communities have somewhat equal representation in the country’s parliament. Nonetheless, it appears that austerity policies and inequality have brought ordinary citizens from all of the country’s communities together in recent waves of protest that began last Thursday and so far have not been met with violence by security forces.
While the government tried to solve the problem by passing a modest reform package in the country’s parliament on Monday of this week, it doesn’t appear that the protests involving all of the countries communities will end anytime soon, with Maya Mhana, a teacher interviewed by Reuters who is involved with the protests saying after President Saad Hariri announced the measures in a televised speech, “We are remaining in the streets, we don’t believe a single word he said.”
This is just a small overview of the many countries seeing unrest in this ongoing season of protests but should give some idea of the scope of frustration ordinary citizens are feeling around the world, whether they take to the streets to combat climate change or austerity. While these issues could be seen as very different, they are also linked in many places, such as in places where indigenous people are trying to protect their traditional lands from the exploitation of greedy interests.
Solving the climate crisis with ambitious policy programs like Green New Deals that also focus on moving away from the free-market fundamentalism that has ruled the world for 50 years might help to alleviate some of the suffering caused by the austerity that is breaking the backs of working people in rich and poor countries alike.