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21st century protest from Cairo to Don Dale



For those who protest in the 21st century, whether for peace, women's liberation, LGBTI rights or Indigenous justice, power and oppression provide the thematic framework for their opposition and desire for change. The internet has provided those lacking the structural upper hand with a powerful means of access and communication.

ProtestHowever, sustaining the drive for protest online is exhausting. Protests on social media demand that you care, that you care publicly, and that you give wholeheartedly to a cause. There's the fear that silence can be interpreted as complicity. It's compassionate to recognise that a person's compassion and empathy has its limits.

To invest time and heart into a protest means it has to run longer than the expiration date on a viral bit on social media. Snap protests, while well intentioned and driven by the passion of the moment, are often subjected to the whimsical and fast-changing news cycle.

And any campaign lacking a regular output of visual and audio media, especially in a media-restrictive environment, such as the Don Dale Detention Centre, has less chance of inspiring a coherent message.

Protests against Don Dale call for everything from the removal of the Northern Territory government, to the end of children in detention, to addressing domestic violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. What it shows is that the issue of youth justice doesn't exist in isolation, and so doesn't lend itself as easily to the brevity associated with social media.

In fact the internet can confuse a situation, making it uninteresting or confusing to an apolitical bystander. In her book Twitter and Tear Gas, professor and journalist Zeynep Tufekci writes:

'Whereas a social movement has to persuade people to act, a government or a powerful group defending the status quo only has to create enough confusion to paralyse people into inaction. The internet ... can asymmetrically empower governments by allowing them to develop new forms of censorship based not on blocking information, but on making available information unusable.'


"What is a protest if not an expression of communal anger? But are protests supposed to be just about emotions, about expression?"


There's no reason to judge the success of a protest by whether it achieved its desired outcome: the adage 'it's a marathon, not a sprint' rings true. Effective change is a matter of increment; it has to happen at every strata of society. Protests bear the brunt of proving success, when the burden for change actually exists with the system they're opposing.

The 2016 Black Protest in Poland, against the proposed ban on abortion, elicited in-person protests, as well as black-clad selfies on social (#czarnyprotest) raising awareness of the ban's consequences. The protests saw the proposed ban withdrawn, and yet, a year later, abortions are unregulated and largely accessible via the black market. Nothing seems to have changed.

A reliance on social media lacks strategic, long-term action for change. Change can be educational, can be awareness, can be community building, can be power of community, of people.

The day after Trump's inauguration, a national women's' movement inspired more than four million women to march in more than 600 US cities, to draw attention to Trump's discriminatory, predatory behaviour towards women. What is a protest if not an expression of communal anger? But are protests supposed to be just about emotions, about expression?

Yet social media remains a powerful weapon for mass mobilisation. During the Egypt Revolution of 2011, Twitter was used to mobilise protests. Traditional movements — flyers, word-of-mouth — ceased to be as effective as instantaneous tweets. To this day, photographs of the thousands gathered in Tahrir Square are inspiring. The protests helped end Mubarak's 30-year rein, and pushed the protestors to the centre of global attention, eliciting support and camaraderie

We also need to be cautious of labelling this mode of political action as 'slacktivism'. In the lead-up to the same sex marriage postal vote, organisations, businesses and companies adorned their Twitter and Facebook logos with a rainbow coloured background. It sent a message to their networks that the support of the individuals as a collective was aligned to a large political cause.

It's the equivalent of a brick-and-mortar business putting up a flyer in their front window. Deriding social media as a valid form of protest is an outdated mentality. Online and offline exist in distinct yet overlapping spectrums.



Marta SkrabaczMarta Skrabacz is a Melbourne-based writer, critic and producer. She is the Digital Producer for Noted Writers Festival and a 2017 Writer-in-Residence at Feminartsy. Her work has been published in Overland, Going Down Swinging and The Monthly. Find her on Twitter @grrlmarta

Topic tags: Marta Skrabacz, protest, Egypt, Tahrir Square, Donald Trump, Don Dale



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Existing comments

"Protests bear the brunt of proving success, when the burden for change actually exists with the system they're opposing." Why? Those who propose change should show how their way will work better. Those who oppose it should show why it won't. The burden is shared.

Roy Chen Yee | 04 December 2017  

Changing a powerful system is not for the faint-hearted. Protest can lead to violence, both physical and emotional. But passion for change can not and should not be deflected. The internet has allowed people without power to protest. We are often venturing into a hornet's nest though. Is there a magic cream for thickening skin?

Pam | 04 December 2017  

Ah Roy, if only it were so simple. The odds are always stacked in favour of the status quo, especially where the status quo is backed by wealth and power. Don't you remember Niccolo Machiavelli's observation that 'there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things... for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it'?

Ginger Meggs | 04 December 2017  

Do protesters on line give themselves more credit than is their due in terms of genuine influence for change? The desire for voicing a protest might send you into the street or camping in a tree or typing on line. I often wonder if on line protesters absolve themselves of more challenging and committed forms of protest by pretending they are making greater strides than they really are. By now politicians seem inured to most stuff on line anyway. And I can't help comparing current protest with anti Vietnam Moratoria or Green Bans. Then again if you were protesting about losing your life you had more than an armchair interest in changing conscription.

Michael D. Breen | 05 December 2017  

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