“Why are you always so angry?”
“What will protesting achieve?” “You should be in school instead.” “All your generation knows how to do is play the victim. We had it much harder than you.”
We’ve heard it all before. Statements made by older generations who despise and detest Millennials and Gen Zs efforts of speaking and standing up for themselves. Comments which Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg said, “belong in a museum”.
They ask us, “Why are you always so angry?” We tell them, “Look around you. Why aren’t you angrier?”
Is outrage just a Millennial and Gen Z thing, though? Or have effective protests resulted in some of the world’s most significant changes to date? Whilst older generations may have had it harder, who’s to say the issues we’re currently fighting to change won’t be as pivotal to our societies moving forward?
What can a protest achieve?
We’re in 2020 now. The statement that younger generations have achieved nothing with protesting is a short-sighted, outdated one. In the past two years, we’ve seen the highest number of people protesting climate change – that’s compared to the rest of the protests that occurred over the last decade. Six million people have taken to the streets to march, uniting across different time zones, cultures and generations to demand urgent action for our world’s worsening ecological state. We’ve seen thousands of Australians march to protest against the national celebration of Australia Day, known to Aboriginal people as “Invasion Day”. And to this day, we are continuing to witness protests against our country’s refugee policy, which has been described as “out of step with global standards.”
Climate change, refugee detention, women’s right to vote, the decriminalisation of gay marriage, and that’s just in recent years. To say protests have achieved nothing in our entire history is to entirely and utterly deny the societal changes and opportunities they have created for us today. Let’s take a step back and look at what drives a protest in the first place.
The psychological impact of collective action
Why do people engage in collective actions, such as protests? Collective action can be a life-changing experience. To be amongst a sea of people, a tiny spec, demanding positive social, political, and economic change is empowering and, when that change comes… exhilarating. It makes you feel like anything but a tiny spec – a part of a movement for change and a community, something that lies slap-bang in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s why we follow our favourite sports teams on social media, why we can’t get off Instagram, as much it makes us want to eye roll to heaven. But, perhaps contributing to the greater good of society is an indication of reaching that pinnacle of self-actualisation. It can also be a collective group being sick and tired of injustice.
Intentions to engage in protests largely stem from having the privilege and power to amplify the voices of marginalised and underrepresented groups, and bring considerably more attention to the issues surrounding them. Think about who lives on the very edge of your community and why? Marginalised groups exist all around us, and they are denied the involvement in conventional economic, political, cultural and social activities that many of us take for granted. And, if you’re someone who thinks privilege and marginalisation don’t have ripple effects, these two videos will prove otherwise.
That’s why protesting unites the marginalised and the privileged. It allows both groups to feel like they’re the ones calling the shots, making the decisions, and influencing and inspiring change in the world. Protests work because they sustain movements and create generational shifts.
Experts in social psychology have worked to investigate and explain the reasons why people protest. American psychologist, Lauren Duncan, specialises in researching what motivates some people to want to change society, while others want to keep it the same. A particular concept Duncan, and generally all of social psychology fixates on is “the tipping point.”
“Anytime there’s any sort of meaningful change, there comes a tipping point where people who have been oppressed or treated unfairly for years have been protesting against it for years. But it’s only when the people who aren’t actually directly affected by these grievances start to feel outraged, causing things to tip over into wide-scale social change,” says Duncan.
Echoing Duncan’s words is Canadian journalist and author, Malcolm Gladwell. According to Gladwell, behavioural change within a group can spread rapidly through a population in the same way a virus can.
“A small action by one individual within a crowd can influence the actions of other individuals within the crowd, until the behaviour becomes widespread. Thus, small, initial changes have the potential to make significant differences overall.”
As history has shown us time and time again, protests are the product of people feeling panicked, fearful, and helpless – feelings which have no borders and can spread across nations as quickly as wildfire.
We know the world is in a state of unrest. What’s happening in Australia?
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, millions across the world’s nations have taken to the streets to protest – Australia is right behind them. Since the start of this year, thousands of Australians have protested against ongoing pandemics in their own backyard: police brutality and systemic racism against Black and Indigenous lives, or what’s now known as the #BlackLivesMatter and #IndigenousLivesMatter movements, the detention of more than 100 refugees at Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point Central Hotel, and the fight against climate change – just to name a few.
Initially, the protests in Australia followed three prominent deaths in the United States – Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. The images of unrest coming from the ongoing protests for these deaths have given Australians an opportunity to reflect on our own issues with police brutality against the Aboriginal community, along with the treatment of refugees detained here.
Gamilaraay Kooma woman and coordinator for Warrior of the Aboriginal Resistance, Ruby Wharton, spearheaded the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Brisbane. Wharton told Business Insider she wants Australians to see the connection between the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and the plight of Indigenous people in their own country.
“We are taking a step back and looking at the issue for what it really is – that black people had to die in order for communities across the world to come together,” she said.
Do protests work?
In short, yes, they do, but not simply because people march in the streets. Protests work because they direct attention towards injustices happening all around the world, and can change people’s minds about how they want to respond to or think about them – a slow, but tremendously powerful process. Protests work because those who are protesting can demonstrate the importance of a belief to authorities, and society as a whole.
At the end of the day, protests don’t come down to whether they work short term or long term, but whether a person can sit idly on the sidelines for one more day, while injustices unfold right in front of them.
Perhaps this is where the power in protesting lies the most – not calculating whether it will work, but feeling morally compelled to show up and be a part of history in the making. To protect the land or society you live in, collectively.
What happens when those calling for change are silenced?
As a generation working to break the entitled, apathetic and distracted stereotype and label slapped across them, Millennials and Gen Z-ers place a mountain of pressure on themselves to revolutionise the way they respond to global issues. As a result, these generations not only valorise some of the world’s biggest activists, they are some of the world’s biggest activists.
16-year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg delivered a scathing speech at the 2019 United Nations General Assembly, about leaders’ inaction on climate change. 23-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who survived a gunshot by the Taliban, was an activist long before she became the youngest Nobel Prize laureate in history in 2014. These are just two of the world’s youngest activists to protest and speak up about what matters to them. They’re also two of the biggest inspirations for today’s younger generations to use their voice to make change.
But with fighting to make change in the world, comes severe consequences, often irreversible ones. A lot of people may think getting arrested at a protest is a rite of passage. For 20-year-old Beatrice, getting arrested at one of Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point Hotel refugee protests was one of the most frightening experiences of her life. Among a mass arrest of 37 people at the June 28 refugee protest, Beatrice was one of them, and was fined $600. Even more recently, six refugee protesters were arrested on the grounds for being a civil disobedience.
The situation in the US seems to rapidly worsen more than our own. More than 10,000 protesters have been arrested across the country. But protesters get arrested all the time, it’s no big deal? Right? That’s what 23-year-old D’Angelo Sandidge thought, before it happened to him at a Black Lives Matter protest.
“I was no longer seen as a ‘straight A student’, peer mediator, or educator,” he told Dazed.
“I was treated like a violent criminal… who was about to be wiped off the street.”
It’s a heavy toll that protesters are forced to bear – being silenced and punished for speaking up where it is becoming increasingly difficult, and even dangerous to do so. Many people with little experience with the police have been shocked by the videos of police in the US beating peaceful demonstrators with batons, gassing people in the streets, and shooting rubber bullets at their faces. But the violence in the streets is only the beginning for many of the people who have been arrested at the protests. As we’ve seen in the US, police and prosecutors have engaged in mass arrests, usually for arbitrary charges, and pursued harsh sentences, seemingly to teach protesters.
Since the 2015 protests set off by the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the US has passed harsh legislation cracking down on peaceful protests. According to a report by nonprofit organisation, PEN America, certain states in the US have introduced at least 154 bills or executive orders to restrict peaceful protesting. Currently, 54 of those bills have become law.
As for our own country, Scott Morrison has branded environmental protesters as “anarchists” and threatened a radical crackdown on the right to protest in a speech claiming progressives are seeking to “deny the liberties of Australians.”
No matter what country it’s taking place in, silencing and punishing protesters who are calling for change is undeniably universal.
What more can be done?
An ode to the past
The 60s marked a coming together of politics and counterculture. The act of protesting during this time was synonymous with being a hippie. Decades later, the context of hippies, which were a majority white, middle-class group of young people with the luxury of becoming a ‘dropout’, has been completely turned inside out and rejected. It’s important to remember that the history of protesting was not limited to the hippie movement alone – it was speckled with powerful action that spanned across different continents, led by people of all different backgrounds and cultures.
In 1930, Mohandas Gandhi couldn’t possibly have predicted his Salt March would play a vital role in India’s eventual freedom from British rule, and inspire future protesters to incredible acts of civil disobedience. In South Africa, which has been dubbed “the protest capital of the world”, anti-apartheid movements swept across and gripped the entire country during the 1950s. This time a decade ago, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was filled with 1 million people, mostly university students, seeking democratic reform – until the Chinese military unexpectedly rolled in tanks to clear them out.
So you see, protests have a rich history, each one with varied degrees of success in accomplishing what they set out to do.
Fast forward to the present day, Millennials and Gen Z-ers have no interest in carrying on the flower children’s naive vision of a free-love utopia. Instead, they are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation, they’re university-educated, tech-savvy, and more forward-thinking than any generation before them. And if you didn’t already guess, they’re hungry for change.
Protests are only part of the way
Protests are powerful. There’s no denying that. But they alone, do not achieve change. It’s all well and good to spend precious minutes designing your placards then show up to a protest, feet stomping the ground beneath you and yelling chants as loud as your voice lets you, but what happens when the protest is over? What happens when you go home to talk to your parents, your family, your friends? What kind of conversations do you have with them about the issues you were so passionately fighting for?
Dr Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” was a historic moment that positioned the Civil Rights Movement march on Washington. And yet, we cannot credit the entire civil rights legislation that followed solely to the march alone. The bottom line is, protests take us part of the way. They direct attention and exposure to a cause, but attention is not necessarily all that is required to effect change.
So, what more can you do?
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Just a reminder bc in the past week Rayshard Brooks was murdered by police in Atlanta, two trans women, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells and Rich Milton, were murdered, and two Black men were found hanged from trees in California. And Oluwatoyin Salau found dead yesterday. This isn’t over, it’s never been over for Black folks. And if you can, pls keep donating. I’ve recently donated to @rhdmorrishome, @translawcenter and @theokraproject. ♥️ #blacktranslivematter #blacklivesmatter
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Activism comes in all shapes and sizes
It’s up to us to use our skills and passions to create an inclusive experience of activism through not just protesting, but events, donations, civic engagement, art, and digital platforms. We’ve put together a list of ideas and resources you can engage with, with or without attending a protest, that will still make your voice heard.
1. Sign Petitions
Petitions are often seen as a small act of activism that doesn’t require a lot of commitment and isn’t really effective to the cause. But the impacts of online petitions can stretch far beyond immediate results. It’s one of the most simple and fast ways to help build long-term change – and it’s probably what you should start with before doing anything else. Check out some of these petitions:
- Justice for George Floyd
- Prevent Another Aboriginal Death In Custody
- Demand Racial Data on Coronavirus
If you’ve got some extra funds on you, there are a number of trustworthy charities and not-for-profits that support causes you’re passionate about that you can make a donation to. To save you the time of scouring the internet for a reliable list, to then fact-check them all yourself, Oiyo has already done the work – check out some of these local and international organisations you can donate to that are advocates for Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Lives Matter.
- Bridging The Gap Foundation For Indigenous Health and Education: Aims to bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians when it comes to health and education.
- North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency: A not-for-profit legal service supporting Aboriginal people and their families in the Northern Territory.
- National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Alliance: An organisation that is empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in Australia.
- Minnesota Freedom Fund: A not-for-profit raising funds to pay bail for protesters who have been forcefully arrested before trial. However, it’s simultaneously trying to highlight the injustice of the bail system.
- The Bail Project: A not-for-profit launched 10 years ago to combat mass incarceration and racial disparities in the US bail system.
The phrase, ‘knowledge is power’ has never been more fitting for the times we’re in. We’ve included some links which have a list of resources that we believe will help you arm yourself with facts to discuss and respond to the issues we’re currently facing.
- 5 Black-Created Podcasts For People Who Want To Be Allies
- 9 Podcasts on Racism: Understanding The Black Lives Matter Movement
- Podcasts on Racial Inequality in Australia
For a more comprehensive range of resources, check out these two lists:
4. Listen to and emphasise with People of Colour (POC)
You don’t need to be the loudest person in the room to show your support for marginalised people. Sometimes, you just need to listen and not make it about you. Listen to the people who are experiencing these grievances. Don’t talk about a time you felt similar to them. Don’t ask your token minority friend what you should be doing to be a better ally. And most importantly, if you are in a position of privilege where your skin colour doesn’t threaten your own life, don’t ever speak for, or over, marginalised people. Listen. Research in your own time. Practice empathy. And then continue to listen more.
5. Call out racist behaviour
This one is particularly for non-POC. POC and people from marginalised communities are tired – tired of having to constantly be aware, to engage, to educate – and this is all being done without the privilege, access, and resources that you most likely have access to. So, use your position of privilege to call out inappropriate racist behaviour and attitudes when it arises. No matter if it’s in your family, your workplace, your friend group, think about whether you want to sit silently on the sidelines. Or? Speak up for the people who don’t have a voice, or for the people who don’t feel safe enough to do so.
A few DON’TS to remember:
- DON’T SAY:” All lives matter.” Why? If all lives really did matter, Black and Indigenous lives wouldn’t be treated as disposable. If all lives really mattered, we wouldn’t be seeing POC treated with blatant discrimination. If all lives mattered, we wouldn’t have to remind people these things every day.
- DON’T SAY: “I don’t see colour” Why? So you claim you don’t discriminate by colour? Well by doing that, you’re entirely erasing the struggles and the history of that entire group. Essentially, you’re saying a person of colour’s experiences don’t matter because you are blind to them.
6. Support POC-owned businesses
Be aware of what companies and businesses you are purchasing products from and supporting. By supporting businesses owned by POC, you are not only increasing their revenue, but you’re contributing to the possibility of causing an influx on their business, which could create more jobs.
Activism truly comes in many different forms. These are just six suggestions, so find out what works best for you and most importantly, take action.
Next time you’re told to get back to work rather than protesting…
You’re more than likely going to tell your future grandkids about the protests that erupted across the world in 2020. Even before COVID-19 gripped the entire world, 2020 was shaping up to be a year of activism. So when someone tells you to stop protesting and “actually contribute to society”, take a walk down memory lane and look at some of the protests that have defined 2020 so far, and the ones decades before that have paved the way for us today.
- 13 significant protests that changed the course of history – Live Science
- 5 of the most influential protests in history – TIME Magazine
- The 10 best protests – The Guardian
Little by little, the war is won
It’s easy to think that at 18 years old, older generations were only worrying about what major they should change to, or how they should decorate their dorm room, but we know that is not necessarily the case. Globally, younger generations have led protests and organised action for many of the major societal shake ups we now call ‘history’.
In the same vein, today’s younger generations have a list of worries long enough to fill a book and we certainly have our work cut out for us if we mean to make a real dent in that list. Millennials and Gen Z-ers have inherited a world plagued with severe climate catastrophes, oil crises, rapid extinctions, loss of natural ecosystems, terrorism, systemic income, gender and racial inequalities, and financial crises – that’s without even considering what sustainable source of energy can be realistically harnessed at scale to power this world of ours. While these apocalyptic-like global issues are daunting, ‘the youngsters’ are acutely aware of them and the challenges that lie ahead.
The differences between Baby Boomers and today’s young people are easy enough to see. And, while these enormous differences separate today’s protest movements from those decades ago, they prove that each generation has been united by the sheer magnitude of prospect of change they impose. It’s as if protests have evolved to become a generational rite of passage.
So, while it’s difficult to ignore the fact that Millennials and Gen Z-ers have been handed a world that’s on fire, we must remember the small similarities we share with the generations before us. They both welcomed and feared the uncharted changes the future brought on, just as we are doing now.
We have acknowledged we live in an unequal society, one that clearly benefits a select few – the old and the white – over the young, the people of colour, the people with disabilities, the people on low incomes. I’m a Gen Z-er, also a woman of colour – born in Australia to a Singaporean-Indian family. I have acknowledged this inequality, and am reminded of it every day. But what keeps the flame of hope flickering in me, is the feeling of belonging to a generation so inclusive, accepting, and progressive. And most of all, more determined and louder in asking for change than anyone before them. I could not be prouder to be a part of Gen Z, and to use my voice to inspire and influence change in the world, no matter how small.
Protests may only be one part of asking for that change. But step by step, they are increasing in size across the world, growing more inclusive of people of all different races, ethnicities, cultures, disabilities, and so on. They are what the generations after us will remember us for.