Protests Around The Globe NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks to Robert O'Brien, a political science professor at McMaster University, to see if there is a common theme in all the protests happening around the world.
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Protests Around The Globe

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Protests Around The Globe

Protests Around The Globe

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The bitter political divisions in our country are playing out in the halls of Congress and perhaps over the dining room table. But we're going to go now overseas where, for months now, people have been taking their political and economic grievances to the streets, as NPR and other correspondents have been out reporting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In June, protesters in Hong Kong began demanding the repeal of a law that would have allowed extradition to mainland China.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking in foreign language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The local leader Carrie Lam agreed to withdraw the law, but thousands of citizens continue to come out to the streets to protest police violence and fight back. And they still have demands for Lam to resign and directly elect a new leader. An elderly man named Chan Ki-Kau explained.

CHAN KI-KAU: (Through interpreter) As a Hong Kong person, I stand for justice. In the 20 years since the handover, our freedoms have been slowly eroded. We have become a chess pawn of the People's Republic of China.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Lebanon, hundreds of thousands took to the streets last month when the government, which has failed to provide basic services like trash collection, tried to impose a tax on WhatsApp. This past week, the prime minister resigned. But for Marianna Wehbi, this was just a start.

MARIANNA WEHBI: This is a revolution, OK? This does not mean that we won. This is planting the seed for us to say that our voices now as a country are heard. We cannot accept politicians who are putting us in corruption, politicians who are putting us in debt, politicians who are segregating us by religion and have been doing so for 30 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iraq's prime minister also promised to step down in the face of mass demonstrations there. Hala Chalabi, a mother of three daughters, said she expected life to improve after the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein.

HALA CHALABI: No - 16 years, there's nothing good for the people. Everything is bad - killing, stealing. It's about all the government. No one thinks about the Iraqi people - what they want, what they dream. We have no dreams, you know - no dreams.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And violent clashes with security forces continued in Baghdad yesterday. Australians have been protesting climate change, and Haitians have tied up transportation, shut businesses and schools. Haitian police tried to put down the protests with deadly gunfire.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Barcelona, a long fight over independence erupted again after a Spanish court handed down harsh sentences to separatist leaders. After mass rallies and clashes with police, students like Mario Ortega are still camped out near their university.

MARIO ORTEGA: Some people think that independence is just the goal, but more people think that it's a way to build something better.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there have been counter-protests by Catalans who want to remain in Spain.

In Chile, a 3% hike in subway fares unleashed a wave of demonstrations that have turned violent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The government was forced to cancel a major international meeting. Samuel Flores summed up the public anger this way.

SAMUEL FLORES: (Through interpreter) I know that one day, I will be older, and I will need a big enough pension. I live in a shanty town. I was raised in a shanty town. And I live inequality every day. I see how the 1% takes all of the wealth in this country, and that has to stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST AMBIENCE)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there's Ethiopia, Ecuador, Algeria. The list goes on and on. Are all these protests just a coincidence? Are there common threads tying them together? We've invited Robert O'Brien to help us answer those questions. He's a political science professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Welcome.

ROBERT O'BRIEN: Thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is it unprecedented to see this many protests at one time?

O'BRIEN: I think it is. I mean, we've had waves of protests before, but often, they're centralized in particular regions. So we had the Arab Spring protests...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

O'BRIEN: ...Back in 2011, which swept through a number of Middle Eastern countries. We had the large-scale protests before the fall of the Berlin Wall in Eastern Europe. But I think this upswing - so many protests in so many different parts of the world - is catching people's attention.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So obviously, each country has its individual complaint and its individual government. But do you see any common threads between what people are upset about or demanding?

O'BRIEN: You know, in some cases, the concerns are explicitly political, such as in Hong Kong and in Spain. In other cases, it's more explicitly economic, such as in Chile and Lebanon. But I think in all those cases, the problem is that there's large sectors of the population that don't believe that their political representatives are acting in their interest.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what is it about this moment that - do you think has prompted that? - because I suppose that could have been said about any point in time.

O'BRIEN: Yeah. I think to some extent, it's coincidental that all these things are happening at the same time. On the other hand, if we look back over the last five years, I think we can say it's been a period of unrest, politically, in a number of places - really, since the 2008 financial crisis. So before this round of protests, of course, we had the upswing in right-wing populism. You had the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the Brexit vote in the U.K. So I think there's been a lot of political discontent bubbling in quite a few countries.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What role does social media play in this? - because in the large protests that you've mentioned - in the Arab Spring, for example - social media had a huge role. Is there, like, a contagion effect, almost, that social media provides?

O'BRIEN: I don't see evidence that people in one place are referencing the demonstrations in other places. But I think social media does play a role in two slightly different ways. So one is it really assists people in mobilizing using different technologies, allows people to connect to each other. But the other way I think it's important is that social media allows people to see what the elite are doing and how the elite are living. So you know, when they're suffering cuts to transportation or to food subsidies, at the same time, they can see their leaders dining at lavish restaurants or taking private jets to entertainment venues around the world. So I think it kind of heightens the inequality because you're able to see what different groups in society are able to do or afford.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that I think has also been very interesting is that so many of the governments have reacted with repression, violent force. And those images get broadcast everywhere. How do you think governments have been grappling with this, by and large?

O'BRIEN: Yeah. No, I think that's right. I mean, the way that governments have responded is they've been trying, in some cases, to censor social media to try and prevent news from getting out. So for example, one case that we haven't really spoken about is in Kashmir in India, where the Indian government has been very successful in preventing the flow of news out of Kashmir and blocking the Internet and blocking telephone lines.

Those kinds of tactics, of course, are also what happens in China. The problem for China is that they don't control Hong Kong as much as they would like to. And so those media images still get out of Hong Kong, which I think then prevents them from enforcing the kind of crackdown that they would on the mainland.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the protests that has really caught my eye is in Australia. The prime minister there threatened to outlaw the climate protests that have been taking place after activists tried to blockade a mining conference and there were clashes with police. Considering that it is a global problem - climate change - is that something that you anticipate will become more prevalent, especially in Western countries?

O'BRIEN: Yes, I think it will become more prevalent because on the one hand, climate change is only going to get worse because we haven't taken effective action on it. And on the other hand, more and more people are getting concerned about it. In addition, there's many governments who just aren't taking it seriously. So you mentioned in Australia - is a good case. Australia is being battered by climate change. On the other hand, the government and the major fossil fuel companies are refusing to do anything about climate change.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last question - we have a lot of unhappy people in the United States - same things - growing income inequality, a hugely polarized electorate. Why aren't Americans out on the streets in massed and sustained demonstrations, in your view?

O'BRIEN: Well, I mean, I think you have seen Americans on the street over the last number of years. I mean, it's not that long ago that there was the Tea Party. That's a different orientation of political protest. You had the Occupy Wall Street movement. You have the Black Lives Matter movement. You have the #MeToo movement, the women's movement, the climate march. So I think you actually do have quite a few groups that are engaged in active protest and taking to the street. And with the United States being so polarized, one side or the other is going to be unhappy with forthcoming elections, so I think you can expect more protests.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Robert O'Brien is a political science professor at McMaster University. Thank you very much.

O'BRIEN: Thank you very much.

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