In 2011, TIME Magazine named “The Protester” as its Person of the Year. This was due to the protests that began with a fruit seller in Tunisia lighting himself on fire, fed up with the oppressive government and military. From there, protests spread to Egypt, taking down President Hosni Mubarak, Syria, causing a civil war that continues to tear apart the nation today, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and then spread to Europe. In Greece, protestors rallied against the economic crisis. In New York City, the Occupy Wall Street brought attention to the staggering inequalities our nation faces. In Mexico, India, and Chile, men and women protested against the crime and corruption of their governments. Around the world, protests shaped the media and the foreign policies of nearly every nation. 2011 was certainly the Year of the Protester.
2011 was not the only year of the protester, however. Though TIME did not name the protester as its 2014 Person of the Year, it is evident that protests shaped the nearly past year. Incidents such as the disputed shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the death of Eric Garner at the hands of an NYPD officer, and uprisings and a coup d’etat in Burkina Faso, and the protests they sparked raised even more questions about freedom and human rights. These questions have not been answered because there are no easy answers, but let’s take a look at some of this year’s major protests:
Staten Island, New York
On July 17th, Officer Daniel Pantaleo attempted to arrest Staten Island resident Eric Garner for selling cigarettes without tax stamps. A struggled ensued, during which Officer Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold around his neck in an effort to bring him to the ground. Down on the ground, Garner is said to have repeated eleven times “I can’t breathe.” While being transported to Richmond University Medical Center, Eric Garner suffered a heart attack and was pronounced dead on arrival. At his funeral on July 23rd, Reverend Al Sharpton delivered an intense speech, calling for harsher punishment for the officers who put Garner in the chokehold that was determined to have caused his death. The New York City Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Garner’s death a homicide as a result of the chokehold and protests against excessive police brutality, especially against black men, began to spread and take hold. On December 3rd, a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict Officer Pantaleo on federal charges, and the protests grew. Protestors used phrases such as #icantbreathe and held “die-ins” to condemn excessive police brutality.
In August of this year, a confrontation between a black teenager named Michael Brown and a white police officer named Darren Wilson, led to Michael Brown’s devastating death. A candlelight vigil held in his memory later turned violent as a few protestors became unruly and local police stations deployed officers to the scene of the vigil. Businesses were looted and vandalised and police used tear gas and riot gear to disperse the crowd. Actions between the two groups quickly escalated and accounts of arrests of reporters covering the protests emerged, as well, calling First Amendment rights into question. A State of Emergency was later declared and the National Guard was even called in to assist with crowd dispersement. On November 24th, 2014, a Grand Jury made up of nine white individuals and three black individuals decided that Officer Wilson would not be indicted on federal charges, and the city erupted anew. Officers allege that the violence they saw following the grand jury decision was even worse than the violence following the shooting, with dozens of buildings burned to the ground, arrests, and the vandalism of several police cruisers. The protests became viral on social media and spread beyond Ferguson with such phrases as #blacklivesmatter and #handsupdontshoot becoming popular.
Burkina Faso is a tiny landlocked country in West Africa with a population of just over 17.3 million people. A former French colony, it gained its independence in February of 1960, and has undergone many governmental changes and periods of unrest since then. Today it is a semi-presidential republic. In 1987, after its third coup d’etat in five years, President Blaise Compaoré, organiser of the coup, took office and has been president ever since. In October of this year, protestors began rallying against President Compaoré’s allegedly corrupt government, and the fact that Burkina Faso remains one of the world’s least developed countries. President Compaoré showed signs of trying to extend his 27-year rule, and protestors responded by burning the parliament building on October 30th. Parliament suspended its vote that would determine if President Compaoré would be allowed to stand for re-election, and the military dissolved all government institutions. The next day, President Compaoré resigned and the country is in a transitional phase, with elections planned for 2015.
Protests have certainly evolved in recent years, thanks to technological development that links each end of the globe through social media and the internet. Protests are able to gain traction and spread, thanks to these links, which is why we have seen sweeping protest movements in the last decade, such as the Arab Spring and protests against police brutality and race relations. Protests are no longer isolated incidents, and it is evident that single incidents have the potential now more than ever to spread around the world and touch more individuals than ever before.