The Power of the Crowd in the Internet Age

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© Oinegue

March 01, 2017 06:53 EDT

We are witnessing the continuing relevance of public protest in the age of internet.

I can still remember the thunder of police horses in Grosvenor Square, the chaos, the anger and the fear, the visceral hatred for the United States and its pointless, bullying and brutal war against the Vietnamese people. My 14-year-old sister was with our mother, a veteran of the May Day demonstrations in the 1930s and 1940s, who explained how a handful of marbles could be used as protection when thrown under the thundering hooves.

My mother had been arrested by the police during the late 1950s in South Africa, where she moved after the war to be with my father. There, she had driven through the police lines after they had stopped her car: In it was a brave group of South Africans who were part of the bus boycott ignited by a steep rise in the fares that were a financial disaster to the impoverished Africans who had to travel from the townships many miles outside Johannesburg to work. Moreover, they could only move with an official pass and were hounded and harassed at every turn.

Hundreds of thousands walked the 22 miles to protest the fare hikes, and honorable white people like my mother Jenny drove as many as they could to save them the long walk. The boycotters had to endure this long march after a hard day of work back to the bleak townships bereft of electricity, sewage systems or any decent infrastructure. Her patience snapped when an elderly woman was harassed and forced to unpack her box of meagre possessions, and so the next police line, the next petty harassment of the bus boycotters became the last straw. My mother drove through the police line and ended up being arrested and facing a frightening punishment—a possible death sentence for threatening the life of a police officer.

There is a great photo of her remonstrating with a baton-wielding officer. Of course, in apartheid South Africa her white skin provided protection and she escaped with a fine. The bus boycotters were successful and the fare hikes delayed.

Later, a peaceful demonstration at Sharpeville in 1960 to protest the pass books forced on every African turned to tragedy as 69 innocent citizens were gunned down. The incident ignited outraged protests and demonstrations across South Africa, where a state of emergency was declared and the African National Congress (ANC) banned, and the world, drawing a condemnation from the United Nations (UN).

Keeping Up the Pressure

The power of the crowd and the dedication of demonstrators was a vital part of the long, hard battle to end the cruel apartheid regime, where people were denied rights on the basis of the color of their skin—a highly organized and articulated system written into law and discriminating against people in every conceivable area of life, from whom you were allowed to love to where you could live.

For the South African people, the constant vigils outside the country’s embassies around the world and at sport events were vital in keeping the pressure and attention on the apartheid regime. In South Africa itself, the courage of the crowd was evident in so many ways, and in particular the extraordinary heroism and leadership of young people during the 1976 Soweto uprising when schoolchildren demonstrated against the compulsory introduction of Afrikaans as the main language in all schools. Rejecting that all African children should be deprived of any decent education, they fearlessly marched against the police and the military, their courage burnt into our hearts by the image of the slain schoolboy by the courageous African photographer Sam Nzima.

Back then, these crowds communicated to power through word of mouth by the very risky production of posters and leaflets, and elsewhere the voice of enlightened and brave journalists published in print and shown on TV. In South Africa, airtime was denied to the population lest it become a way for people to know what was happening in their country and the world. The tools of communication are different now in the internet age, but the power of people protesting together is the same.

Protest for the Internet Age

At the Women’s March gathering outside the US Embassy in London, and again at the protests against the Donald Trump visit to the United Kingdom, we have witnessed the continuing relevance of the demonstration in this internet age.

I remember hearing a brilliant talk a decade ago from Gene Hashmi, a Greenpeace digital guru running a campaign to save the olive ridley sea turtle from a damaging development driven by the steel company TATA. He had designed the whole campaign to be digital only, but he had to learn from early failure—that to bring it to life and save the lives of these rare turtles he had to design some real-life opportunities for people to create a connection, a crowd and chance to share their passion for these precious creatures. As he himself put it: You have to have offline/online integration.

The extraordinary convening power of the internet age gave us, at the point of Trump’s inauguration, the power of the crowd in awesome numbers across the world. But it also had the handmade, creative brilliance of the pink pussy hats. It still required the human effort to get on coaches, into cars and walk to protest Trump’s loathsome attitudes and behavior—an experience my sister’s friend Grace from Minneapolis who, at 70 years of age, having traveled on a coach for 15 hours, described as life-changing.

In London, the distances were smaller but the creativity, the diversity and the sheer chutzpah were awesome. Nearly all the posters handcrafted inventive, funny, rude, cheeky, feisty and challenging signs, and the pink hats conceived in the US were embraced and given a British twist. As one protester sign proclaimed: “This pussy bites back”—with rather a graphic image.

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There is a thrilling new freedom in the power of the crowd both in the speed in which it can be convened and in the energy of events grown without any “central committee” curation. The impromptu Downing Street protest against the Muslim Ban and against Trump’s state visit called by journalist Owen Jones saw a crowd of at least 10,000 in London alone, with demonstrators fashioning placards from old bit of cardboard outside Westminster Station after work. I went with my Iranian-British friend Shabby who works for a charity that works internationally to address extreme poverty and now fears for her ability to visit vital US-based institutions.

Enthused by the people and the placards, longing for one of her own who turned to me: “Now I want to demonstrate for climate change next, can you advise?” Well yes! I sure can.

As a veteran protester, it warms the heart to see so many young people in this new wave. Without them we are lost. Though hats go off to the old ladies, whether they be the Angry Birds demonstrating against the attacks on disabled people and budget cuts—or the noble, older women’s group in Cameroon, who a few years ago were campaigning on land rights and threatened the local government that if their demands were not met, they (these septuagenarians) would strip naked and march down the main street. Guess what, dear reader, they won.

Getting Organized

I have witnessed the striking signs of how the demonstrations and campaigns of the future will look. In 2016, after the tragic picture of the death of 3-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, was published, many people felt desperate to show their solidarity with refugees and their anger with an uncaring government. I felt it too, and wondered if anything was being planned. Shortly afterward, a very amateur and scruffy Facebook message was shared around. There was no official logo or branding and I was not sure at all if it was “legitimate.” But I trusted the woman who had sent it—a doughty campaigner Belinda Calaguas whom I knew from ActionAid days—and it suggested meeting at Marble Arch in a couple weeks’ time, so I duly shared the post and determined to go.

As the days passed, the reminders started to look smarter with better graphics and design, but still no branding or logos. I spoke to colleagues at Care International who decided to support it. My own human network was all going, and when we arrived I noticed again an absence of official banners or signage and wondered who had “called” the demo.

It was full of families and friendliness and lots of homemade banners. It was also really big: Many thousands marched off to fill Parliament Square for the rally. The mystery deepened until a young woman, Ros Ereria, took to the stage and explained that she had called for the demo on Facebook expecting friends and family to come.

When she got 90,000 “likes,” she decided to approach the big campaigning groups for help. This is such an interesting change: Instead of Amnesty International or Oxfam inviting an individual to join their demo, Ros was inviting them to join hers. She explained to the rally that she did not belong to any party or organization, but as an independent citizen she had acted—an inspiring demonstration of disintermediation.

The connections that happen offline are critical to the networks happening online—they need to feed each other and not to be seen as better or worse. Nor does the learning or creativity stay in one or the other part of the mix. The value and relationships created through the powerful demonstrations during the Occupy Movement have informed and fueled the uprising of this phase of dynamic and spontaneous protest, the human megaphone, the handmade and authentic, the brave attempts to partner inventively are all honorable legacies. Our ideas and determination have been inspired by everything from Tahir Square to the Nuit debout in France and the courage of the Black Lives Matter movement—all shared links.

Ida Susser, professor of anthropology at Hunter College, has studied these new movements and sees the vivid connectedness: “Rather than the end of identity politics, we see a melding of specific struggles, and the establishment in the moment of alliances leading to mutual trust. Since neoliberalism is broad-based in its assaults on the public welfare, the commons has evolved as a way to address multiple assaults together.”

Viewed through the new and the old style media, these all create a complex weave, difficult to always describe or organize, but a vital part of a powerful trajectory of anger, determination and resistance that needs to remain vigilant, endlessly inventive, responsive and creative.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Eugenio Marongiu 

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