‘Facebook and Twitter help you to know how many people think like you’, Human Rights defender and journalist Steve Crawshaw said last week at the Frontline Club launch of his book Street Spirit: The Power of Protest and Mischief. With social media, you can foresee how many people will show up at a protest. In Poland, during the censorship and authoritarianism of the 1980s, you couldn’t know how many people shared your political frustration. You couldn’t even precisely know whether there was any protest going on in another part of your own country.
Now news of protests travels across the world instantly. If 20 years ago governments could deny that protest or violence by the police was happening, the internet – Crawshaw argues – makes it much harder to suppress the truth: ‘Protest in places like Poland was more like Chinese whispers, maybe it happened, maybe not’.
Crawshaw himself experienced highlights of history and mass protests as a journalist in the 1980s and 1990s – the Solidarnost’ protests in Poland, the Czech Velvet Revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall and, in China, the protests in Tiananmen Square. He tells the story of 50 such events, including those mentioned above, in his book, arguing that social media is the biggest difference between the way things worked back then and how they do now.
Although hashtag protests get a lot of sarcastic comments on their futility, Crawshaw – a self-declared idealist and optimist – believes that technology doesn’t act as a full substitute for protest, rather as a complement to it. If the outrage is great enough, those people posting on Twitter and Facebook will go out on the streets, as with the Arab Spring. And the armchair critics will stay armchair critics, whether discontent is expressed online or off.
But how do protests work? Why do some succeed and others fail? Here is Crawshaw’s recipe:
1. Persist. The Czechoslovakian protests started from 2,500 people. Quoting Ai Weiwei, Crawshaw insisted on the motto “never retreat but retweet”.
2. Focus on the one thing you want to achieve.
3. Keep the coalition broad. Try to unite as many people as possible while things are fragile. Once they stabilise, you can quarrel and go for your own platform.
4. Stay non-violent. Crawshaw claimed there was statistical evidence it was more effective than the alternative.
Instead of violence, humour can be essential in attracting more people and spreading solidarity and unity. One instance Crawshaw remembered was the Sudanese protesters in 2012. When President Omar Al-Bashir called the opponents trying to overthrow him ‘elbow-lickers’ – i.e. attempting the impossible – the more physically flexible among the protesters posted pictures of themselves licking this part of their anatomy.
5. Be brave. Crawshaw praised the people he’s interviewed. ‘They had the courage I would never show. But they always had the same answer when I asked them how they did it. People who have done something crazily courageous would just say: “What else could I have done? That was all I could do.’”
If it all sounds too optimistic for words, Crawshaw has a few answers in store. He paraphrased Vlaclav Havel, the Velvet Revolution leader who later became President of the Czech Republic, saying ‘Who knows what will happen? But you live according to what you would rather happen…. It’s true that we don’t know what will happen, but world pressures and local pressures do create change. The message is: nothing is impossible.’
While one shares Crawshaw’s optimism – recognising that political engagement is a duty as well as a wonderful way for communities to come together – the recipe won’t always work. Though necessary, it’s not sufficient in itself.
Just as the author acknowledged, fatigue and government repression often bring protests to an (undesired) end. We must surely keep hoping, but also remember to complement protests in other ways: through petitions, legal lobby, community work and a fierce scrutiny of government-actions. It’s hard work but if we don’t do it, who will?
Street Spirit: The Power of Protest and Mischief was part of the ongoing programme of talks, lectures, panels and screenings at London’s Frontline Club. Steve Crawshaw’s book is available from Amazon, priced £14.88.