Lauren Lucy Caddell '23
When my family visited Trafalgar Square in London in March 2017, we hadn’t been expecting to find a protest in full swing. People holding signs surrounded the monumental fountain in the middle of the square, and I could make out a few of the slogans. One read “I’m 15 and I want my future back.” The teenager holding the sign stood next to a woman waving the flag of the European Union. Many others waved the EU flag and carried similar signs.
Given that I, at that time, had little experience with political demonstrations, I could not understand until later that this gathering was a protest of Brexit, the process of Great Britain leaving the European Union. Citizens of the UK voted 52 percent to 48 percent in June of 2016 to remove their country from the Union, but controversy followed. Many British citizens argued after the vote had occurred that some Brexit supporters, including some senior government ministers, had spread misinformation about the process and misrepresented some of Brexit’s consequences. Despite the many protests that followed, Brexit was finally carried through in January 2020.
Political protests have spiked globally in the past decade, according to a report by Thomas Carothers and Richard Young at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, especially in countries that have traditionally allowed less freedom of expression such as Syria, Russia, and China. But protests look different depending on whether the country’s government is authoritarian, semi-authoritarian, or democratic. For example, the protests in Hong Kong in 2019 against Chinese involvement in their government were handled in drastically different ways than the protests against Brexit in the UK. While the British government largely allowed the protests to proceed unabated, China’s government went to great measures to put down the Hong Kong protests in fear that they would lead to a rebellion, from a denouncement of the demonstrations and their cause as well as an increase in police violence against protestors.
From this contrast, it is clear that change comes faster when the government is receptive to the public voice. For Hong Kong, this means that even though the government was clearly shaken by the public opposition, little to no meaningful policy change was implemented. In Britain, the Brexit protests slowed down the process by years and forced the UK government to push a more favorable deal with the EU than it would have otherwise. Despite the fact that Brexit was not reversed, it’s clear from these examples that protests might not be the perfect solution, but are extremely effective in democratic societies to make individual voices heard on important issues.
Although protests against government actions often receive a huge amount of media attention, the change they call for sometimes is never fully implemented. This is for several reasons. First, media attention is often fickle and can only be held for so long. For example, with the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. over the summer following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others, the movement dominated media attention for several weeks but faded into the background once public attention moved elsewhere. The second reason is that political reforms, especially drastic change, takes more than a few months to implement. With the example of Black Lives Matter, the calls for the persecution of the officers related to the murders have been half-fulfilled at best, and the reformation of United States law enforcement has not been nationwide.
Though their end goals remain unachieved, the Black Lives Matter protests reintroduced racism, especially by American authorities, as an important and modern national issue. New conversations and policies have led people to hope that one day the U.S. will be a truly inclusive society. This pattern holds true for almost every other government protest and is the reason why protests continue to be so important. Even though protests might not always accomplish their goals immediately, they contribute to long-term change and make the government aware of public demands. Whether we like it or not, protests will continue to be important factors of change around the world in the coming years.