A Year of Protest

“A year of protest” doesn’t exactly have positive connotations, yet 2020 most definitely was full of protest, and it is hard to say that we ended up worse for it.

Most people in the United States and United Kingdom will immediately think back to the summer protests against police brutality, sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The whole world looked on to see a country writhing in an uncomfortable reckoning with pervasive systemic racism. Society questioned its reliance on the police to solve our collective problems.

According to a Morning Consult poll conducted in mid-June 2020, 87 percent of Britons said they had seen, read, or heard “a lot” or “some” coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests across the pond. This awareness isn’t that surprising considering the size of the movement and the media coverage dedicated to it. As reported in the New York Times, four different U.S. polls estimate participation in the June 2020 BLM protests to be in the range of 15 million to 26 million people, about 4.5 to 7.9 percent of the U.S. population, perhaps the largest social movement in U.S. history. Yet the majority of adults in the United States and Britain remain largely uninformed about protests elsewhere in the world.

Beginning in late May 2020, the ongoing political demonstrations and protests in Belarus against President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime have become the largest anti-government protests in the country’s history. On August 23, a rally of approximately 250,000 people packed into Minsk’s Independence Square—more than protested for the country’s independence in 1990. Over the entire country, estimates put the number of protesters out that day at 500,000—about 1 in 20 Belarusians were in the streets, a similar participation level to the U.S. protests. Western news coverage of the day was paltry.

The same can be said for student-led protests in Thailand: up to 100,000 Thai protesters gathered on September 19, 2020, to demand an end to Internet censorship, human rights abuses, lèse majesté law (under which an “insult” against the monarch comes with a 15-year prison sentence), and the abolition of the military-appointed senate. Few U.S. media outlets covered the protests with much depth after the first rallies.

Protesters in Poland continue to demand the reversal of a constitutional court ruling in October 2020 that effectively imposes a near total ban on abortion in a nation that already had some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. Following the ruling, a week of large-scale demonstrations ensued, with the police estimating that 430,000 people attended more than 400 protests around the country, the largest in Poland since the collapse of communism in 1989.

End SARS, the Nigerian protests against police brutality and political corruption (specifically targeting the notoriously abusive Special Anti-Robbery Squad), reignited for weeks during October 2020, expanding into the largest popular resistance the government has faced in years. Although their demand for the dissolution of SARS was met within days, government plans to merely reassign the unit as well as the announcement of a new Special Weapon and Tactics Team (SWAT) have shifted the focus of the movement, which continues today.

Maltese protests that started in November 2019 spilled over into 2020, mainly calling for the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Governmental influence on the judiciary and Muscat’s alleged role in the 2017 murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia motivated up to 4,000 protesters to surround the Maltese Parliament building in Valetta. Muscat announced his resignation amid the protests, and stepped down in January 2020.

Learning about these extraordinary yet commonplace examples from around the world, I recognize that the right to protest, no matter who you are and no matter what for, is extremely important and must be protected. But what’s equally important is how these events are depicted by the media and that the reports are accurate and free from censorship.

Both conservative and liberal outlets have been guilty of reporting without due diligence, poor journalistic ethics, and spreading blatant lies in their headlines. Greed and profit are often to blame: polarising, sensationalist articles get more clicks and feed into mainstream media’s bottom line. 90 percent of U.S. media is controlled by a handful of giant corporations. One of the most effective ways to ensure access to high-quality, unbiased reporting is to support smaller, independent newspapers and journalists. Local media outlets are far more likely to cover news related to the immediate community, and report on stories that mainstream media outlets deem too risky.

In 1917, Meeting for Sufferings (the executive body for Britain Yearly Meeting) issued a statement in response to a recently passed regulation that required the submission of pamphlets regarding the war to the British Censor prior to distribution. The following year the yearly meeting’s Friends Service Committee produced a pamphlet called A Challenge to Militarism and refused to submit it to the censor. The committee’s chair and treasurer were imprisoned for six months, and the secretary was fined and imprisoned for three months. The opening paragraph of the statement, published in the British Quaker book of discipline under the section on social responsibility, is a prescient narration for our present-day challenges a century later:

The executive body of the Society of Friends, after serious consideration, desires to place on record its conviction that the portion of the recent regulation requiring the submission to the censor of all leaflets dealing with the present war and the making of peace is a grave danger to the national welfare. The duty of every good citizen to express his thoughts on the affairs of his country is hereby endangered, and further we believe that Christianity requires the toleration of opinions not our own, lest we should unwittingly hinder the workings of the Spirit of God.

Freedom of speech, religion, and the press and the right to peaceable assembly are extremely interdependent. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is violated if reports that criticize the government have been subject to prior restraint; the right to freely assemble is jeopardized if the ability to organize through the Internet is eliminated. These may seem unrelated to Quaker ideals—after all, if these tools are only leveled against violent extremists, surely that’s a good thing, right? But such a view is a symptom of glaring historical amnesia.

In 2013, David Miranda was detained without counsel for nine hours at London’s Heathrow airport under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act of 2000, during which officials confiscated various electronics equipment. Miranda is the spouse of U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald, who had recently begun publishing reports about American and British mass surveillance programs based on classified documents provided by Edward Snowden. The Guardian, Greenwald’s employer at the time, subsequently destroyed hard drives containing the Snowden leaks in order to avoid legal action by the UK government that could have stopped their reporting (other copies of the files existed in the United States and Brazil). In 2018, human rights activist Marielle Franco, an outspoken critic of extrajudicial killings and police brutality, was assassinated by government-linked forces in Brazil. More directly related to Quakers, the FBI’s FOIA Library (Freedom of Information Act), freely available online, contains 33 lengthy documents on American Friends Service Committee—held alongside files on Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

The issue of censorship is not limited to just one country or even the state as a concept; it is as endemic in the corporate world and in the culture of personal dispensability we derive from it. Amidst the unrest that unfolded in the days following George Floyd’s death, political data analyst David Shor tweeted a summary and defense of an academic paper on how violent protests have been shown to reduce Democratic vote share; some responded that this position was “tone deaf” and qualified as “concern trolling.” After an internal review by his employer, Shor was fired. Shortly after the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, consumer insight firm Mobilewalla published a report that used secretly collected phone location data to reveal demographics of the protesters in four major U.S. cities. The Associated Press reported in 2016 that Facebook and the Israeli government were working together to “rein in content that Israel says incites violence.” Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said that Facebook had granted some 95 percent of their requests to remove “inciting content,” including the pages for Palestinian Dialogue Network and Jerusalem News Network, and a number of personal accounts for Palestinian activists and journalists.

We must not take our liberties for granted. Quakers acting under concern have always been and will continue to be opposed by those in power. This year I’ve learned that the right of others to freely protest, report news, and speak is inextricably linked to my own right to. I agree wholeheartedly with the Meeting for Sufferings statement: Christianity requires the toleration of opinions other than our own. All over the world, it must be a priority of Friends to preserve and expand these liberties, to ensure we are able to act on our own leadings and others are able to act on theirs.

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