During distinct moments in history, grassroots social movements have marked the political landscape by ushering in periods of change. In the modern period, the events of 1968 and 1989 stand out as ground-breaking ‘protest years’, whereby the momentum of social activism brought about extraordinary political shifts around world.
In the current decade, social mobilisation has once again emerged as an effective tool for instigating political transformation. 2011 alone saw the fall of three autocratic Arab regimes in the ‘Arab Uprisings’, widespread student marches in Latin America and large-scale economic protests in Greece, Italy and Spain. In the United States, the rise of social movements over the past seven years has brought about the Occupy Wall Street movement, the emergence of Black Lives Matter, increasing numbers at annual Pro-Life Rallies, and indeed the enormous grassroots groundswell of support for outsider presidential candidate and now president Donald Trump, whose election caught many pundits off guard.
Whilst parallels do emerge between the demands of each historical movement, each represents a unique contextually-driven agenda. As European historian, Peter N. Stearn, once wrote, ‘the drama of each revolution unfolded separately. Each had its own heroes, its own crisis. Each therefore demands its own narrative’. This quote, originally written in the introduction of a book on the 1948 European Revolutions, has more recently been applied to the 2011 Arab protests, and could perhaps now be suitable for the supposed global rise of the ‘Alt-Right’. Even amongst the specific US movements over the past decade, each drew from individual contexts, experiences and communities.
Reflecting on the recent history of social activism is what renders the 2017 outbreak of protests particularly fascinating. These political protests and social movements, sprouting across the world, do not have their own hero or narrative. Rather, they focus on one central figure: the President of the United States. To some extent, a globalisation of social activism seems to be developing with America at its epicentre.
Just one day after the inauguration of the 45th US President, millions of people around the world joined together under the banner of the ‘Women’s March on Washington’. The Women’s March will stand as an historic instant of civil resistance for several reasons.
Firstly, the scale of the protest in Washington and its sister marches was unprecedented. Commentators suggest it was the largest demonstration in US history, with marches hosted in over 500 US cities with an estimated attendance of more than 3.3 million people.
Secondly, it drew support from a broad base of social, ethnic, cultural, and religious corners of society. According to experts, the success of civil resistance movements is dependent upon such a wide support base. Furthermore, despite the enormity of the movement, the Women’s March was successfully non-violent.
Finally and perhaps most interestingly was its deviance from the more traditional, exclusive narrative of social movements. This was not only a deviation from the recent American history of protests, but in fact the march unified a community of activists across the world focusing on a single political figure.
In the days following the inauguration, the President rapidly signed a series of executive orders that have sparked further calls for civil resistance. On 27 January, President Trump announced a new immigration policy, which issued a 90-day immigration ban for travellers from seven Muslim-majority nations in an effort to stem terrorist infiltration into the States. The public reaction to this policy erupted after returning green card holders were detained in airports that very evening due to their association with the listed countries either via citizenship or travel history.
In response to the executive order, protests and sit-ins developed at airports across the country. Many lawyers were in attendance, offering pro bono legal advice to incoming passengers who had been affected by the policy shift. Whilst the movement was geographically contained to the US, an enormous engagement emerged online. For several days, ‘#MuslimBan’ remained one of the highest trending phrases on Twitter, in addition to company boycott campaigns, global online debate and an array of celebrity commentary.
Reactions to the controversial stream of executive orders delivered by President Trump have not only prompted large-scale grassroots social mobilisation, but have also inspired increasing resistance from the top; be it heads of state (from Canada, Mexico and the Netherlands) or company chiefs (notably AirBnB).
Only days into Trump’s presidency, the outburst of civil resistance resembled an aligned, transnational attempt to disrupt the status quo of American leadership. Of course, it’s too early to predict if the momentum will sustain itself long enough to affect political change. Yet the present circumstances show signs of a new wave of transnational social activism focused on the US.
Chloe Meyer is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.