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Sunday Lounge | ‘Why aren’t you listening to us?’

Causes varied, but 2020 saw unprecedented protests around the world

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters during a rally on 15 September. (Getty Images)

This year, we weren’t just shaken up by an invisible virus, but also by the constant loud noise outside our windows for change. As some looked for sourdough starters, wore yoga leggings, logged in to Zoom calls and prayed for the recovery of a loved one from covid-19—all within the confines of their homes—protesters around the world braved water cannons, tear gas, police batons, even rubber bullets, to challenge attitudes, policies and systems.

Why was a harmless black man killed by the police? Why are some residents of a country suddenly foreigners? Why is free speech being curbed? Why are abortions being banned? Why aren’t medical staff, working non-stop, getting salaries?

India was rocked by protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act earlier this year.
India was rocked by protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act earlier this year. (Getty)

If governments believed the covid-19 restrictions would deter protests, they couldn’t have been more wrong. People took to the streets in countries around the world—and many more took to the internet. Social media has de-territorialised solidarity, says sociologist Sanjay Srivastava . “Internet has opened people to the whole world; they can make their voice reach anywhere,” he adds. And they are running out of patience.

Polish women in bloodstained white robes and wreaths on their heads marched through the streets of Lwówek Śląski on 1 December, demanding an end to anti-abortion laws.
Polish women in bloodstained white robes and wreaths on their heads marched through the streets of Lwówek Śląski on 1 December, demanding an end to anti-abortion laws. (Getty)

“You have to raise your voice to remind leaders that they were chosen to work in the country’s interest, not theirs, even if it needs to be done in the middle of a pandemic,” says Siddhartth Taara, 31, a resident doctor at Delhi’s Hindu Rao Hospital. In September-October, Dr Taara took part in protests demanding salaries for medical staff who had not been paid for months. Following a five-day hunger strike, they got three months’ dues—but they haven’t received salaries since October. “It’s frustrating. We have our dreams, our expectations, which we are not able to solidify in this present political climate. We live in a democratic country. We will continue to shout, ‘Why aren’t you listening to us?’, till they respond. Our jobs didn’t end with casting the vote,” says Dr Taara.

Nigerians, corporations and celebrities across the world came together to demand the country’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars), widely accused of unlawful arrests, torture and murder, be wound up. It was eventually dismantled in October.
Nigerians, corporations and celebrities across the world came together to demand the country’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars), widely accused of unlawful arrests, torture and murder, be wound up. It was eventually dismantled in October. (Getty)

Protests were a running theme binding the world. The US saw rallies on Black Lives Matter, Nigerians spoke up against police brutality, Indians demanded the scrapping of the Citizenship (Amendment Act) and new farm laws, the Poles protested anti-abortion laws, Hong Kong residents took to the streets to voice public anger with Beijing. Youth emerged as digital activists in their fight for a more just world—one with greater economic, environmental, social and racial justice.

A protester during a March demonstration in California, US, demanding justice after Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, was shot dead by police in the backyard of his grandparents’ home.
A protester during a March demonstration in California, US, demanding justice after Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, was shot dead by police in the backyard of his grandparents’ home. (Getty)

Since June, Atlanta’s Abigail Thomas, 25, has been taking part in the Black Lives Matter movement protests, reignited after a white police officer in the US knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 7 minutes, 46 seconds, killing him. “Inequalities in the world are increasing. It’s getting difficult to breathe. Almost every day, we face discrimination because of our skin… still…despite these protests. How long more?” she asks. “And this is happening not just in the US, but across the world.”

Protests in the Chilean capital, Santiago, over growing inequality, healthcare costs and poor funding of education saw demands for the resignation of the president.
Protests in the Chilean capital, Santiago, over growing inequality, healthcare costs and poor funding of education saw demands for the resignation of the president. (Getty)

“In the past decade, there’s a greater sense that one could question. People used to think that state could only do good. That it is Mother India. But now state actions are being questioned. And people are so tired and frustrated that they are ready to come out in the middle of a pandemic,” says Srivastava.

Demonstrators in Bangkok, Thailand, used inflatable rubber ducks to protect themselves from water cannons during an anti-government protest in November.
Demonstrators in Bangkok, Thailand, used inflatable rubber ducks to protect themselves from water cannons during an anti-government protest in November. (Reuters)

“The youth worldwide wants to remind leaders that they are the caretakers of the people who elected them,” he says.

Will leaders listen?

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