By Lionel Bopage –
Thank you for inviting me to speak at this solidarity forum. First let me pay my respects to the Elders past, present and emerging of the traditional custodians of Australia. Also, my deepest respect and admiration to the peaceful protestors in Sri Lanka and wish the people and the protest movement all the best in achieving their objectives.
Protest movements have existed throughout the world whenever people were oppressed. Common tactics across the ages have included boycott, which comes from the Irish struggle against British colonialism; hunger strike, which has deep historical roots in India and Ireland, and widely used in the U.K.; nonviolent direct action devised by Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa and India; and civil rights movement in the US led by Martin Luther King, Jr. They led to the overthrowing of many unjust systems, including the global colonial order and racial discrimination.
Sri Lanka is no stranger to mass protests. The Gota-Go-Home movement was born with a Twitter hashtag and a dispersed and decentralised leadership. The mix includes centralised organisations like political parties. Among the protesters were nationalists, liberals, progressives and revolutionaries. Their social goals differ. They differ in world outlooks and the depth of social changes they like to achieve. However, they all want a change in governance, social values and the prevalent untenable political culture – through policy, regulatory or social interventions.
Among the changes they have proposed, there are many overlaps as evidenced by the 6 point action plan launched five days ago. This consensus could bring shared values and norms among them to the fore, and may prevent behaviours that could embarrass the movement or provide excuses for their opponents to attack.
Negotiations between a dispersed movement and centralised organisations are always complex and difficult. For example, about the ‘national question’ there are disagreements echoed by some established entities who adhere to their party line, even if they have no personal knowledge of the real causes or the historical context of the issues concerned.
Several prominent media personnel had totally identified themselves with the current protests. They rejected certain established organisations exercising any influence over the protests. They have identified the protests as “adeshapalanika”(non-political) and “nirpaakshika”(non-partisan). Currently some call themselves “sarvapakshika”(wholly partisan). This appears to be a misconception in depicting the crisis.
Their objective is to safeguard the interests of the middle to lower classes, and hence, a better term would be “janatha pakshika” or “pro-people”. That does not mean the majority is always right in their decisions. Otherwise, how could a vast majority elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president? Or Adolf Hitler as German leader?
When protests were intensifying, two political groups wanted to join the protests, but the “nirpaakshikas” raised strong objections, even physically threatening to prevent their entry. This appeared to be a misstep. There will be ongoing issues when one entity attempts to impose its identity, leadership and coordination over the whole protest movement.
An attempt for a general strike became ineffective as some unions pulled out. When Mr Ranil Wickramasinghe was sworn in as Prime Minister, the protest movement appeared weakened to some extent. However, it regained its strength by regrouping in a different configuration.
Protest movements by their very nature cannot be sustained for long, as they need massive inputs of resources and commitment. They do not have the structures for sustenance, and yet the mindset of protesters everywhere is not to stop until all demands are met.
Protest movements usually raise issues that were not previously on the political agenda. The Gota-Go-Home movement have placed the abolition of executive presidency, formulating a people-centered constitution and removal of Rajapaksas from power as their primary goals. Senior bureaucrats who helped them to mismanage, corrupt, and acquiring ill-gotten assets have resigned. Still there is a long way to go.
Crucially, when repression escalates, can protest movements sustain and survive? Would leader lessness turn them uncontrollable? And is lack of centralized leadership a weakness or strength? My view is that it could be a strength or a weakness, depending on the context.
During the last seven decades, the issue of state brutality and failure to hold it accountable has been central to the reoccurring violent episodes that darkened the history of Sri Lanka. Technology was not advanced enough to record what happened during those campaigns of terror. If the technology and social media at the time were advanced, the versions painted about the struggles would have been different.
Leaderless movements have become more common worldwide. In Hong Kong, protesters adopted the famous quote: “Be formless and shapeless like water”, hoping that would make a movement impossible to suppress. They formed spontaneous rallies, roadblocks, and sit-ins. However, the protest movement appears entirely decimated.
In such movements, some participants may use tactics not endorsed by the majority. Authorities will crack down on protests with or without leaders. A lack of a leader may aggravate tensions and violence when no one guides them during confrontations. In many parts of the world, demonstrations have turned considerably deadly under such situations.
However, leaderless protests isn’t something new if we look at grassroots protests like Occupy Wall Street in the US, and anti-austerity demonstrations in Greece and Spain. Technology has enabled leaderless protests in a way that was not possible previously and allowed dissemination of protest strategies with communications occurring horizontally rather than vertically, thus bypassing the traditional top-down, hierarchical structures.
Black Lives Matter has shunned centralized governance as it may make the movement vulnerable. If there are leaders, the state machine will focus on them, detain, denigrate and kill them or make them disappear. Protests with no leaders will be more difficult to repress.
I can remember the hundreds of bodies that floated in Sri Lanka’s Kelani river in 1971. Thousands of youth were executed or buried in many a mass grave all over the island for their socio-political beliefs. Similarly, in the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles in 1965, many were killed and injured, and yet it was branded as a “justifiable homicide”. Today, rubber bullets have replaced lead bullets in curbing, and extremely harmful chemicals are being used in gassing demonstrators. Missiles and bombs are used to annihilate entire populations supporting protests, as happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Chechnya and Ukraine. In any sense, the future looks very bleak.
Now let me discuss some aspects of the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements.
The #BlackLivesMatter was created in 2013 and it leapt from social media “into the streets”. It engendered a spirited but decentralised movement. Black Lives Matter was the most recognizable expression of widespread black outrage against police brutality and racist violence. It demanded equality in the treatment of the lives and humanity of black people and white people, and went onto address larger questions of social inequity.
The movement was a rallying cry to have honest conversations about racism. Its decentralised nature, pluralist leadership and flexibility in responding to the ground situation appeared to be both its strength and weakness. However, it lost some credibility when a local leader appeared to encourage looting – illustrating the weakness in allowing anyone to speak for a whole movement.
Black Lives Matter did not have a single charismatic leader, but led by black women. Most of the grass-roots activists had been personally affected by mass incarceration or had encounters of police brutality. Its real success lies in popularizing radical discourse and providing a vibrant model of democratic and inclusive participation and bringing perpetrators to justice.
Would the porous internet-based organizational structures provide secure spaces where tactics and strategies can be debated and selected, and to maintain discipline? If protesters are not executing a planned tactic in a coordinated and disciplined manner, how could they succeed? If a certain course of action is found to be faulty, how could they rectify? Only time will tell.
MeToo was also born as a hashtag movement. Scandals in the film industry, primarily in Hollywood brought the movement to widespread attention. #MeToo was created to raise awareness of the pervasiveness and damaging impact of sexual violence.
It was an attempt by a movement of survivors and supporters in gender spectrum to expose and end sexual violence and harassment. This forced a conversation about the intersection of gender and power and raised awareness of the scale of violence and harassment as never before. It has exposed some of the conditions that promote gender-based violence.
One of the defining moments of the #MeToo movement was the case of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who was sentenced to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing more than 100 young athletes. Michigan State University, where he was a sports medicine physician, created a $500 million settlement fund, possibly the largest such fund ever created by a university in response to a sexual abuse case.
Yet, we need to acknowledge that despite all their respective successes, they still have a long road ahead.
Wherever injustice exists, struggles will arise to abolish it. Communities will continue to organize these weapons of the oppressed and will become more effective through trial and error. However, they need to do more and run faster, illuminating the paths that movements should traverse in their journeys to liberate those who suffer.