Getty Images

Anti-government protesters in Serbia.

Perhaps not since the 1960s has the world witnessed so many large-scale demonstrations. In Iran, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Bolivia, Britain, Iraq, Haiti, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Spain, Algeria, Sudan, and other countries, vast throngs of protesters have taken to the streets to decry corruption, authoritarianism, and economic stagnation. The repercussions for the dissenters have included numerous cases of injury, imprisonment, and death.

The protest movements of 2019 and now into 2020 aren’t directly connected to one another, but the demonstrators—often younger people—share the belief that the older generations in power fail to appreciate the “fierce urgency of the now,” as the Rev. Dr.  Martin Luther King, Jr. once put it, or as Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s global environmental activism currently reflects.

“Although there’s really no definitive historical data to say for sure, it’s entirely plausible that we are seeing the greatest effusion of nonviolent mass movements in history,” says John Gershman, clinical professor of public service and director of International Capstone Programs at NYU Wagner.

NYU News asked Gershman, who launched and for 13 years has hosted the school’s popular Conflict, Security & Development discussions (continuing Feb. 4, Feb. 25, and March 3) and teaches on international development and policy, to explain the global groundswell of civil disobedience.

What has propelled so many around the globe this year to hit the streets in protest—even, as in Iran, where protesters risk a severe governmental response?

While a number of the protests share commonalities, there’s not one particular theme, issue or structural condition that can be said to be pushing all of them forward. Civil protest in Chile was driven by a transit fare increase, privatization, and inequality. In Lebanon, demonstrators have been responding to limited job opportunities and disenchantment with the sect-based political order. Iraq’s failures to deliver elemental public services helped spark successful demands for a new government. Ecuador’s outbursts were a response to government austerity measures. Bolivia’s demonstrations followed allegations of electoral fraud. In Iran, rising gas prices stirred political unrest, met with a government crackdown. In Hong Kong, concerns about authoritarianism fueled months of mass activism.

What’s different about these protests compared to the large wave of political and social upheavals notable in the 1960s?

The issues are wider in scope, and people are responding, I think, to a dystopian perception of their future rather than demanding, in effect, a share of potential prosperity, as many protesters did in the ’60s. Today’s movements also reflect growing conflict over increased use of state surveillance. In Iran, the government basically shut down the Internet to demobilize opposition. At the same time, protesters in Hong Kong showed heightened awareness that they’re being tracked: they’ve used masks and umbrellas in defiance of facial recognition technology and have been creative in thwarting things like tear gas.

Is their tech savvy perhaps a sign that most of these demonstrations worldwide are predominantly youth-driven?

We don’t have a total picture of them, but they seem to be. The younger people are kind of the foot soldiers. Certainly, this was the case in Chile, where Pinochet is a historical figure for younger protesters. In Iran, the protesters are essentially the children of the Islamic revolution, not thinking back to the Shah. Theirs is a different vision of what’s possible and what’s acceptable. They don’t remember “the bad old days” when “things were much worse.”

The majority of protests also appear to be nonviolent.

We have a reasonably robust set of evidence that they are—though there may be small groups of people who commit violence or destroy property, and there may be counter-demonstrators who provoke or employ violence. But protesters recognize that it is part of their movement’s strength and legitimacy to be nonviolent.

Who is this generation’s Gandhi or King?

One of the things that’s different about the vast majority of these movements is that very few of them have overt leaders whose names everyone knows. They are much more leaderless. This is partially a response to efforts at governmental suppression of movements, but it’s also a cultural shift toward organizing styles that are more open-source and decentralized. This isn’t a generation that has grown up reading books by the 19th-century Russian anarchists. Instead, it seems to have embodied, just by natural practice or by mimicking other, more-explicitly leaderless movements, that this is the right way to do things. And this has posed a particular challenge to governments: there is no one you can buy off or put in prison to cut the legs out from under the movement—and no one, on the other hand, with whom you can really negotiate.

Do you ever feel unsettled by the unrest and instability?

Well, if you take climate change as an example, there’s not yet the sense of governments responding with the urgency or emergency the situation absolutely demands. I’m nervous about that. The protest movements, in contrast, make me feel hopeful. The alternative to all of this is for people to sit home, throw up their hands and watch the Kardashians, or whatever, and just say to themselves: “The world is going to hell and that’s the way it is; you can’t do anything about it.” That so many people are out there risking their lives in the belief, in the faith, that there’s something better that they can build together, is incredibly moving to me.