In Chile, the protests have focused on inequality and corruption. In Lebanon and Iraq, the protests against the countries’ political systems have transcended sectarian lines. While some demonstrations erupted over specific grievances, such as proposed legislation in Indonesia to weaken the country’s anti-corruption agency and reduce the personal freedom of citizens, protests in Haiti, Egypt, and Bolivia have expanded beyond their original aims into calls for their governments to resign.
Even in places where authorities have acceded to some protesters’ demands, the demonstrations are still strong. In Hong Kong, the pro-democracy movement is in its sixth month, driven by widespread concerns about the city’s semiautonomous status and how long it can last. Despite the government’s withdrawal of the unpopular extradition bill that sparked the protest in the first place, the movement’s demands have only grown—and so, too, has the violence. Over the weekend, a barricaded university campus was the scene of some of the most intense clashes since the demonstrations began, as protesters launched archery arrows and Molotov cocktails in response to rubber bullets and tear gas from police. Though the Chinese government warned that further unrest would result in an “unimaginable and dreadful” future for the city, efforts to quell the protests, including mass arrests and a face-mask ban (a proscription that Hong Kong’s High Court ruled unlawful), have appeared only to buoy activists further.
In France, the similarly amorphous “yellow vest” movement has also proved its staying power. The national protests, which spiraled from grievances over rising fuel prices into a broader anti-government demonstration, celebrated its first anniversary on Sunday. Still, some things have changed. Though the spirit of revolt is still strong, the turnout has dwindled. And while most protests were initially peaceful, more violent elements have also emerged.
The leaderless nature of these protests isn’t incidental, nor is it unprecedented. “Before politics became populist, social movements became populist,” Paolo Gerbaudo, a political sociologist at King’s College London and the author of The Mask and the Flag: Populism, Citizenism and Global Protest, told me. He said the leaderless protests today are reminiscent of grassroots protests that began nearly a decade ago, from Occupy Wall Street of 2011 to the anti-austerity demonstrations in Greece and Spain that same year.
“These movements don’t appeal to specific categories,” he said. “They appeal to the entirety of the citizenry … who feel defrauded by the political class.”
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The success of these protests can be attributed in large part to social media, which has enabled participants to communicate and organize in a more decentralized way. Whereas some have relied on encrypted messaging services such as Telegram, others use AirDrop, Apple’s fire-sharing function that lets users easily share content between devices. “Technology enables leaderlessness in a way that was not possible before,” Carne Ross, the executive director of Independent Diplomat, a diplomatic advisory group, and the author of The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century, told me. “Technology means you don’t need a leader to disseminate strategy. The strategy disseminates horizontally.”