More than just indignation
Democracy thrives on debate, and protest is an important means of public participation. But how does protest arise and when does the opposition of individuals grow into mass mobilisation?
Protests are booming. Fridays for Future, Black Lives Matter and the Querdenken (lateral thinking) protests have recently brought tens of thousands of people out onto Germany’s streets. Whether the call is for social change or for maintaining the status quo, democracies thrive on the conflict between widely differing positions. Which is why the essential right to demonstrate is enshrined in Article 8 of the German constitution.
In this country, protest is considered quite common and a predominantly legitimate means of articulating a person’s or group’s interests. It is seen as an expression of political and social participation – a form of direct expression of opinion outside of elections or participation in party committees. In addition to a few isolated mass demonstrations, people in Germany demonstrate almost daily for some issue or another. But protests by no means always pursue progressive goals, like the Querdenker or “lateral thinkers” have illustrated. Sometimes they are even directed against the foundations of our liberal-democratic order. So when do protests occur? And what conditions cause individual indignation and opposition to spark a mass mobilisation?
Revolt against man-made problems
Large protests in particular depend on complex organisational and mobilisation efforts: Potential participants have to be informed and convinced to invest their time and energy. Research has identified at least four factors that help explain how protests emerge and grow into mass events or even social movements.
First there is the starting point of any protest, always a subjectively perceived problem, generally with an objective basis, at least in part. If enough people share this perception of a problem and feel that something can and must be changed about it, the likelihood that a protest or protest movement arises from it increases. The issues at hand are as diverse as the conflicts in a society. The most recent large-scale protests in Germany have demanded a change in policy in the face of the worsening climate crisis (Fridays for Future), been directed against racial violence and discrimination (Black Lives Matter), or against the measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic (Querdenken). Despite all their differences, these protests share two factors: they were initiated by people who assumed they were not alone in their understanding of a problem, and that underlying problems were created by human beings and not simply down to fate. “Where there’s people, there’s power”: People gather in George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, after the court ruling on the death of George Floyd. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/Captital Pictures/ IS/MPI/Chris Tuite Second, whether the shared perception of a problem becomes a mass mobilisation also depends on the resources available to the organisers. In addition to time, material resources are needed to advertise protest events with flyers, posters and on social media and websites, as well as to pay for sound equipment, stages and other logistical details. But social networks and symbolic capital, such as the participation by prominent people, also influence how many potential participants can be reached.
Communication and opportunity are also necessary
Beyond these factors, the interpretation of the problem (“framing”) plays a role in justifying the protest and calling for participation, as does its strategic communication. The interpretation of climate change as a “generational problem” is one example of resonant framing that Fridays for Future has successfully employed to appeal to many young people around the world.
Finally, protests are always embedded in social framework conditions that provide opportunities for protest actions. Concrete political decisions or important events, such as the meeting of the G20 states, are often favourable occasions for generating visibility for a cause. In addition to these “political opportunities”, there are “discursive opportunities”. These are moments when the positions advocated by the protesters are especially relatable – because they are particularly present in social or media debates, for example, an indication that parts of the population already approve of them and that there is a public resonance space for their concerns.
Education and prosperity promote the willingness to protest
In summary, issues that move a lot of people make greater mobilisation possible. Organisers who can build on the support of different initiatives, mobilise existing networks, and are experienced in strategic communication have a better chance of initiating mass protests.
In addition, the individual situation of participants also influences how likely they are to join protest movements. Recent surveys by Fridays for Future and Querdenken, among others, suggest that the well-educated and economically better-off segments of the population disproportionately participate in large-scale protests today.