How to protest in times of corona
Online activism may just have its advantages
There was a time when the climate activists of Fridays for Future were at the Grote Markt every Friday. Last February, 250 people attended. The Groningen Feminist Network (GFN) held meetings every Wednesday to discuss gender and social equality. Decolonize Groningen was preparing for Israeli Apartheid Week, mid-March.
Then, Covid-19 came. All gatherings and protests were put on hold, moved online or were cancelled altogether. Activist groups have had to re-shuffle their activities. But they do it gladly, because they feel their voices are more crucial than ever before.
‘The virus has brought to the surface issues on inequality and authoritarian policy-making that would be unthinkable a few months back’, says Ivi Kussmaul with the Groningen Feminist Network. The virus, she says, endangers vulnerable groups. ‘We need to watch out for each other, especially for the elderly and those with inadequate access to social welfare.’
But how do you lobby for women’s equality, social justice, and a greener planet when you have to stay inside? How do you wake up Groningen students from their ‘political apathy’ when marches are not allowed, and neither are the get-togethers where plans are made to draw attention to the cause?
‘We encourage people to engage in online protests under the hashtag #climatestrike’, says 23-year-old UG student and Fridays for Future activist James Canavan.
Protesters send James and his team pictures of themselves holding a sign with a message saying: ‘Be the solution, not the pollution’. These pictures then get re-posted and shared on social media. ‘The online strike went really well; we had more than twenty participants, which isn’t bad for our first strike.’
We encourage people to engage in online protests
The Groningen Feminist Network decided to hold their weekly discussions online now. Student of cultural history Willem van der Sluis with Decolonize Groningen tried to garner attention for his cause by hanging a banner that said ‘Make the rich pay for Covid’ on the fence of the soon-to-be demolished tourist information building on the Grote Markt.
For inspiration, they also look to activist groups in other cities and countries. ‘Extinction Rebellion in The Hague placed empty shoes on a square, to account for the physical presence of hundreds of people without putting anyone at risk’, says Ivi.
A similar initiative took place in Germany, where protesters put empty chairs in the middle of a vacant square, with names of restaurants demanding financial aid from the government.
Willem does not rule out forming a human chain while maintaining social distance, as was done in Tel Aviv recently: ‘We don’t have a complete lockdown, so technically it should be possible.’
Regular gatherings may not be welcoming to everyone
These alternative ways of protesting work, the activists believe. They may even have some advantages over the ‘old’ ways, Willem says. Even though he hung his banner late at night and it had been removed by the next morning, the response online was ‘far greater than when you just share an article’.
Ivi also thinks the weekly online meetings have their benefits. For one thing: they’re now accessible to a wider range of people, including those with disabilities. ‘We always aim for our meetings to be available to all, but even if you have wheelchair access, the gathering may not be welcoming to people who for example can’t deal with large groups’, she says.
Jitsi and feminism
Online meetings solve this and gives GFN a chance to expand beyond local communities. ‘Our sessions always have a theme. We discuss topics like white feminism, abortion rights, and more recently socialist responses to the pandemic’, explains Ivi. ‘Once when we held a book club meeting on the platform Jitsi, two random strangers from Sri Lanka joined in. They found us using the search terms “Jitsi and feminism”. We ended up in a cool discussion about homonationalism in Sri Lanka.’
Online action is often seen as the easy way to protest something: you can pay lip service to a cause without taking responsibility in real life. But that’s not a fair view, says UG social psychologist Russell Spears. ‘It is often described as click, like and disengage “slacktivism”, but online action deserves more merit’, he says. ‘People are still putting themselves at risk by sacrificing their anonymity. Everything we do and say online can be traced back to us at any point.’
The student activists do worry about their ability to get their message across, though. Willem is convinced that physical presence is still necessary to instigate change, despite the growing dominance of the online world. He worries that sharing hashtags limits the reach to audiences within the activists’ social bubble. ‘Visibility in the physical world has a more powerful message, because it doesn’t get lost in the swarms of information that we see online’, he says.
Ivi agrees. That’s why members of GFN wrote ‘Leave no one behind’ in large letters at the entrance to the Noorderplantsoen, where hundreds of people walk by each day. Statements like these, she says, make people think twice before taking another step. ‘If you put up a slogan like this, it is likely to resonate with people who would normally just walk by while staring at their phones.’
A slogan on the sidewalk is likely to resonate more
The trick might be incorporating real-life action online. ‘That way, we can get much more reach than if we just focus on either/or’, says Willem. He hopes to see public spaces used for displaying political messages. ‘This is as good a time as any to do that, especially as you cannot tell the narrative of Covid without relating it to climate change or political structures, as exemplified by the US healthcare system.’
Despite the Dutch government announcing an easing of the restrictions, Groningen activists are in no rush to stage physical demonstrations. Fridays for Future are planning another online protest on May 29.
Ivi believes ‘protests are not the most effective strategy’. Instead, she and the GFN team are focusing on incorporating funding for health workers and more mental health awareness into their Covid-response agenda.