The Limits of Protest as a Form of Struggle

by Raúl Zibechi

With his usual lucidity, William Robinson asks if the global wave of protests and demonstrations are able to confront global capitalism (https://bit.ly/3MjvBsl). In effect, since the crisis of 2008, there has been an unending chain of protests and popular uprisings. Remember that in the years prior to the pandemic there were more than 100 huge protests that toppled 30 governments. 

He mentions the enormous mobilization in the United States as a result of the murder of George Floyd, in May of 2020, which he describes as  an “anti-racist uprising that brought over 25 million individuals, in large part young people, to the streets of hundreds of cities throughout the country, the largest mass protest in U.S. history.”

A police station set on fire in Minneapolis on the third night of protests following the murder of George Floyd. Kerem Yucel/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In Latin America the uprisings and revolts in Ecuador, Chile, Nicaragua, and more than anything Colombia, were of a length, duration and depth like almost never before seen on this continent. The Colombian protest paralyzed the country for three months, it demonstrated impressive levels of popular creativity (such as the 25 points of resistance in Cali) and absolutely unprecedented forms of articulation between peoples, in the street, below.

Those above know that the key moment is the decline, when the fires of the mobilization begin to die down, and the tendency to return to everyday life gains strength. For the protesters, the demobilization is a delicate moment, since it can mean a step backward if they haven’t managed to build solid and lasting organizations.

The second limitation comes from the trivialization of the protest for its transformation into spectacle. Some sectors look to use this mechanism to impact public opinion, to the extent that the spectacle becomes the new repertoire of collective action. Media dependency is one of the worst facets of this trend.

The third is related to the fact that the protesters often don’t find the space and time to discuss what was achieved in the protest, to evaluate how to continue, what errors were made and what successes were had. The worst thing is that, frequently, this “evaluation” is carried out by the media or the academics, who are not part of the movements. 

In Santiago Chile in 2019, a million people marched in the streets to demand the resignation of President Sebastian Pinera. Photo: Reuters/ Alvarado

The fourth limitation that I find, is that the protests are inevitably sporadic and occasional. No collective subject can be present in the street all of the time because the exhaustion is enormous. So the moments to break out must be chosen carefully, like the indigenous peoples have done when they believe the moment has come.

There must be a balance between outward and inward activity, between the external mobilization and the internal, knowing that this is key to sustain ourselves as peoples, to give continuity to life and to affirm ourselves as different subjects. It is in these moments of retrenchment that we affirm our anticapitalist qualities.

Finally, autonomy is not built during protests, but before, during and after. Above all, afterward. The protest must not be something only reactive, because in that way, the initiative is always outside of the movement. Autonomy demands a long process of internal work and requires daily tension to keep it going.

I feel that we owe it to ourselves as movements and collectives, time for debate, because not reproducing the system means working intensely, not just spontaneously, to overcome the inertia and continue growing. 

This article was published in La Jornada on May 20th, 2022. https://www.jornada.com.mx/notas/2022/05/20/politica/los-limites-de-la-protesta-como-forma-de-lucha/ English interpretation by Chiapas Support Committee and Schools for Chiapas.