Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

A new age of protests

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
June 19, 2013 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Police fire rubber bullets at a protester during clashes in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, June 20. Demonstrations in Brazil began in response to <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/20/world/americas/brazil-protests/?hpt=hp_t2'>plans to increase fares for the public transportation system</a> but have broadened into wider protests over economic and social issues. Since then, both Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have agreed to roll back prices on bus and metro tickets.<!-- -->
</br> Police fire rubber bullets at a protester during clashes in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday, June 20. Demonstrations in Brazil began in response to plans to increase fares for the public transportation system but have broadened into wider protests over economic and social issues. Since then, both Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have agreed to roll back prices on bus and metro tickets.
HIDE CAPTION
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
Protests in Brazil
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: A massive protest can start any time -- just look at Turkey and Brazil
  • Ghitis: In this era of connectivity, a little complaint can ignite raging fire of discontent
  • She says these recent protests started over smaller issues, not over tyranny
  • Ghitis: Technology has made it harder for governments to shape what people believe in

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns.

(CNN) -- Presidents, prime ministers and assorted rulers, consider that you have been warned: A massive protest can start at any time, seemingly over any issue, and can grow to a size and intensity no one expected. Your country's image, your own prestige, could risk unraveling as you face the wrath of the people.

The newest iconic images from Turkey and from Brazil -- two countries that have promoted themselves as models to emulate -- include shocking scenes of police brutality, of government clampdown against peaceful protesters.

We have entered a new age of protests. While politics remain intensely local, individuals are more interconnected.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

In Turkey, a small protest over plans to destroy one of Istanbul's last remaining parks exploded in size and intensity after a harsh police crackdown shocked the nation. The sight of police spraying giant clouds of tear gas and beating peaceful protesters touched a nerve, inflaming simmering concerns about an increasingly authoritarian regime.

In a matter of days, waves of demonstrations, the biggest in decades, spread across the country. Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan, who has not lacked for self-confidence over his 10 years in power, came under sharp criticism over his response to the protests.

Has he grown arrogant with power? Having led his party to consecutive victories at the polls, sucking the air out of the powerful military, and overseeing Turkey's rise to new heights of prosperity and international assertiveness, all of a sudden he looked less awe-inspiring.

Erdogan may have faced down world leaders, but when he faced his own people he tarnished his image. He is now accused by many at home and abroad of lacking in democratic instincts.

'Standing Man' protester inspires others
Brazilian FM responds to protests
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the deputies of his ruling Justice and Development Party during a meeting with Turkish parliament on Tuesday, June 18. Erdogan said he had no intention of restricting anyone's democratic rights. "If you want to make a protest do it, do it, but do it within the framework of law," he said. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the deputies of his ruling Justice and Development Party during a meeting with Turkish parliament on Tuesday, June 18. Erdogan said he had no intention of restricting anyone's democratic rights. "If you want to make a protest do it, do it, but do it within the framework of law," he said.
Demonstrations in Turkey
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Demonstrations in Turkey Photos: Demonstrations in Turkey

The country has new national icons. The newest is the "Standing Man," a protester who steadfastly held his ground amid the chaos, standing for hours gazing at a picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. There's the "woman in red," a modernly dressed woman -- symbolizing the secular, world of personal freedom many of the demonstrators seek to defend.

A similar image emerged from Brazil. A young woman who appears utterly harmless was sprayed in the face by a policeman dressed in full riot gear.

Just like Turkey, no one could have predicted the turn of events in Brazil. A country that has symbolized Latin America's dramatic rise from poverty, where left-leaning governments have combined social programs and market-friendly policies, nearly eradicating extreme poverty, suddenly erupted in a wave of popular fury. The government of President Dilma Rousseff faced the largest protests in 20 years. And it all started over an increase in bus fares.

The protests over bus fares touched on worries about a slowdown in the economy, about persistent inequality, corruption and costly projects in preparation for hosting the upcoming World Cup and Olympic Games.

Rousseff, a former revolutionary herself, has been taking a much more conciliatory approach than the pugnacious Erdogan. On Wednesday, government officials in San Paulo and Rio de Janeiro announced that they would revoke the hike in bus fares in their cities.

In this era of connectivity, a small complaint can explode. Politicians may outmaneuver rival parties during election campaigns. They can claim a majority at the polls -- as Erdogan doesn't tire of remarking he has -- and they can ply their trade on the global stage. But they now have to deal with their citizens' demands in a much more public way.

Popular claims have new strength in our age of social media. It's impossible to predict which issue will find flammable material hiding in shared resentments and ignite raging fires of discontent.

The water cannons and the tear gas may disperse the first wave of protesters, but a click of a smartphone can produce a photo or video that instantly catches people's attention, potentially attracting even larger protests. The crowd may grow if its concerns are ignored, especially if police repression is violent.

One of the challenges for democratic governments is to balance what may be legitimate requirements of public order with a reasonable hearing for reasonable demands.

That is the response that separates the tyrants from the democrats.

Public space occupations and demonstrations have occurred in nations without democracy. We saw how regimes responded to protests in places like Egypt and Syria. We have seen crackdowns in Russia last year and in Iran after the 2009 elections.

These new protests start over smaller issues -- not over tyranny or basic democratic rights.

Local issues have a new power to surge with little warning, electrifying the crowds, jolting people out of complacency. Governments can be caught by surprise by what seem like trivial matters -- a small rise in bus fare or saving trees in a park.

It wasn't very long ago when every meeting of the powerful nations, of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, brought out angry anti-globalization crowds. Now, the concerns are more immediate, more personal.

When President Obama arrived in Northern Ireland on Monday for the meeting of the G8 nations, there were more police officers than protesters. The nature of protest has changed.

Governments may have the power to spy on citizens, to read their e-mails and listen to their conversations. But they have largely lost their ability to control the information that is out there. Governments have lost the power to change the subject, to divert attention, to blame a multinational institution or another country for the woes at home. Stories now refuse to die. Protesters, if angered by the government's response, are more likely to persevere.

Heads of government cannot control their public image the way they once could. The demigods are dying. New technology may make it easier for governments to learn what the people are thinking, but it makes it harder for them to shape what the people believe.

It's a new age. They should consider themselves warned.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT