Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

A new age of protests

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed June 19, 2013
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
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT