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 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT