Abstract: From collective flash-mobs such as “clap for our carers,” to solidarity campaigns launched by a variety of activist organizations, to the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-lockdown protests by right-wing groups, the COVID-19 crisis has been marked by intense social protest. In this article, I analyze these protests as different responses to the exceptional conjuncture of the pandemic, through the lens of social movement theory and the analysis of grievances and action repertoires. Focusing on the United States and Europe, I highlight that protests during the pandemic reveal the nature of the COVID-19 emergency as a moment of political suspension and heightened social confrontation. Different movements respond to the COVID-19 health crisis either by navigating the straits between voicing dissent and abiding by health rules while demanding a return to pre–COVID-19 normality, or by seeing the disruption of the pandemic as an opportunity to seek redress for deep-seated problems. Regardless of their differences, pandemic protests point to the return of a crowd element and impromptu and spontaneous forms of action through tactics such as sit-ins, banging pot protests, the occupation of building, the toppling of statues symbolizing the enemy, or the foiling of anti-contagion rules. This return to pre-modern protest logics highlights the depth of the crisis of authority revealed by COVID-19, during which inequalities have further intensified.
The COVID-19 pandemic would have hardly seemed to make for a fitting period for protest. Governmental responses to the spread of COVID-19 have entailed shelter-at-home and social distancing measures that seem to work against the basic logic of protest. Protests are typically based on precisely the opposite of social distancing. It traditionally entails the “contentious gath- ering” of large numbers of people in public space. Protesters crowd together in order to demonstrate to the public their Worthiness, Unity, Numbers and Commitment or “WUNC,” to use Charles Tilly’s acronym. Yet, similar to previous pandemics, including the 1918 Spanish flu, which combined with the aftermath of World War I was ensued by a mass protest wave, the era of the COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be a period of civil strife. Since the COVID-19 contagion developed into a pandemic in early spring 2020, we have witnessed a powerful wave of mobilizations across the United States, Europe, and several other countries. They deserve close examination to understand the transformation in protest action in these troubled times and the new social anxieties and demands.
The forms of protest that have emerged during the COVID-19 crisis have admittedly been of the most diverse kinds. We have witnessed shows of solidarity towards care workers, which includes “clap for our carers” flash mobs, balcony solidarity demonstrations and impromptu demonstra- tions of doctors and nurses against cuts to the health sector, that seem to express a renewed sense of civic duty and social cohesion, and one of the greatest waves of protest in recent decades in the United States. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the United States, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, often met with violence by police and far-right counter- protesters. On the other hand, we have also seen protests with a marked reactionary component, such as the so-called “no-mask movement” against restrictions imposed by governments, often on the back of obscurantist conspiracy theories.
This surge of mobilization begs the question of whether these different streams of protests share a commonality reflecting the specificity of the pandemic as a common scenario for protest. Due to its nature as an excep- tional moment of emergency, in which rules about everyday life are sus- pended and citizens are confronted with a gamut of pressing social issues, the COVID-19 emergency has had profound and disruptive effect that has led to severe economic consequences. COVID-19 has led to the closing of schools, forcing families to juggle childcare and work, and modified con- sumption patterns with people avoiding malls and restaurants for fear of contagion and cutting down on their purchases. Furthermore, it has led to a severe reduction in travel and mobility, and a plunge in international tourism and air travel. Finally, the pandemic has had a profound effect on the political arena, focusing the attention of the public on the pandemic, and engendering the sense that we live amid a state of exception, in which normal rules, expectations, and social routines are altered.
In this article, I explore how social movements have responded to this exceptional historical moment along with the grievances they mobilize, the repertoires of action they construct, and what they reveal about society’s new fractures amid the COVID-19 crisis. My focus is on events in the United States and Europe, with some examples drawn from other geographic contexts, that draw on preliminary data available through news reports. Examining this wave of protests, I consider several questions: How are protest movements responding to the exceptional conditions of the pandemic? How do they reflect the new grievances and demands that have emerged or have been more blatantly revealed amid the wave of COVID-19 contagion? What do they tell us about society’s emerging conflicts?
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