With the tutelage of both the masses and media, the Occupy Movements have gained popularity, yet is not a novel method of protest. Conventional ideas with a twist create ideas like flash mobbing and induce captive audiences on YouTube, but it is worthwhile to take a look at how some of these ideas existed decades ago. We have seen the Arab Spring inspire movements and protests around the world, and while masses drive the protests, the means of getting there is just as important. By way of innovative protest methods can garner activists and international allies to the cause.
While Occupy Wall Street sparked a series of Occupy Movements around the world, the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) in Brazil is certainly a muse. Naming their organization was essential to mobilizing the masses and making a powerful statement; they named their movement the “Landless Rural Workers” in lieu of “Landless People” to differentiate between members who occupy land to work on it, versus those who occupy to live on it. In the 1950’s, the MST organized thousands of peasants to take over sugar mills and eventually land. They made sure that the government would take them seriously by creating their own survey regarding the occupied land—to show the government that the people on the land could resolve the problems associated with their land. Organization has served the MST well—just take a look at their nifty website.
Over time, this political group turned to a social group—offering social services, including literacy campaigns for peasants. While they organized themselves into guerilla groups, the more radical elements vanquished when the 1964 military coup took place and the dictatorship repressed all movements. However, they continue to remain a major force against neoliberalism, creating their own associations, awareness campaigns and strategies for cooperation between members.
Through practicing cooperation, educating peasants with vital skills and utilizing methods of protest such as marches, hunger strikes, occupation of public buildings and latifundium as well as camps in public spaces, MST has successfully pressured the government to respond to their demands. (In 1985, MST was pro-active and created its own Congress, inviting the President and Minister for Agrarian Reform to participate, which led to the MST occupying 18 fazendas in one week.) Since the movement’s inception, within 17 years, MST has been able to settle 350,000 peasants and another 100,000 in camps in Brazil, yet more work still needs to be done.
Street art, poetry readings and flash mobs have caused people to physically stop, look—and think and invite the everyday audience to messages not seen or heard otherwise. Social messages vis-à-vis street art are drawn out in subtle means, yet hold powerful connotations. These creative art forms can directly change public opinions in a non-confrontational way—you can choose to walk away and not watch these random strangers dancing for a cause or not look at the walls painted with art. Modern day graffiti, or street art has existed for decades—beginning in New York City, especially subways in the 1960’s to making political statements in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen during the Arab Spring. (Check out Themba Lewis’s photos of street art from Cairo since the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25, 2011.)
While thought to be a modern creation, Alli Schell, pursuing an M.A. in Museum Studies at George Washington University says street art has roots in ancient times. Street art was used to “express much of the same sympathies” we have today “such as politics and sex.” In ancient Greece, writings discussed “topics of religion, politics, and romance.” Ursala Neuwirth, alum from Dickinson College tells Elan Magazine that ancient art existed since the time of Paleolithic cave paintings, found in modern day Europe. “These paintings of animals, negative hand prints, and symbols are no different than what famous and amateur street artists are doing today.” Ursala describes how negative handprints in caves from 22,000 BCE are examples of the earliest form of stenciling, in which the artists brushed ink or dye around their hands pressed against the wall to create signatures, or “tagging.” Now with advanced languages and societies, our forms of expressions have also progressed.
Using street art for self-expression and creating a catalyst for unconventional discussions is not all that new. Diego Rivera, born on December 8, 1866 in Mexico often provoked controversy with his murals on religion (he was an atheist) and politics; they were usually ordered demolished or painted over. Ursala says, “Rivera, just like our cavemen, sought to express a part of himself on a public space.” Since centuries, street art in the public space has invited community members to participate in societal issues.
Hunger strikes have a history in ancient Ireland, when one “who lacked power protested against the more powerful by fasting in order to call attention to an injustice or to claim a debt owed.” It became part of the legal system in which “If a man felt wronged by you and starved himself to death on your doorstep, you had to bear the burden of his debts.” This form of protest became popular in India when Mahatma Gandhi became notorious for using such means as a political tool.
Hunger strikes have made a comeback—especially with Palestinian prisoners who made international headlines. Mahmoud Sarsak—a player for the Palestinian football team was sentenced to prison in Israel for three years on claims of being a member of the terrorist organization, Islamic Jihad. Sarsak ended his three-month long hunger strike Monday, June 18th in exchange for being released. The Palestinian prisoner hunger strikes began with two men who started fasting on February 28th refusing food for 77 days. From April 17th to May 14th, 2012, more than 2000 prisoners joined the mass hunger strike—claimed to be “one of the longest and largest hunger strikes” in history. The Israeli government agreed to meet prisoner’s demands, which included ending solitary confinement for all prisoners and allowing 400 prisoners rights to receive visits from family and improving prison conditions. This goes to show that non-violent forms of protest can mobilize large numbers of people to the cause to create positive change and more importantly, change the status quo.
While some of today’s protesting methods sound unique, they borrow from older models. Mass movements can be successful when tactics are cultivated to suit a changing society—especially since people have a lot more to protest about.
Originally published for Elan Magazine