In October 2023, when the cast of the iconic play Les Misérables performed at the Sondheim Theatre in London, they launched into their famous protest song, ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ as a part of their act. But what happened after that was entirely unscripted. The stage was abruptly taken over by activists from the Just Stop Oil movement as their t-shirts and banners proclaimed, while they chanted to the audience to ‘join the rebellion’. This is not the first time an event has been disrupted by an activist. In more popular news, activists have tied themselves to the goalpost during a Premier League match, disrupted play at The Ashes test match at Lord’s, interrupted a Wimbledon tennis match, thrown soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, glued themselves to another Van Gogh, and so on. Just Stop Oil’s ploy to shift international attention to climate change has worked, and isn’t this the core of a successful rebellion; to get mainstream recognition for their narrative?
Other modern movements, such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Extinction Rebellion (XR), have also done so. In the case of BLM, they started with a hashtag on Twitter (now X) in 2013, and steadily rose in popularity over the years. Their mission was to call out police brutality against black people, and garner online traction towards the growing pattern of systemic racism. Now they had proof. Pictures and videos shot guerilla-style made their way onto the internet, fuelling the conversation. Black Lives Matter reached new heights in 2020, when a black man, named George Floyd, was killed by a police officer in custody. Videos surfaced online showing how the white police officer kneeled on the neck of Floyd until he stopped breathing. This sparked a national outrage of epic proportions. Protest marches, rallies, and candle marches were held day in and day out. Pictures and videos of protests flooded social media in no time. It amplified the narrative that BLM had been preaching for years. BLM became bigger than online public discourse; it became a national political discourse.
Similarly, we have seen a different group called Extinction Rebellion (XR), which has been using online discourse to aid its narrative of climate change. They have used social media to garner support and drive action for various protests. They blocked crucial roads and bridges, causing major traffic disruptions, disrupted London Fashion Week and House of Commons proceedings as a part of their movement.
There have been endless rebellions and revolutions in history, where the oppressed have demanded change from their oppressors through various means of free speech. The issues that the groups are trying to tackle are age-old, systemic issues that have seen many rebellions rise and fall. Just Stop Oil is vocal about climate change, demanding that the UK government end new licences for developing fossil fuels in the UK. Similarly, XR is calling for government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. BLM is focused on its goal of making America anti-racist, giving black people a larger share of voice, and most pertinently ending the police’s random acts of violence against the Black minority. These are issues that have seen countless resistances in the past. Since the 1970s, protests against climate change have occurred every few years, such as the Earth Day protests in 1970, which made us turn off our lights for an hour on a pre-decided day in the year, and massive Kyoto protests after the US abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, an amendment by the United Nations in its Climate Change framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Every UN summit since then has sparked a protest, such as the Copenhagen protests, the People’s Climate Marches, and the Global Day of Action. While substantial progress has been made on the awareness front, real acts of change have been swept under the carpet. The US has even had a president who called climate change a ‘hoax’. For the BLM, systemic racism in the US has persisted since the 16th-century, bubbling potently into the American Civil War in 1861. The country has undergone substantial change since then. Now, it’s on the cusp of another major change with BLM leading a strong, unfettered voice of Blacks against white supremacy.
Extinction Rebellion calls itself a civil disobedience movement, and it has accumulated an influential amount of clout for it. This effectual social concept was popularised by Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March against the British in the 1930s, where he famously marched for 385 kms from Sabarmati to Dandi, gathering (literal) followers in protest of the highly-taxed, expensive salt being forced upon Indians, despite the British growing it in India. Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha, i.e., non-violent protests, finds its way into almost every protest or act of rebellion, since Gandhi. The peace and love of a satyagrahi (one preaching satyagraha) was also deeply embedded in John Lennon’s philosophy of life when he sang songs and protested the Vietnam War in the United States. To see these concepts find their way back, albeit with new vigour, new ideas and new media, makes it somewhat promising to hope for a positive change. Like the Van Gogh painting doused in soup, or hands glued to Da Vinci and the House of Commons. Even the pulsating hashtag activism of BLM. Today, everyone has a voice. How one uses it differently makes people stand up and ‘Hear the People Sing’.
By Gaurav Matai