How 2019 will go down as the year of civil resistance.
It was 5pm and the tarmac was strewn with broken paving slabs and burning street furniture when Eliacer Flores poked his head around the barricade to snatch a glimpse of the ranks of riot police massed a little further up the road.
It was an ill-judged moment Mr Flores will regret for the rest of his life. As he poked his head out, his ears rang with the clap of gunfire and rubber bullet sank deep into his eye socket.
“I felt cold in my body. I wanted to vomit. I’ve never felt such a physical pain in my life. I could only see black as soon as it hit my eye,” he told The Telegraph.
It was October 20 and Mr Flores, 30, was in Santiago, Chile protesting. But he could have been in any one of dozens of countries for 2019 was a year of street protest.
Chilean environmental engineer Marcelo Herrera is one of many blinded by police pellets. CREDIT: AFP/GETTY
“I think what makes 2019 remarkable is the sheer quantity and circumstances of civil resistance,” says Sir Adam Roberts, senior research fellow for politics and international relations at the University of Oxford.
Demonstrations were already in full swing in France in January. The Yellow Vest movement was tearing through Paris having already created havoc on roads and roundabouts across the country.
Triggered by an increase in fuel duties, it soon escalated into a much broader movement for the nation’s disaffected. Their demand: nothing less than root and branch reform of France’s governance and the way in which wealth is distributed.
The French are known for their street protests but in 2019 they were not alone. Similar movements have sprung up across the world over the last 12 months, often sparked by seeming minor changes like the fuel duties in France.
Time and again seemingly these small domestic gripes were amplified by social media into national protests that became something far bigger.
In Sudan a rise in the price of bread brought people out onto the streets in unprecedented numbers – eventually toppling a dictatorship.
In March, a bill to change extradition rules in Hong Kong turned into a widespread anti-China and pro-Democracy protests that continues today.
Demonstrators use painted placards to highlight the practice of firing rubber bullets at protesters eyes. CREDIT: AFP
Demonstrators in Santiago protest the brutal force used by the Chilean police. CREDIT: NURPHOTO/GETTY
Then there were a slew of popular uprisings in Latin America.
In Chile a small Metro price rise triggered a campaign for social justice in the region’s most unequal country.
The scrapping of fuel subsidies in Ecuador after fuel price rises led to a mass movement to end austerity, forcing the government to temporarily flee the capital.
In the Middle East, Lebanon’s proposed tax on WhatsApp triggered a mini revolution that brought the prime minister down.
Hundreds died in spontaneous demonstrations against a fuel price rise in Iran. And in Iraq anti-corruption protests developed into a mass movement against the governing class.
“This year people power really matters, in many countries there’s a big gap or a vacuum between the political elite and the people. This is where the protesters come in, bridging the gap,” says Srdja Popovic, a Serbian political activist and author prominent in the movement to bring down Slobodan Milosovic.
Adding fire to that ‘gap’ were rising living costs and a growing sense of inequality, experts say.
A girl with the Lebanese flag painted on her face at an anti-government protest in Beirut. CREDIT: REX
Protesters carry Catalan pro-independence ‘estelada’ flags during a demonstration in Barcelona. CREDIT: AFP
A demonstrator raises a fist during a national strike in Paris, France. CREDIT: BLOOMBERG
Protests breed protests, creating a kind of domino effect, says Steve Crawshaw, author of Street Spirit: The Power of Protest and Mischief.
He compares 2019 to the Arab Spring of 2011 and to 1989 when the Berlin wall came down.
“I think the belief in the power of protests has grown gradually [this year],” he adds.
Perhaps the most totemic movement of 2019 has come from Hong Kong, where legislation allowing extradition to mainland China has developed into daily running battles with riot police in the former British colony.
The protesters’ motto of “be water” – a quote from a Bruce Lee film – has helped develop and maintain a fluid, leaderless movement that can carry out large-scale civil disobedience with apparent spontaneity.
Shutting down airports, bridges and tunnels has got the attention of Catalans resisting Spain’s central government and fighting for independence.
Tsunami Democratic, a group of activists inside the Catalan independence movement, marched towards Barcelona’s El Prat airport on October 14 chanting “we’re going to do a Hong Kong!” A few weeks later they shut down one of the main road crossings between Spain and France.
Mainstream news and the viral nature of social media has helped spread mood and tactics from country to country. Video clips of even the smallest acts of resistance are instantly uploaded and shared globally.
“As in Hong Kong we see how disciplined they were to protest. It’s helped us to learn how to turn off the tear [gas] pumps yourself, and about the laser pointers,” says Marcelo Herrera, an engineer who was also shot in the eye by a police pellet gun during a protest in Chile.
The laser pointers he refers to were adopted by Hong Kong protesters as a method to confuse police and prevent pictures being taken to identify those taking part in demonstrations.
Video clips of how to defuse a tear gas canister using a traffic cone and water bottle were also spread from Hong Kong to protest movements across the world.
Police in riot gear move through a cloud of smoke as they detain a protester in Hong Kong. CREDIT: AP
Protest movements have also lent each other the means to organise discreetly. While the Arab Spring protests of 2011 were spread using open social media channels like Facebook, this round has been dominated by more secure and often encrypted communication.
Apps like Telegram, Signal, WhatsApp and Viber allow protesters to create secure groups to mobilise huge marches in a matter of hours.
Meanwhile Hong Kong protesters again started a trend of sharing meeting places using Airdrop on busy Metros.
The anonymity from secure networks helps breed what appear to be leaderless movements.
“The protest structure is similar,” says Sarah Yerkes, a Middle East fellow at think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“It’s happening all over Europe and in many African countries, people even talk about the second wave of the Arab Spring. It’s not just people power for democracy.”
Social media spawns mini-movements as key campaigns or moments are amplified by hashtags and memes.
In Chile, an off-shoot of the main protests known as Las Tesis has seen its feminist flashmob dance and song – “The rapist is you” – go viral, spreading around the world.
A Catalan independence supporter at one of Spain’s ‘Marches for Freedom’ in Barcelona. CREDIT: REX
Meanwhile, Baby Shark, the viral hit children’s song, has been given an unlikely second lease of life in Lebanon and Baghdad.
When protesting crowds in Beirut brought traffic to a halt a toddler in the backseat of a car was left terrified. Seeing the fear on the young child’s face, the protesters broke into a spontaneous rendition of Baby Shark.
Days later, chants of Baby Shark were ringing out on the streets of Baghdad – taken on as a kind of demonstration of the peaceful motives of the demonstrators.
But dig deeper and social media can be seen as a cause of discontent as well as a tool of protest.
Many protests this year have seen calls to close the gap between rich and poor, rallying against the economic system and the elites that control it.
But a report by the UN in December pointed out that we are in fact seeing growing inequality of power and opportunity, not necessarily wealth.
“With a growing middle class better connected through the internet, even those in the most remote places today can see how others live,” Achim Steiner, from the United Nations Development Programme, says. “As gaps like these grow so, too, does discontent.”
Masked protesters at an anti-government demonstration in Hong Kong. CREDIT: REUTERS
A pro-democracy campaigner is arrested by police in Hong Kong. CREDIT: GETTY
Despite the singing protesters’ best efforts, Iraq’s crackdown on demonstrators has been on one of the bloodiest.
Not only are they losing eyes, but hundreds of protesters are losing their lives too, felled by snipers and shadowy motorcycle gangs linked to Iran.
“There is much less coverage of Baghdad than of Western protest – yet it is much more violent and many more people have died there,” says Brian Castner, Amnesty International Weapons Investigator.
“In terms of violence, the 2011 Arab Spring was probably still worse and it’s not just the Arab world that is protesting this time,” he adds.
He said that rubber bullets used by authorities were only 20 per cent rubber. A study by the Universidad de Chile, commissioned by Santiago’s Salvador Eye Hospital, found the remainder comprised silica, barium sulfate and lead.
Meanwhile, almost daily news coverage of the Hong Kong crisis has also skewed people’s views on world protests.
“There is a perception (of the violence) that doesn’t always match the reality. More tear gas was used in Paris in one day of the protests than has been used this past nine months in Hong Kong,” he says.
Riot police remove an anti-government protester from a highway in Beirut. CREDIT: AP
Ms Yerkes, the Middle East analyst, says that regimes have learned from the mistakes of the Arab Spring. She says that Iran swiftly shut down the internet to stop protest messages spreading when a fuel price rise triggered widespread discord in November.
“Regimes are intervening in a more heavy handed way, this seems to be part of a broader trend of tightening up on civil society in general… Even in democratic contexts governments have become more controlling.”
But governments are also learning from each other on how to defuse demonstrations in some cases, Ms Yerkes says, citing Emmanuel Macron’s reforms in France, Chile’s offer of a referendum and scrapping price rises in places like Ecuador.
Some governments are deploying an age-old blame game to distance themselves from any responsibility over the protests, professor Sir Adam at the University of Oxford, says.
China has blamed the “black hand” of western countries for the Hong Kong demonstrations and Iran has predictably blamed the US for fomenting unrest.
Meanwhile, Chile has blamed Leftists from Venezuela for supporting protesters trashing the city, and Bolivia has blamed the Right for demonstrations that helped dislodge Leftists Evo Morales for power following fraudulent elections.
An injured woman is helped by female riot police in Beirut. CREDIT: AP
A female police officer at an anti-government protest in Santiago. CREDIT: AP
Chilean Police detain a protester at a metro station in Santiago. CREDIT: REX
This year appears to have seen the end of the Yellow Vest movement, which Macron met head on with a series of debates around the country. Sudan’s protests have also come and gone, with the murderous regime of Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir finally toppled.
But demonstrations still rage across the Middle East. And perhaps most significantly, the unrest in Hong Kong, the poster child of this year’s round of civil disobedience, is far from over.
“Hong Kong is a very interesting one, we’re definitely not seeing the end of the Hong Kong protests yet, but we have seen the Beijing authorities, let alone the Hong Kong authorities, on the back foot in a way that they have not been before really,” says Mr Crawshaw, author of Street Spirit: The Power of Protest and Mischief.
He compared the movement there to Solidarity in Poland. “I visited through the 80s and many many people said oh it’s kind of silly, this idea of solidarity something which could somehow challenge the communist one party regime was a bit naive cause obviously they were going to lose but they were completely wrong. Eight years later it came back and basically paved the way for the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he said.
He added that the Iranian protests – although stamped out swiftly and brutally – would have a “very significant historic impact”. “Even if that is repressed in the short term, that sort of becomes the historic moment if you like,” he added.
An Ecuadorian wears a protective face mask during a protest in Quito. CREDIT: BLOOMBERG
In Chile, a rally in late December for those who have lost eyes proves that it is not over yet.
Mr Flores, a corner shop worker who lives in Santiago with his partner and two sons, does not rue the day he joined protests – and lost the vision in his right eye.
“I lived this and I said to myself if there was an opportunity to change things,” he says referring to the metro protests that have become a demand to end growing inequality.
He adds: “I’m prepared to have lost the eye to show the world what is happening. I hope to tell my kid when he grows up that yes, I lost an eye, but now we have a more dignified life, we have justice.
“Protests are happening across the world after years of injustice, years of being robbed.
We have lived our lives feeling fear, not speaking out, but this moment is happening and people are waking up.”