When People Power works

Governor’s refusal to resign drives massive strike, protests in Puerto RicoThe extraordinary impact of massive and sustained peaceful assemblies in Puerto Rico stirs the heart and the imagination. It also forced Governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign. If it continues–because most grievances remain–it may do much more.

When nearly 900 pages of chats among Rosselló’s administration leaked to public view earlier this month, they provided a focus and a sharp provocation to people with a broad range of political grievances including public services, finance, and democracy more generally. (The insightful Fernando Tormos-Aponte has been writing about the process as it unfolded. Find his analysis on the fly in the Washington Post and in Jacobin.) The protests drew attention to the chats, and invited media attention and extensive and visible support for the protesters from elsewhere in the United States; Lin-Manuel Miranda, for example, is always news.

The protests directly challenged Puerto Ricans inside and outside government to take sides, and Rosselló did an extraordinarily poor job of managing his responses. A tepid apology didn’t stop people from taking to the streets, and his subsequent promise not to run for reelection garnered no visible support. The governor couldn’t wait out the people in the streets: they weren’t going away. In short order, Rosselló was alone against the Commonwealth, unable to command support or repression. His announced resignation is rightly viewed as a democratic victory for people power.

But the work to redress real grievances must continue, and maintaining organization and focus will be difficult. Expect, however, anyone who comes next to pay closer attention to how democracy works.

But it’s not just the tactic of mass and sustained demonstrations that mattered. Activists hope to find a recipe for social change they can reliably employ, and analysts look for simple and repeatable explanations for political reforms and revolutions. The world is more complicated.

Democratic reformers in Russia were working from the same playbook Police officers detain a protester during an unauthorised rally demanding independent and opposition candidates be allowed to run for office in local election in September, in downtown Moscow on July 27, 2019.earlier this week, staging an unpermitted demonstration in Moscow. Quickly and brutally, police arrested more than 1,300 people. Although the reformers are calling for more protests, it will be harder to get people to turn out when the risks are so great and so evident. Everyone involved knows that Vladimir Putin does not operate under the same constraints as the governor of Puerto Rico.

The hope is that mass moral witness will draw outside attention to a repressive and undemocratic government, inspiring others to find waysPolice officers detain protesters during an unsanctioned rally in the center of Moscow, Russia, Saturday, July 27, 2019. to support challenges. But there are no visible defections of those important to Putin’s survival….yet.

Same tactics, same basic concerns, but a very different context and set of opponents and potential allies makes for a different outcome.

The Sogo deparment store, left, can be seen amid the huge crowd as the road parts in a V shape behind themStill less clear at this point is what will eventually come of the massive and ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Millions of people have turned out to display grievances with the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, focused initially on a proposed policy that would strengthen the influence of the Chinese government on life in Hong Kong. (N.B. I’ve found Suzanne Sataline’s reporting in the Christian Science Monitor helpful in keeping up with events and making sense of what’s happening.)

The protests, of course, followed on the dramatic umbrella protests Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong(Occupy Central) that overwhelmed Hong Kong and engaged the world five years ago. Stretching over months, demonstrators appeared in the streets presenting the same concerns about democracy and autonomy that today’s protesters express. After Occupy Central, some activists kept organizing, and some ran for office, sometimes winning legislative seats in a parliament that exercised no real power.

Aggressive policing cleared public spaces of artists and activists in 2014, but hasn’t yet stilled the efforts of today’s demonstrators. Without visible centralized leadership, factions within the broad movement have employed different tactics. Some activists broke away from a larger demonstration on July 1 to storm the Legislative Council, breaking glass and ransacking some offices. They were met with tear gas.

Each new protest raises questions about likely responses from both Hong Kong and from China. Lam first postponed and then withdrew the extradition law that was the immediate provocation for the protests. But democracy activists want much more–and so does the Chinese government.

Protesters have been able to draw massive international attention, and have exercised some influence. But the larger issues of autonomy and democracy remain. China’s leadership has a clear interest in Hong Kong’s economic success; it also has the capacity to deploy massive force to put down the new wave of protests.

The recipe for effective people power depends upon local materials and conditions: your results may vary.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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