2014, the year of... protest
As we move toward 2015, i-D looks back at the year past and dissects the things that defined it. From Ferguson, Missouri to the New Era estate in London, Louise Benson investigates a year that the world came together in a unified call for democracy...
photography christelle de castro
Ferguson in Missouri, Causeway Bay in Hong Kong, Exarcheia in Athens, the New Era estate in London. Over the past year, all have been the sites of protest on varying scales, from a one-day rally to a sustained expression of resistance lasting months. Violence has varied too. In Hong Kong, protestors protected themselves from pepper spray and teargas with the umbrellas that quickly became the movement's symbol of solidarity, while in Athens dozens were injured by the batons swung by swathes of riot police. Together these protests, and many more besides, have formed a wider collective of global resistance in 2014, transcending geographic distances in a unified call for democracy, free speech and equality. The failure to indict the policemen responsible for the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Missouri this month sparked action across America and abroad, while thousands gathered around the world to call for an end to Israeli military action in Gaza earlier this year. In an age of instantaneous uploads and rolling feeds, no protest is local. Images shared and voices raised reach millions, no matter where they are. Four years ago in the Arab Spring, the power of Twitter to circumvent state censorship and open up communication, both on the ground and further afield, led to change that was very real. This year the digital dimensions of protest developed further still as a new generation of activists emerged to explore the full potential of social media as we now know it. Played out both on and off the screen, the ways in which we fight for change were transformed in 2014.
It was a 3-minute video, showing the fatal arrest of Eric Garner, which sparked a new wave of protests this December. Captured by a bystander on their phone's camera, the film had none of the considered artistry of the Pulitzer-prize winning image of a young Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack in 1972, nor of the war photographs of Robert Capa. Unedited, uploaded fast and shared instantly, its impact was amplified in the straight-up simplicity of its format. No grain, no flare, no soft focus. Photography has lost none of its power to shock and to inform over the years, but its potential to capture moments that might otherwise have gone unseen has evolved exponentially. Now, with the technology to document whatever we see and the platforms to broadcast from, systematic injustices are more visible than ever before.
The proliferation of cameras extended also to the protests themselves. Images and videos, drawn direct from the streets, now appear first on Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and Facebook. Conventional media is no longer enough. In Hong Kong, the blatant bias of major newspapers and TV stations with ties to mainland China led the city's young people to turn to social media for their news. The 75-day resistance to Beijing's restrictions on the democratic freedom of the 2017 elections was surely one of the most documented social movements in history. More than this, it wasn't just beamed outwards for the world to sit by and see, but responses and encouragement filtered back in the form of likes, shares and updates: it was a two-way system. Led primarily by students, their ability to harness social media for real gain on the ground was striking, and the success of this campaign was perhaps most clearly exemplified in China's decision to ban Instagram at the end of September.
Meanwhile, the 'Die Ins' held for Garner in recent weeks revealed a stronger engagement still with the influence of an image upload. Around the world, protestors lay motionless on the ground, disrupting public spaces everywhere from Westfield, London to Berkeley, California. The resulting images from these prostrate protests are unsettling and immediately recognisable - perfectly targeted to go viral. Staged in busy, well-lit locations, they offered protestors and passers-by alike a photo-op too good to pass up. Is this type of media-savvy awareness cynical? Perhaps, but it is also necessary. The importance of physical, shouting and obstructive protest remains, but its translation to the digital world has become smoother in 2014, the two formats seamlessly informing one another. Photographs of dissent have become symbols in themselves, speaking louder as a collective visual mass than each independently - much the same as a demonstration itself.
Symbols and slogans were also visible this year in a newly hashtagged language of protest, from #occupycentral for Hong Kong to #BlackLivesMatter not only for Garner and Brown, but for Tamir Rice, Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg and countless others. These phrases are condensed and to-the-point, distinctive and digestible. One of the most prominent has been #ICantBreathe, taken from Garner's gasped last words. Tweeted, chanted, and now printed on t-shirts, the slogan has unified the movement from online, to offline, to back online once again. In a big-league basketball game last week, major stars including LeBron James and Deron Williams emerged wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan. Playing in front of the two couples guaranteed to get Twitter in a frenzy, Beyonce and Jay Z and Will and Kate, it wasn't long before the #ICantBreathe message was all over the news. Other basketball teams have since worn the same T-shirts for televised games, taking control of their media exposure for a broader social concern. It's not the first time that athletes have translated their sporting influence and achievements into a platform to make a very real political statement, and in many respects this can be seen as a collective reiteration of the iconic black power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Together, the message is strong, promoting a united concern that transcends individual celebrity status.
Most integral to protest is communication and conviction, loud and clear. While the Hong Kong demonstrations might not have led to a concrete resolution, and the fight against police violence remains ongoing, the protests themselves were integral in moving closer to future resolve. This year, the role that the online conversation plays in this was fully evident, with images and texts shared on social media both sparking action and keeping it going. The continued need for physical protest is very real, though. Retweets and hashtagged slogans are a significant way to immerse yourself in a cause, but being part of a crowd chanting in the street is as essential as ever. While the gap between online and offline protest might have shrunk, the two are still distinct. Taken together, they offer a newly networked ability to bring about change. In 2014, Patti Smith's raucous, rallying cry is more relevant than ever before: today, the people have the power.
Text Louise Benson
Photography Christelle De Castro