From #PrayForParis and (anti-)Pegida to #BlackLivesMatter: The protests & rallies that shaped 2015

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The street failed to bring down any governments in 2015, but it was still an impressive year of collective action. Protesters – be they in Japan, Turkey, Yemen, the US or EU – embraced their causes and harnessed the power of the internet and media to spread their message.

Refugees are welcome in the EU?

Without a doubt, the influx of more than 1 million migrants was the biggest story in Europe in 2015, and one of the most emotive. Public displays were plentiful, from Refugees are Welcome rallies, to Pegida anti-migrant marches. But perhaps the most charged demonstrations were in relatively small cities and towns, unprepared to accommodate a flood of asylum seekers. In August, about 1,000 protesters near the German city of Dresden clashed with police, as they tried to block a bus of newly-arrived refugees, causing dozens of injuries.

In December, 2,000 of the 27,000 inhabitants of Geldermalsen, a city in the Netherlands, took to the streets and besieged a refugee center that was intended as accommodation for 1,500 migrants, forcing police to fire warning shots. With measures to stop the inflow of migrants proving ineffective, and the rise of radical parties in the polls, public demonstrations could grow more numerous – and violent – in 2016, particularly if sparked by a race-related incident.

Je suis Charlie and #PrayforParis

People hold a banner reading "Nous sommes tous Charlie" (We are all Charlie) during a Unity rally “Marche Republicaine” on January 11, 2015 in Montpellier. © Sylvain Thomas

For Paris, 2015 was bookended by two Islamist terror attacks: the January assault on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and November’s night of terror that saw gunfire and explosions in several public places. While the message of the January attack was clear – punishment for the depictions of the Prophet Mohammed – the subsequent rallies were decorous and put forward slogans of solidarity, including the much-shared “Je suis Charlie” and calls for unity. Alongside 3.7 million Parisians, many of the world’s most influential politicians also came together for a symbolic photo opportunity. All this made little difference when another group of Islamists carried out an even more heartless and cynical attack in November. This time the reaction was more of muted shock than proud defiance, and France, still in a state of emergency, continues to process its reaction as the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant National Front party surges in the polls.

Catalonia’s march of a million

Catalan pro-independence supporters take part in a demonstration, called "Via Lliure a la Republica Catalana" (free way to the Republic of Catalonia) at during the "Diada de Catalunya" (Catalunya's National day) in Barcelona, Spain, September 11, 2015. © Albert Gea

Catalonia’s National Day on September 11 has become an increasingly political event, but the region’s secessionist sentiments reached a new high in 2015, with police estimating 1.4 million people poured out onto the streets of Barcelona. A huge yellow arrow pushed through the throng, indicating the road to independence. This was more than just a show of identity, as it galvanized supporters in the subsequent elections, giving the secessionists a majority in the local assembly. Since then, the separatists have initiated legal proceedings to separate from Madrid, but like much else in this standoff, there has been more grandstanding, wrangling, electioneering and threatening language than actual progress out of a stalemate. With Catalan President Artur Mas struggling to get backing from fellow pro-independence politicians, and a new federal government following the December 20 polls, Madrid and Barcelona will reset their positions before a new round in the ongoing political battle. The Catalan government has already approved a declaration to start a formal secession process from Spain - a move immediately blocked by the country’s Constitutional Court.


#BlackLivesMatter hits US

What looked like one-off spontaneous protests following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014 became a constant feature of US political life in 2015. Dozens of black men who died at the hands of the police in 2015 have become the focus of national attention, thanks to lightning-fast social media campaigns and highly visible public protests. The direct and disruptive tactics used by the demonstrators have never failed to catch attention, but have divided opinion, often along existing party-political lines. The most textbook case was the uproar in Baltimore following the suspicious death of detainee Freddie Gray, while in custody in April.

The protests quickly spiraled out of control, with scores of properties and cars destroyed, and hundreds arrested, forcing the mayor to declare a state of emergency, and eliciting condemnation from Barack Obama. But the movement achieved its wishes, and charges were swiftly brought against the six officers who handled Gray. Critics say the nationally-televised stand-off has led to more hands-off policing, and provoked a spike in black deaths, with a demoralized police force reluctant to intervene in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Lebanon’s garbage uprising

Seemingly incidental yet deeply meaningful events can often serve as touch paper for political upheaval, but Lebanon’s You Stink protests, ostensibly begun over consumer waste disposal, seemed particularly lacking in revolutionary zeal. However, the issues it raised during the movement’s heyday in August and September cut to the core of the country’s problems – corruption and inefficiency, which led to the sight of piles of rotting garbage in the streets, and sectarianism in which the country’s three main religious minorities refused to accept each other’s rubbish, creating logistical bottlenecks.

There is a more general dysfunction: the country has failed to elect a new president after 34 rounds – due to a lack of quorum in parliament – and there are problems even with basic amenities such as water and electricity, as Lebanon becomes the home for more and more refugees fleeing regional conflicts. Unsurprisingly, soon protesters dusted off slogans from the Arab Spring. In the end, the demonstrations subsided, due to repression and loss of momentum, but the dissatisfaction that drove the You Stink campaign against politicians has not gone anywhere.

OXI vs NAI: Debt burden pushes Greeks to take street action

Rising to unprecedented popularity and winning parliamentary elections in early 2015, the left-wing Syriza party promised to renegotiate Greek debt and put an end to austerity in the country. The talks between Greece and the Troika (representing international creditors) stalled after the Eurogroup declined to prolong a financial aid program for Athens or delay payments on earlier debts. Greeks took to the streets in their thousands, unwilling to tolerate yet more austerity measures requested by the European creditors. In a surprising turn of events, the government announced it would hold a referendum on July 5 on the Eurogroup’s latest cash-for-reforms plan. Ahead of the vote, protesters slipped into two camps - the "NO" (ΟΧΙ in Greek) and the "YES" (ΝΑΙ) supporters - who both demonstrated across Greece, with the majority of rallies held in Athens’ central Syntagma Square.

Thousands of protesters in European cities also rallied in solidarity while some EU skeptics started hinting at a Grexit. After more than 61 percent of Greeks voted “NO,” Syriza sealed a new deal for a bailout package that would keep Greece in the Eurozone. However, the deal left the Greeks unsatisfied and the government divided.

Kurds’ outrage at Ankara crackdown

Kurds have long been campaigning for the right to self-determination and greater autonomy in Turkey, where they are the largest ethnic minority. Pro-Kurdish rallies have been held multiple times in Turkey’s largest cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, as well as in European capitals as the Turkish government pressed ahead with its crackdown on the group.

The pro-Kurdish protests were met with tear gas and water cannon, while one of the deadliest rallies in October left dozens of people killed and scores injured in two suicide blasts. Turkey's largest trade unions were planning to unite for a peace rally to protest the Turkish government’s bombing of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the southeast, however the bomb attacks led to bloody scenes. In the past months Ankara has stepped up its military operation on the border with Syria and Iraq, the stronghold of the PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by Turkey and NATO. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to continue the operation until the area is cleansed of Kurdish militants.

Yemenis stand against Saudi intervention

Spearheading a military coalition of nine Arab states, in March 2015 Saudi Arabia started a bombing campaign aiming to influence the outcome of the civil war in Yemen, in support of the domestically-contested Yemeni government in the fight against a Houthi coup. The campaign was met with heavy international criticism, with the UN human rights chief saying in December the coalition’s actions had brought a disproportionate number of civilian deaths and the destruction of infrastructure. Frustration, fury and raw anger among Yemeni citizens repeatedly prompted thousands to flood the streets of the capital Sanaa in 2015. The UN believes the bombing has killed at least 2,700 people, while the humanitarian crisis in the country has been dubbed among the worst in the world.

‘Illegal Invasion’: Japanese against US base

The Japanese government’s decision to resume controversial construction work to relocate the US base within Okinawa Prefecture was met with mass sit-ins. The protesters were so determined to win the fight that in November the demonstration marked its 500th day. The US has maintained a heavy military presence in Okinawa after occupying the island for 27 years following World War II. Though it was handed back to Japan, Okinawa remains home to more than half of the 47,000 American military personnel in the country. Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga has renewed his pledge to prevent Tokyo from building the new base, after the central government recently sued the prefecture over local resistance to the military base, which is aimed at replacing the existing Futenma facility in Ginowan.

Anti-TTP petitions & protests as deal sealed after 7yrs of talks

Seven years of negotiations were wrapped up as a major trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim countries dubbed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was sealed in October. Various anti-TPP petitions and protests around the globe overshadowed the trade pact’s signing. In the US, people taking to the streets were led by protest group Popular Resistance and their project ‘Flush the TPP.’ New Zealand demonstrators have strongly criticized the pact as well. 

The agreement was promoted by the governments involved as a deal that would lead to unfettered free trade and the empowerment of big business in the region. However, the protracted negotiations, led by the US, have been criticized for a lack of transparency, with even top government officials complaining of being kept in the dark while huge corporations were consulted. The talks were hampered by disagreements in the spheres of agriculture, intellectual property, services and investments. US progressives, including Democrat presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, have bashed the deal, saying it will exacerbate income inequality and erode important regulations.

More controversy and discontent seems to have been sparked by the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement – a free trade deal between Europe and the US – which is considered to be a companion agreement to the TPP. The EU faced mass protests against the deal, which critics say will be anti-democratic and will lower food safety, labor and environmental standards. The anti-TTIP protest in Berlin was dubbed by some rights activists as the biggest the country has seen in years. Talks on the deal will continue in 2016.