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Were they worth it?: Key protest movements over the decades

LONDON (AP) — The protests that left much of the world in a haze of tear gas last year were slowed by a pandemic – until the death of George Floyd sparked a global uprising against police brutality and racial inequality.

From Hong Kong to Khartoum, Baghdad to Beirut, Gaza to Paris and Caracas to Santiago, people took to the streets in 2019 for the pursuits of freedom, sovereignty or simply a life less shackled by hardship while few prospered. It seemed as if the streets were agitated everywhere but the United States.

Now, after the death of Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who died in police custody when a white officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for several minutes, protests rage around the globe. Police or military brutality and racism are universal dynamics that are experienced in many societies.

The very nature of a protest suggests a fervent desire for change, the need to right a perceived historic injustice. It’s a means to an end. But to what end? Depending on the government the activists are demanding change from, the results can be varied.

Demonstrations were held last week in solidarity with American protesters, but Floyd's death also had resonance and reverberations far beyond U.S. shores because of those lives lost closer to home in similar circumstances.

As the coronavirus crisis eased in China, protesters in Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous territory, began to emerge again. And Beijing moved swiftly to quash the movement that caused unrest for months last year, enacting a national security law that would effectively end the existence of one country, two systems.

A democratic government that is amenable to the changes may enact legislation, or a change of leadership can be forced at the ballot box. An authoritarian regime, however, does not often bend. Protesting against a dictatorship can be a life-or-death struggle which may even require activists to make a deal with the country’s military. Confronting tyranny can also backfire, the result a more dictatorial leader or a ruinous civil war.

Here's a look at some of the key protests of recent decades and what they achieved or failed. AMERICAN CIVIL RIGHTS The protests that erupted across a scarred U.S. landscape last week had the unusual characteristic of being largely leaderless and are still evolving, though the Black Lives Matter movement was focal. During the critical era of the 1950s and '60s, Martin Luther King Jr., who led the 250,000 strong March on Washington in 1963, and Malcolm X were colossal 20th century figures, representing two different tracks: mass non-violent protest and getting favorable outcomes “by any means necessary." The Civil Rights Acts, initiated by the Kennedy administration, and Voting Rights Act were passed by the Johnson administration, which was sympathetic to tackling endemic racism in the nation. These were key inflection points. But social injustice and the Vietnam War continued to dominate the American decade and beyond, reaching a crescendo of civil unrest in 1968 which has been echoed in 2020.

Democrats in Congress are proposing an overhaul of police procedures and accountability, but like so much in Washington this has been snagged by partisanship. Key Democrats, including presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, are also distancing themselves from liberal calls to “defund the police” as President Donald Trump and his Republican allies blast the proposal.

THE IRON CURTAIN FALLS Revolution was in the air in Eastern Europe in 1989, powered by a flowering of civil resistance to overthrow Communist rule. One-by-one, countries fell in a reverse-domino effect — Washington had always been concerned about the dominoes falling in the Soviet Union's favor. The final Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, laid the groundwork for this tectonic shift. The Berlin Wall fell and one-party rule was swept aside in East Germany, Poland and other states once cast as being behind the Iron Curtain, mostly bloodlessly — the exception being in Romania where the tyranny of Nicolae Ceausescu and his family was ended by a firing squad on Christmas Day. This period also included a “Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia, which was the historical antidote to the Prague Spring, a period of liberalization in embracing “communism with a human face” that was ruthlessly crushed by more than half a million Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops in 1968.

THE ARAB SPRING AND THE CURRENT REDUX It was two decades before the world witnessed another wave of protests consume an entire region. This one was the first to be captured on a new digital platform, social media. After decades of dictatorship and kleptocracy, the Arab World became intoxicated by the heady mix of possibility and immediacy. And rulers did fall: in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Tunisia in 2011. But only the latter transitioned to a democratic next chapter.

Egypt now lives under even more authoritarian rule, where all dissent is extinguished and thousands languish in prison. Yemen and Libya have been torn to shreds by conflict and humanitarian catastrophe. Syria exploded quickly from an uprising against the Assad dynasty to ruinous civil war which still continues with more than half million dead and millions displaced.

In neighboring Lebanon and in Iraq, civil protests erupted last October against ruling elites. Lebanon is suffering a confluence of crises as it lurches on the cusp of national bankruptcy. In Iraq, too, where protesters had been killed in scores, the health care system is not equipped to deal with COVID-19 and the loss of oil revenue is hitting hard. Protests seem likely to reignite in both places.

THE SPIRIT OF 2019 AND 2020 Sudan captured much of what civil disobedience and protest can achieve — as well its painful cost with many killed and systemic rapes — as the fragile transition to a new era continues. The protest movement succeeded in ousting a longtime military strongman who faces genocide and war crimes charges. President Omar al-Bashir was toppled in April 2019, forcing the creation of a joint civilian-military ruling “sovereign council.” But the civilians are struggling to assert authority in the face of the military’s power.

Hong Kong's protests, which began one year ago this week, seemed to embody all the facets of democratic aspiration: But the clear intent of President of Xi Jinping and the overwhelming might of China's People's Liberation Army makes it ever more likely that the territory will be under Beijing rule much sooner than 2047 as agreed upon. The landmark 1997 agreement in which the British colony was formally handed over to China, had stipulated things would remain unchanged for 50 years.

Tamer Fakahany is AP’s deputy director for global news coordination and has helped direct international coverage for the AP for 17 years. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/tamerfakahany.

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