Cultural Change: Systemic Issues Are More Than Just Protest Life Cycles

Factual Pursuit of Truth for Progress

By Kristi Pelzel

A video showing George Floyd’s death in police custody went viral, May of 2020, erupting in destructive, passionate, and violent protests against police brutality, spreading across the United States of America. Only a few weeks later, the energy seemed to die out. Portland, Oregon, however, was one of the last holdouts.

Protesters spray-painted the walls of the U.S. District Court building, set offices in the Multnomah County Justice Center on fire, launched rocks and bottles, ceasing to scale down the daily and nightly demonstrations until early July. What started as a movement for police accountability and racial justice morphed into a complex mobilization.

As the protests grew into riots, the number of disorganized demands coming in from fractured groups supporting various platforms increased. Among them were calls to defund the police, free protestors from jail, and remove government leaders from office – does this sound familiar? It should.

This global theme of grounding movements based on civil servants abusing their power and then opening conversations about more significant and systemic issues is more than a life cycle of a public campaign; it’s our culture changing. However, getting leadership and politically influential decision-makers to listen and act will take a highly organized effort with a uniform strategy to change laws, policies, and regulations that are no longer acceptable to any given majority living in a society.

From February 2019 to the present, China’s national security laws imposed on Hong Kong has driven concerns over the loss of freedom and human rights, prompting anti-government protests in the city.

BBC Tweeting, “This is not a protest anymore. This is turning into urban warfare. International editor @ggatehouse is in Hong Kong, where an activist has been shot by police in the first live round shooting in four months of unrest” — BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) October 1, 2019

Their demands; mirroring the Portland, OR protests, withdraw the national security laws, remove government leaders, end police brutality, release those arrested, and allow for greater democratic freedoms.

Social movements worldwide might differ in culture and location but are synonymous. They are marked by stages of emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization, and decline on repeat. Social movements have identified opponents and share a collective identity. Their goals can either be aimed at a specific policy or more broadly aimed at cultural change.

When they emerge, they’re likely to be disorganized, rooted in anger, but themes emerge that groups rally around as time passes. The bureaucratization stage is either characterized by higher levels of the organization and coalition strategies or fizzle out, unable to sustain momentum.

At this stage, bureaucratization sees the greatest divide among the protesters because those who are peacefully assembling realize that anarchists, paid protestors, and hoodlums have highjacked the scenes and are making progress in the wrong direction.

In his book, The End of Power, Moisés Naím writes that institutions of all types, from corporations and governments to traditional churches, charities, and militaries, are being disrupted. “Power has become easier to get, but harder to use or keep,” he writes.

If you want to effect lasting change today, inspire more people to join your cause and follow a clear and organized pattern centered around small wins. The most successful movements in history have a few qualities in common. They have a clear purpose, have more values than slogans, utilize smaller mobile groups over large masses, and focus on inspiring ‘enough’ change before pivoting and forcing real conversations and accountability over disorganized complaints.

Brit Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Franchise League in England in 1889. The League organized protests and went to extreme measures to force the British government to give women the right to vote. Mass arrests took place several times, and people went on hunger strikes. British women legally gained the right to vote on July 2, 1928 – they succeeded against all odds.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who led a nonviolent movement for change in the 1950s and early 1960s, was assassinated. Before his assassination, King was arrested, his home bombed, and he was subjected to personal abuse and threats. He traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times. He never ever gave up and never stopped turning passion into action.

He organized and created alliances with those around him but gained support from outsiders, and that was the key to his lasting success to touch people and inspire them to stand for the cause where they stand without ever having met them.

Our culture as a global community has changed many times, and it’s changing again. Clues to these changes are laid out by the United Nation’s Population Fund Assessment.

The world now has the largest generation of young people ever, economic inequality has not stopped increasing, the world’s population grew by billions over the last 20 years, women are having fewer children (meaning their goals are shifting), urban areas are growing, more people are migrating, and we see and hear about more conflict in the world through our digital connectedness.
There are essential bits of information you can pull from society’s status merged with issues on natural resources, economics, climate change, and religious trends. It’s worth taking a holistic look at the current and next movements, where societies will reach a breaking point, and where change will be inevitable to start developing solutions.
One thing is sure; these are more than ‘one-off’ protests popping up all around the globe.


Bio: Kristi Pelzel is an international communications consultant and advisor working across U.S. and African markets.  Her industry experience spans 10 in broadcast, digital, and social media communication. Kristi holds a B.A. from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco, California, and an M.A. from Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.




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