A global pandemic would have been disruptive enough. But 2020 was not just the year the world ground to a halt and went to battle against the coronavirus. It was also a year of mass protests and major political upheaval.
This spring, Europe saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets following the killing of George Floyd in the United States to denounce police violence and systemic racism in their own countries. In August, the contested reelection of strongman Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus sparked a massive popular outcry from a pro-democracy movement that has since faced brutal repression at the hands of security forces. And this fall, a court decision to further restrict access to abortion in Poland provoked an intense backlash against the government and the Catholic church. There were anti-lockdown protests; demonstrations against school closures; pushback against a new security law in France that would forbid citizens from filming police.
POLITICO spoke to four female activists who played a central role in organizing demonstrations this year and asked them to reflect on the experience. The following excerpts have been adapted from those conversations.
On July 19, 2016, Assa Traoré’s younger brother, Adama, died in police custody. It was his 24th birthday. For the past four years, she has led a campaign demanding justice for her brother. That effort has put her at the center of a heated debate, pitting activists like Traoré, who are denouncing police violence and racism, against the government, which denies that either is a systemic problem in France. The cause of Adama’s death is still a point of contention, with multiple expert medical assessments having reached different conclusions. This year, her activism became part of a global movement, after the killing of George Floyd in the United States sparked mass protests around the world. In June, shortly after Floyd’s death, tens of thousands of people responded to her call for action and marched through the streets of Paris under the banner “Justice for Adama.” She has since won the U.S. BET network’s Global Good Award and was named a 2020 Guardian of the Year by TIME Magazine. She was also featured in British designer Stella McCartney’s spring 2021 collection.
I started this fight in my brother’s memory. So to see it become international, to see it go beyond France’s borders four years later, I tell myself — we’ve succeeded. We’ve succeeded in pulling back the veil on this France, with its racist police, this France that calls itself democratic and makes part of its population suffer such inequality and injustice. That the whole world can see this now is, for me, a victory.
It was surreal to see my brother’s name on a protest sign on the biggest avenues in New York this summer. Our group [the Truth for Adama Comittee] has been fighting for years. Except that now, it feels like the spotlights suddenly turned on. I don’t think of the media attention as being about me. I see it as a sign that we were successful in making ourselves visible to a world that didn’t know us. It means that what I said moved them, affected them somehow, and that’s what’s really powerful. It’s a feeling like, wow, Stella McCartney will get involved in the fight against police violence. It’s entirely unexpected and would have seemed impossible a year ago.
Of course, the more we’re talked about, the more we come under attack and the more we’re in danger. Attacks from far-right and fascist groups online have become more intense this year. They make up stories about me, about my brother. But it doesn’t worry me; on the contrary, I tell myself it means I have power over them. What’s important is that we’re moving forward. Today, it’s impossible to talk about injustice and police violence without talking about the fight for Adama Traoré.
The pandemic didn’t hold us back. We had to cancel appearances and invitations to speak, but we became more visible to the larger public. People were at home, they were spending much more time online and they were paying more attention. There was an enormous increase in police violence during the lockdown and videos of those incidents were everywhere. People’s lives were on pause, and so they became spectators to what was happening around them. They saw these things and realized, this is not normal.
I’m very worried about the way police violence is being discussed in France. Most democratic countries questioned themselves after the terrible video of George Floyd’s death. France seems to be the only one that hasn’t. On the contrary, they want to make it illegal to film police officers. It’s scandalous. It seems that the more we move forward in our fight, the more the French state is becoming repressive and violent. At the same time, we now occupy a much larger space in the public sphere than before. We’ll keep claiming this space and reinforce our position — that’s our goal.
Belarusian activist Olga Kovalkova, a trained lawyer and co-chairwoman of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party, is one of the most recognizable faces of Belarus’ pro-democracy movement. She was serving 10 days in jail for her role in protests in the aftermath of August’s contested presidential election — which saw longtime autocratic ruler Alexander Lukashenko claim victory — when she was driven to the Belarusian-Polish border and put on a bus to Warsaw. Kovalkova, who ran in the presidential primaries and is now a member of the opposition Coordination Council, a body set up by the opposition to work for a peaceful transition of power, said she is determined to continue to fight for democracy, even from abroad. When we spoke, she had just returned to Warsaw from Brussels, where she was among the group of Belarusian democratic opposition figures awarded the EU’s 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
In a dictatorship, in a situation when the elections are falsified each time, it’s very hard to believe that something will change. I myself was doing everything in my capacity to win, but I was preparing for any result because we couldn’t predict what would happen.
The strategy of this year’s campaign was to inspire people and to support their faith and their energy. The fact that there were so many new faces in the campaign — such as [jailed presidential candidates] Viktor Babariko, Sergei Tikhanovsky and [opposition figure] Valery Tsepkalo — helped a lot; they energized people.
We asked Belarusians to go to polling stations on election day and participate as much as possible. So people came to find out the results and in many cases, the local polling stations had already counted the number of people who didn’t vote for Alexander Lukashenko. So it was obvious when authorities showed figures that were not true that the victory actually belonged to the people.
During the first days and weeks of the protests, I actively participated [in] and supported various groups, including workers’ strikes in Minsk and women’s protests. Everywhere it was possible, I was taking part. Together with the team of Viktor Babariko, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and Valery Tsepkalo, we were talking to the people and encouraging them.
It was not a struggle for me to take on this role; it always came naturally to me to be a leader, even in my youth. I get courage from love — love for myself, for the people around me, for my country. Personally, I want to have the opportunity to develop my potential, to be safe, to think and say what I want, to exercise my constitutional rights, and to choose the people in power every five years. And as a lawyer, I want to see that the law is the same for everyone. I do not want to endure this lawlessness and humiliation. That is what has led me to do what I’m doing.
Even from Poland, I know that it is important to continue this fight. The Coordination Council is a unique structure that represents all groups of Belarusian society and Belarusians trust it to be their voice in dialogue with authorities. I am determined to make sure the Council continues its work and continues to apply pressure on authorities to engage. We have three demands: to free all political prisoners; to stop the violence of the state and punish those responsible for that violence; and eventually, new elections.
The reason that the media paid so much attention to protests in Belarus, in my opinion, is that Belarusians made a clear choice and came out in such large numbers to protect their choice. That hasn’t happened before. It is also due to the perseverance of Belarusians who, in spite of all of the violence, intimidation and threats to their lives, are continuing to go out into the streets and say they don’t agree with the repression and jailing of the political leaders who have their trust.
On the day of the arrest of Viktor Babariko, for example, it was raining heavily in Minsk and still people stood for hours in the streets to show they do not agree and will not just take this as normal. When I was in prison, five female students who were arrested at a Sunday march were in my cell and they told me that once they get out they will go out to protest again on Sunday, and any other day.
We have changed as a country, as a people, as citizens. We are not the same as before. That is the main thing we achieved this year. And we will continue to change our country in 2021 and beyond that. Lukashenko will not manage to stay in power. We will make sure that we are the ones who will be influencing decisions and forming our country according to what we think is best for it.
On November 6, 12-year-old Anita Iacovelli had an idea: Tired of studying from home, she wrapped up against the cold and sat down with her laptop in front of the gates of her middle school in Turin, which moved classes back online this fall amid a second wave of coronavirus infections. The sign next to her read: “Learning at school is our right.” Her one-person protest soon grew and inspired students across the country to take similar action.
I miss everything about school. I miss my classmates; I even miss the teachers. What I’ve done over the past few weeks comes from these feelings.
I never thought it would put me in the spotlight. My goal wasn’t to end up on TV. At first, it was very difficult because so many journalists called to ask for interviews, but I have gotten used to it.
During the first coronavirus wave, I understood the government’s decision: We didn’t know anything about the virus, and opening schools wasn’t an option. But now it’s different, and forcing us to stay home is unfair.
In September and October, we all went back to school and we saw that it is safe. We all wore masks, we kept the windows open. But when the numbers started to grow in November, only younger students were allowed to physically go to school.
At first I protested alone. Now there are around 15 people with me. Every morning, our parents drop us off in front of the regional administration building and we follow our online lessons from there.
Some professors support us, others don’t. But that’s okay. The minister of education, Lucia Azzolina, called me and thanked me. She agrees with our protest. I know that many criticize me on social media; they tell me that I am influenced by my mother, but that’s not true. She supports me, but this is my idea and comes from my needs. Besides, I avoid reading the comments, so I don’t feel bad about it.
Everyone asks me if I was inspired by Greta Thunberg. She is certainly a girl I admire very much, but I did not think of her when I went to my school that first morning.
I am happy because the politicians are finally listening to us. Our group just had a hearing with the cultural committee at the chamber of deputies. It is not often that kids are listened to.
I would like everyone to understand that by taking away our ability to physically go to school, they are taking away our social life too. And not all my classmates are able to follow lessons online, not everyone has the tools, not everyone has access to the internet.
Greta Privitera contributed reporting.
As the founder of Inicjatywa KaWtan, a Polish foundation dedicated to women’s art, Magda Górecka had taken part in marches related to women’s issues before. But this year, she says, was different: When the Constitutional Tribunal ruled on October 22 that abortions for reasons of fetal abnormality violate the Polish constitution — sparking a massive outcry across the country — she went from occasional participant to active organizer in her hometown of Szczecin. The experience of standing shoulder to shoulder with huge numbers of Polish women and men denouncing the government and the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, often at serious personal risk, was revolutionary, she says.
The first weeks of the protests were chaotic. We didn’t have a specific plan. We organized demonstrations overnight and announced them using social media. They usually started in a city’s main square, where speeches and performances were held, and then became a peaceful march either to PiS headquarters, significant monuments or churches. Like many other activists, it took a heavy toll on my life: I didn’t eat, I didn’t get enough sleep, I didn’t have time for anything else.
We tried to maintain social distance and insisted everyone should wear a mask. But it was difficult to enforce. Of course, we were afraid of getting sick. But our determination was stronger than that. Police used tear gas and batons against demonstrators, even those who were members of the opposition or the media. They also wrote down my citizen ID number many times. I expect I could face fines or be taken to court.
At first, right-wing and government-controlled media ignored our protests. They hoped we would go away. Later, they described us as “a deadly virus cloud” hovering over the country and claimed we wanted to kill all unborn children. We also became the target of PiS supporters, who disapproved of our demands that women be free to choose whether they want to have an abortion. People spat on my car, because it is covered in stickers and slogans from the protest.
At first, I was scared. But there were so many cars like mine in the streets, and shops and offices hung posters in their windows to show their support. We’re also better organized now: We have a network to support women who decide to have an abortion, a network of lawyers who work pro bono, printing shops that make posters and stickers for free. So many people and businesses have lent us their support. That has given me a lot of strength. It reassures me that it is worth it.
The situation is still very tense. To be honest, I’m still frightened. I know that this is a war — a war against the government and the Catholic church.
I see these protests as a form of patriotism, even if I am driven by anger. I am fed up with telling my children that they should get an education and leave the country so they can make a life somewhere else — somewhere with better work prospects and more tolerant values. I am fighting for them to be able to live here, for things to be normal again in Poland.
I’m happy that these protests echoed around the world. I hope this means that Polish society won’t be seen through the prism of PiS’ absurd and intolerant policies. What is happening here gives hope for women in other countries. It shows that it is worth fighting for your rights and freedom of choice.
Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.