by William Stupp
In tandem with the COVID-19 pandemic, political movements are spreading across borders. Equally transmissible, ideas are stirring unrest, protest and empowerment in several countries. 2020 can be compared to 1918, when the last great pandemic struck, but this year also resounds with echoes of 2011, 1968 and 1848, times in which protest movements leapt across borders.
Putting aside more localized protests like those taking place in Belarus, Thailand and Hong Kong, two distinct, transnational political movements are now being cultivated in our viral petri dish of a planet: the renewed anti-racism crusade, and a groundswell of public outrage surrounding governments’ efforts to control the virus. Though differences abound between Black Lives Matter and the various groups opposed to fighting the virus, the two movements have more in common than simply existing at the same time. Interestingly, anti-corona groups are borrowing arguments normally associated with left-leaning feminist rhetoric about bodily autonomy.
Both movements are broad, decentralized and multifaceted. Within each camp, devotees differ on their ultimate aim. Some want to reform law enforcement and combat racism, others aspire to abolish capitalism and the police in one fell swoop; some believe that lockdown regulations are too strict, others contest the very existence of the virus and allude to a vast and malicious conspiracy.
This kind of cacophonous messaging is the norm for mass movements, but today’s unrest is remarkable for the blurred lines between left and right. The language and symbolism of the protests against health and social-distancing regulations are not what one might expect. Many opposed to lockdowns are using phrases long-owned by the left, a political orientation more easily associated with BLM.
No mass protest is fully compatible with the social-distancing demanded of our age. In several countries, anti-racism and anti-lockdown protests see large groups of people congregating in relatively close-quarters. But BLM protesters do seem more concerned about mitigating the risks of demonstrating. Masks are common site at rallies, though they are not always worn correctly. Unsurprisingly, those attending other protests, some of whom doubt the existence of the virus, are much less likely to take the necessary health and safety measures.
In the generalized view of many, those taking to the street against pandemic regulations are right-wing while those more supportive of the measures lean left. This is certainly true in America, where polls show Republicans to be far less concerned about the virus. Though the distinction is not so clear or dramatic in Europe, the trend does seem to hold. Germany’s far-right AfD has supported some of the protests in Berlin. Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet, the respective leaders of the PVV and VfD, the two most right-wing parties in the Dutch Parliament, have both criticised the government’s response for being too heavy-handed.
The recent demonstrations in Berlin, where protesters likened lockdowns to fascism and government leaders to Nazis, were countered by others who warned those taking part that they were “marching with fascists”.
The Netherlands has also seen demonstrations, albeit at a much smaller scale. The situation is just as perplexing. In both movements, ‘anti-fascists’ seem to be putting in a hefty share of the legwork. Beyond Antifa’s predictable appearances at BLM protests earlier this year (anti-racism demonstrations which, for the most part, were remarkably compliant with social distancing), protesters decrying the ‘fascism’ of corona-induced restrictions were spotted at events in The Hague in August. To make matters even more confusing, at an earlier demonstration in the same city, out-of-breath protesters chanted against both lockdown and the Antifa movement.
Old words, new meanings
In America especially, anti-social distancing protests have co-opted certain cherished phrases of the left. In a sardonic echo of the slogan championing women’s right to abortion, demonstrators contest the requirement to wear masks by proclaiming “My Body, My Choice”. Similar signs were spotted in Berlin, where a multitude of LGBT flags waved amidst the sea of protesters.
Reminiscent of the leftist Occupy Movement and anti-globalization protests which accompanied the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999 and the G20 summit in Hamburg in 2017, today’s more right-leaning crop of protesters loudly proclaim their hatred of certain billionaires. “Fuck Bill Gates” signs have been held aloft all across Europe and America. This stems not from a political desire to redistribute wealth but is born of conspiracies which connect the founder of Microsoft and other members of the ultra-rich to a global master plan either engineer the virus or fake it so as to control the population (the details differ from person to person). Either way, the cabal’s endgame is, apparently, to disenfranchise people and establish a totalitarian reign of fear.
A clearer picture on race
Though the precise goals of the anti-racism protests, spanning continents but unified by the proclamation that ‘Black Lives Matter’, are by no means universally-agreed upon, their cause and messaging are a bit clearer than that of those opposing the virus-induced safety measures. Some activists push a broader, anti-capitalist front while most are focused on acknowledging histories of racial injustice (by removing statues of white-supremacist figures), ending discrimination and initiating police reforms (a particular concern in the US). The message is to fight oppression.
Broadly speaking, the anti-corona camp espouses the same thing: they just see oppression differently. They are motivated not by centuries of discrimination but by months spent away from bars, concerts and events and the burden of having to sometimes wear a mask. Seen in this light, the emotional cores of the issues which motivate each protest camp are, in a perverse way, similar.
BLM marchers shout that they cannot breathe, echoing the last words of George Floyd before his death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Many others, across Europe and America, repeat the same phrase, referring to the less life-threatening pressure of being obliged to wear a light mask.
Global virus, global movements
Just as the virus has spread across borders, so have two distinct protest movements. Despite their different reasons, each represents a call-to-action against what is perceived to be an oppressive force. Traditional distinctions between left-wing and right-wing movements are less clear-cut in 2020 than they used to be. Perhaps because of this melting away of clear lines, in today’s movements there is a remarkable degree of overlap today between the language of the anti-corona regulation protests and left-wing movements of the past. Rhetoric, it seems, might be just as contagious as the virus itself.