Overview:

Protests take many forms: from revolution, to outcry in response to specific state policies, to targeted labor actions. Here are three examples of the complexity of mobilizing for rights from around the world this week.

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On Tuesday, November 29, the US and Iran played at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. It was a tense match, but not necessarily for reasons related to the game. The US Soccer Federation had originally flown an Iranian flag on social media platforms that omitted the emblem of the Islamic Republic. That was its way (before deletion) of showing “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights”. The Iranian team did not sing the national anthem before their first match, and famed Kurdish player Voria Ghafouri was arrested on November 24 for calling on Iran to end its violence, as Iranian protesters varied between wanting FIFA to remove the team, to hoping that a win against the US would bring more awareness to their struggle.

READ: Erdoğan uses smoke and mirrors in deadly strikes against Kurds

Protest is a complex and essential human activity, which runs from all-out revolution to targeted strike action against specific socioeconomic policies.

Here are three ways it’s manifested in nation-states around the world this week.

Iran: A revolution against gender oppression

Even Iranian officials have started acknowledging the many deaths of protesters in these last two months of country-wide uprisings against the regime. General Amir Ali Hajizadeh of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard included “marytrs” (state security forces) in this death count of over 300, but also recognized that this number includes many Iranians not directly involved in protests. The US-based group, Human Rights Activists in Iran, now pins these collective death figures at over 500, with more than 18,000 Iranians detained.

Farideh Mordkhani, the niece of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni, was arrested on November 23 for protesting her uncle’s “murderous and child-killing regime”, and her brother posted a video on YouTube on the 27th that includes her call for international groups to cut all ties to this regime, and alludes to the role of EU-made shotgun shells in the repression of Iranian protesters.

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But that call for stronger action has met with complexly mixed support, especially in the US. Francine Prose of The Guardian yesterday summarized some of the delicate politics that underpin global reaction to local protest: from concerns about the impact of state criticism on now-stalled nuclear treaty negotiations, to the potential for overt support from this Western country (which took part in overthrowing Iran’s prime minister in 1953) to inform local conspiracies of CIA involvement in revolutionary discourse. As Beth Van Schaack of the State Department’s Global Criminal Justice Office recently explained, while the US is helping keep tech tools open to Iranian protesters, “there’s always a danger … that this kind of direct support could backfire and put protesters at even more risk”.

Two months after the murder of 22-year-old (Kurdish) Mahsa Amini by Iran’s “morality” police, Iranian revolutionary protest has reached all 31 provinces, including 150 cities and 140 universities. According to UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Volker Turk, this is a “full-fledged human rights crisis”. But the Human Rights Council, which on November 24 established a fact-finding mission to investigate related violations, has so far only been matched in response by a few state sanctions on specific Iranian officials and agencies.

China: Mass protests against lockdowns

In China, a residential blaze that last Thursday killed 10 in Urumqi (the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which has endured some of China’s longest lockdown mandates), spilled into more intense protests than the country has seen since in decades.

Under China’s zero-COVID policies, which led to renewed lockdowns after COVID cases spiked to an all-time pandemic high for the region, citizens have been strictly confined to homes or forced into quarantine facilities, with consequences including people dying of starvation in their apartments, or being trapped during natural disasters. Firefighters in Urumqi were hindered by state policies from reaching the burning building faster, rescue workers for other emergencies have been slowed down by mandatory COVID testing, and at least one child has died (in Zhengzhou) due to medical care delayed by COVID restrictions.

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But protests, which spread country-wide despite government attempts to limit social media around the Urumqi fire, run deeper than frustration with COVID lockdowns as a general principle. In Zhengzhou, violent protests stemmed in part from Apple supplier Foxconn failing to pay its workers in a timely fashion: a situation that, amid lockdowns, left many without finances for food. In Guangzhou, a “quarantine camp” of almost 90,000 isolation pods is currently being built, which has international observers concerned after China already abused its COVID-19 passport app to curtail political dissent.

READ: Xi Jinping’s third term brings more questions than answers

Protests have not abated (Reuters confirms video footage from Guangzhou as recent as November 29), with many groups calling for Xi Jinping and the CCP, China’s sole and ruling party, to step down. China eased some COVID restrictions in response, but security forces have simultaneously pursued people who attended recent protests and police commissioner Chen Wenqing is calling for officials to “strike hard against infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces, as well as illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order”.

The US: A complex push-pull of labor rights

On Tuesday, November 29, while the US Senate passed a bill protecting the federal legitimacy of same-sex marriage, the House of Representatives planned a vote to block a potential rail strike. On Monday, President Joe Biden had expressly called for Congress to compel labor unions to accept a current tentative agreement ahead of a national shutdown currently planned for December 9. From the official White House statement:

As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement [between labor and management negotiators]. But in this case—where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families—I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.

… No one should have to choose between their job and their health—or the health of their children. …

But at this critical moment for our economy, in the holiday season, we cannot let our strongly held conviction for better outcomes for workers deny workers the benefits of the bargain they reached, and hurl this nation into a devastating rail freight shutdown.

Statement from President Joe Biden on Averting a Rail Shutdown

Labor movements decried the president’s remarks, which they argue give railroad management no need to answer the call from four of 12 participating unions (including the largest) for the industry to support emergency sick days, despite many railroad companies reporting record profits in 2021. The current deal, tentatively ratified by eight unions in September, offers 24 percent wage increases over the four-year lifespan of the deal, which amount to the biggest increases in the last half century. If a strike were to happen, all 12 unions would be involved, and it would shut down an industry responsible for 30 percent of US freight: everything from food to machinery to chemical transport.

Nevertheless, the idea that there is no way to avoid a strike save through government intervention distracts from the agency that railroad management has in this equation. It could prevent a strike by providing workers with this key benefit, which the pandemic especially highlighted as a critical component for quality of life. Biden’s remarks, and the general vote to curtail labor action, give railroad management no incentive to budge.

On the other hand, the current strike plan would absolutely destabilize the US supply chain while the country is verging on recession. People in the US are already struggling with the impact of network shortages and the costs of food, gas, and energy. Even a weeklong strike would deal a billion-dollar blow to the economy, according to the Anderson Economic Group’s calculations, while the White House believes over 750,000 other workers would be out of work within two weeks as a consequence of this labor action, if allowed to proceed.

Protests, strikes, and general populist action

Democratic action by the people is rarely easy. One does not need to live under a dictator to endure the consequences of precarious systems not built with everyone’s welfare in mind. Once an issue reaches a breaking point within any given nation-state, there is also often very little outsiders can meaningfully do that does not begin with staying informed.

But with that new information?

We can keep the spotlight on human suffering wherever it arises, and come better prepared to advocate for better policies from the get-go, in our own respective corners of the world.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.