Activism from abroad: How to understand global social movements

This article comes from the Global Desk, a collaboration between The Gazelle, WSN and On Century Avenue. Read more by searching ‘global.’ This is an opinion piece.

I was sitting inside my friend’s dorm on the edge of Union Square the other night when a slow drone of police sirens started to fill the air. As we ventured outside, we were greeted with shouts of “Hands up, don’t shoot.” It was the day after the grand jury in Ferguson ruled to not indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. As a result, crowds of protesters filled Union Square to demand justice, carrying signs and chanting slogans as they marched while police officers watched.

As I walked through the protests that night, I wondered about my role in all of this. As a Canadian, am I justified in participating? If so, what role should I play? While Canada has its own problems with racism and violence, the shooting of Brown seems to be a problem rooted in American context — the result of distinct race relations and the militarization of police departments.

The eruption of anger in the United States over the Ferguson decision placed me — and fellow NYU Abu Dhabi students studying in New York — in a particularly conflicted position.


At NYUAD, it is easy to feel isolated from local conflicts. We feel it is not our place to participate in protests and demonstrations in our host country. Yet whenever revolutions and protests break out in our home countries, I see my classmates glued to their computer screens. They follow the news as closely as possible, trying to feel as though they were actually there.

In her recent article about the protests in Mexico, NYUAD sophomore Dominique Lear commented, “Had I been in Mexico City on Nov. 20 — and I can’t believe I am writing this — I would have walked down to the center of the city with my fellow Mexicans asking, begging for change.”

This points to the second conundrum of activism in the cosmopolitan age: how does one participate in struggles back home from the other side of the world? Are we justified in participating, given our separation? I have struggled with both of these issues: wondering if it is justifiable for me to participate in local issues, and lamenting the fact that I cannot participate in action back home.

In Abu Dhabi, I worked with the Student Interest Group Ecoherence to organize Biiah, the first youth environmental conference in the Persian Gulf. As a non-Emirati citizen, I wondered whether I was justified in starting an environmental movement in a country I still knew little about.

In New York I was quickly swept into NYU Divest: a group of students, faculty and alumni who are pressuring the university to divest their $3 billion endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. I learned about the campaign and gained skills for environmental activism including rallying, petitioning and action-planning.

While NYU Divest works toward many of the same goals as Ecoherence, such as halting climate change, our approaches were virtually opposite. It was not the objectives of Ecoherence’s campaigns that required translation, but our methods.

While an activist in New York, I realized I needed to be well-versed in its history. I needed to know the American canon of activism, including the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement and the AIDS recognition movement. That history is particular to this country, and  many activists fail to recognize that some of these struggles are not universal. It is naive for organizations abroad to emulate an American style of activism — what works in the United States might not necessarily work internationally.

This is a complex reality for NYUAD students and faculty to navigate. Not only are the struggles different, but effective systems to create change are also foreign. In order to grant each social justice movement its legitimacy, we must broaden our perspectives.

We must recognize that oppression and injustice occur because of the particular realities of a region. Assuming that struggles are homogenous around the world often serves to discredit local activists who seek equality on their own terms. Too often international activists impose their own concepts on local struggles.

Despite the need for separation, however, it is important to stay connected to political, social and environmental justice movements back home. Global change always starts with local movements. We can fight for a better world by fighting for justice in our own communities.

At the time of writing, it is Friday, four days after the Darren Wilson ruling. New York activists are staging “Blackout Black Friday.” They have refused to buy anything today and will gather in the evening for a large rally. I will be there, and so will many other NYUAD students.

So long as I am in the United States, I will continue to stand in solidarity with American struggles. I will continue to fight for environmental justice and will continue to push for political reform. Here, my frustration takes the form of physical protest and bodies in the streets, but I realize the danger of transplanting these methods to other contexts. Stand in solidarity and demand a better world — just remember to do it in that nation’s language.

Email Louis Plottel at [email protected]




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