Ordinary people passionate for change — these are the protesters of the 21st century.

They line streets around the world and occupy squares for weeks on end.  They harness social media to raise their voices louder than their oppressors. They come from different countries, cultures, and economic situations, but they are all one thing: inspired.

Over the past eight years, the number of protests per year has increased. According to an analysis of over 800 protests gleaned from news organizations worldwide, Initiative for Policy Dialogue found that the number of protests per year increased from 59 in 2006 to 112 by mid-2013.

“I think the attitudes of many have been shaken,” Anya, a protester from Ukraine said in an article from the Guardian. “People are less apathetic now. People know that the future depends on every single citizen.”

And already in 2014, there have been a number of protests. A quick scroll down Google News or through the world news section of your newspaper of choice, and you will see that this trend has continued on into 2014. Already this year, there have been a number of social movements.These include protests in:

  1. Ukraine
  2. Bosnia
  3. Venezuela
  4. Russia – Olympics – Gay rights
  5. Thailand
  6. United States – Keystone XL

(Click each county’s name for further information on the protests.)

Why all these protests?

“I think the attitudes of many have been shaken,” Anya, a protester from Ukraine said in an article from the Guardian. “People are less apathetic now. People know that the future depends on every single citizen.”

Protesters in Ukraine last November. Photo courtesy http://static2.businessinsider.com/image/529cae2369bedd0f72851f30-1200-600/ukraine-protest.jpg

Ukraine is currently featuring prominently in the news. Over the past three months, protesters congregated in Independence Square in Kiev to show their disapproval of the former government’s unwillingness to commit to becoming more closely integrated with the European Union. The protests turned destructive, with violence between the protesters and police resulting in 77 deaths in 48 hours and almost 600 wounded.

The protests in Independence Square succeeded in removing the former president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych from office. The installation of a new interim government did not result in peace however. Protests have continued in light of Russia’s invasion of Crimea, a southern, independently governed region of Ukraine.

These protests may seem distant, because they are mainly tied to national causes, but people from almost every country have unified and spoken up for a cause in the last few years.

From the Middle East to Europe to South America to North America, protests in countries researched by the Initiative for Policy Dialogue represent 91.9 percent of the world population.

What causes people to protest?

The people of Ukraine believed their country’s future rested in tightening ties with Europe, so much so that people protested in Independence Square for three months. Even more, people were willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause. And this degree of sacrifice has happened not only in Ukraine.

Kiev, Independence Square before and after the protests turned violent. Photo courtesy http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/10653804/Kiev-riots-how-violent-clashes-have-transformed-Independence-Square-into-a-war-zone.html

People often look to the suicide of a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in 2010 after feeling hopeless in the face of an unjust government as setting off a chain reaction of protests in the Middle East. After this tragic demonstration of hopelessness, people in countries across the Middle East began protesting against their governments in uprisings named the Arab Spring.

What kind of causes run deep enough to make people be willing to die for them?

Research by the Initiative for Policy Dialogue found four main reasons for protests since 2006.

These are:

  1. Economic Justice/Anti-Austerity: 488 protests
  2. Failure of Political Representation and Political Systems: 376 protests
  3. Global Justice: 311 protests
  4. Rights of People: 302 protests

Already in the first months of 2014, protests have fallen into each of these main categories.

For economic justice, Bosnia and Venezuela. For failure of political representation, Ukraine, Crimea, and Thailand. For global justice, the Keystone XL protests in the United States. For rights of people, the protests in Russia surrounding gay rights and the Olympics.

But these four factors are not enough to spark the intense and long-lasting protests of the last few years. What is needed is passionate people to take on these factors as deeply important causes and mobilize their fellow citizens.

A recent article in the Guardian recorded three interviews with Ukrainian protesters who were present at the protest in Independence Square from the start.

A student takes part in a protest against Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela.
A student protester against the government in Venezuela. Photo courtesy http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/18/venezuela-protests-us-support-regime-change-mistake

The voices of the protesters show a strong passion for change that gives the heart to issues like political representation and rights of people.

For one of these Ukrainian protesters, she views her fellow citizens who are extremely dedicated to the cause as “heroes.”

“I am extremely embarrassed to admit it but I am a much more passive participant of the demonstrations now than I used to be. … But I am proud to know quite a few people who were and are there all the time. They are the real heroes,” Anya said.

Following the violence in the square after the previously peaceful demonstrations, Anya believes the people of Ukraine have come to see that all citizens are needed to stand up and defend a cause.

Protests are no longer a creature of special interest groups; they have become movements that encompass entire nations. They have been harnessed to overcome undemocratic situations by giving masses of people a voice in an unconventional fashion.

Of the protests analyzed by the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, 37 of 383 protests analyzed had one million or more protesters, and the largest protest may be one of the biggest in history. For example, in India in 2013, 100 million people protested against low living standards, attacks on wages and the need for better labor conditions and attention to inequality. In Egypt as well, there were approximately 17 million people involved in the protests that sought to oust former President Morsi.

Another Ukrainian, Anastasiia, said to the Guardian, “No one is ready to leave Independence Square yet, until the new government demonstrates achievements, until justice is served to ex-politicians and police, and until there is real peace in the country.”

This indicates that people participating in protests are involved because they truly believe in their country and want what is best for it to become a better place for its citizens to live. With the lack of an honest democratic forum to voice their demands and instigate change, they find their own ways in the streets.

In Bosnia, more than 10,000 factory workers raised their voices against the government following factory closures and unpaid salaries. The protests, which began on Feb. 4, have since spread throughout Bosnia.

2014-02-06T183600Z_1_CBREA151FO900_RTROPTP_2_BOSNIA-PROTESTS. Dado Ruvic.Reuters
A protester sitting before the police in Sarajevo this February. Photo courtesy http://uk.news.yahoo.com/anti-government-protests-show-signs-spreading-bosnia-183600416–finance.html#shOpNp5

“We haven’t seen violent scenes like this since the war in the 1990s,” Srecko Latal, an analyst at the Social Overview Service, a research organization based in Sarajevo, told the New York Times. “People are fed up with what has become total political chaos in Bosnia, with infighting over power, a dire economic situation and a feeling that there is little hope for the future.”

This is emblematic of what the Initiative for Policy Dialogue calls the desire for “real democracy” around the world.

Real democracy is “understood as the call for a society in which people participate directly in the decisions affecting their lives and experience the benefits of liberty and equality in their daily lives.” The lack of real democracy was the cause of 26 percent of all protests from 2006 to mid-2013.

Protesters are primarily angry not at the conditions in which they live, but at the governments that prevent them from voicing their concerns in order to alter those conditions.

Or, in some cases, ignore the protesters. Despite the widespread protests in Bosnia, Suad Zeljkovic, the prime minister of the Sarajevo regional government, has dismissed the Bosnian peoples’ anger.

“In Sarajevo, no one has reasons for unrest and actions like this,” Zeljkovic said as reported in the New York Times. “There is not a single unpaid salary, nor does any sector of society have reasons for dissatisfaction.”

The Initiative for Policy Dialogue found, “Not only authoritarian governments but also representative democracies both old and new are failing to listen to or represent the needs and views of ordinary people, and people are increasingly responding in protest.”

Although governments would like to deny the demands of their constituents, citizens are not planning to give up easily.

In Ukraine, a protester, Alex, said to the Guardian, “I am confident that I am doing as much as I can in today’s war. And I am confident that another win for the Ukrainian people is on its way. I’ve taken part in the demonstrations for the entire three-month period, visiting each and every one of the most dangerous.”

In democracy, the government is meant to represent the people. However, Alex views the protests as the Ukrainian people versus the government. They are disillusioned with their leaders, and by the killings. The subsequent invasion by Russia has only solidified the unity of the protesters.

“I’m still going to Maidan [Independence Square] despite the fact that the protests are now in Crimea,” Alex said to the Guardian. “People from Ukraine have visited Independence Square far more often than at any time before. It’s a safe and peaceful place after immense bloodshed. Each corner of the square is covered with flowers and candles; it is a tribute to the ‘Heavenly Hundred’ — those who gave their lives for Ukraine’s freedom and independence.”

This idea of the “Heavenly Hundred” displays a glorification of the people killed in protest against the perpetrator of their dissatisfaction.

What’s the difference between social movements now and in the past?

Revolutions against governments are not new to the 21st century. Both the American and French Revolutions, involved people revolting against aristocracies they saw as disconnected from the common citizen. What’s new is the global dimension to protesting.

Protests are no longer intra-country. They spill across international borders through the media and social media. With the modern-day capability of reporters to file a story from anywhere, and the endless capacity of the internet, protests play out on a global stage, with millions around the world watching.

This increased global media attention allows for an increased ability to see others protest, be inspired by and learn from protests in other countries. The Arab Spring is one example of this. A series of protests spread from country to country across the Middle East after the Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire in protest of his government.

Not only does global media add a new dimension of awareness to modern protests, social media increases the networking capabilities of citizens looking to organize a protest. In Egypt, social media played a significant role in mobilizing citizens and bringing them to Tahrir Square in 2011.

The Initiative for Policy Dialogue found that demographics of protests are changing as well. Today, there are many middle-class protesters from the young to retired who are joining in speaking out against the government. They are participating not only in rallies and marches, but also engaging in forms of civil disobedience, including occupying city streets and squares and blocking roads.

Protesters outside the White House uniting against a proposed natural gas pipeline from Canada to the United States. Photo courtesy america.aljazeera.com

Aly Johnson-Kurts, 20, Reuters reports, was present at a demonstration outside the White House on Sunday, March 2. Close to 400 people were arrested at the demonstration against the Keystone XL project, which involves building a pipeline from Canada to the United States to transport oil sands to US refineries.

“Our future is on the line. The climate is on the line,” Johnson-Kurts said. “She said she had decided to get arrested on Sunday. ‘When do we say we’ve had enough?’”

The Keystone XL protest shows how not only the methods and demographics of protests are changing, but also how causes are also morphing to include more issues like environmental causes and human rights, rather than just anti-government agendas.

Looking forward

What about countries like North Korea and Cuba, where social movements are strictly prohibited by the government? Will their citizens be willing to stand up against repressive regimes, where corruption is rampant and basic human needs are left unmet?

Most likely, the number of protests per year will continue to rise globally or remain elevated for some time. In democratic countries, people are increasingly protesting for broader concerns, like the environment.

Even more telling, there are still many countries lacking an effective democratic system around the globe. If, as the Initiative for Policy Dialogue research indicates, real democracy remains a key concern, then there are many more protests on the horizon. These are a prelude to a drama played out on the global stage as people seek self-determination and governments responsive to their deep longing for freedom.

Feature photo courtesy http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/15/ukraine-protests_n_4449949.html