The Anatomy of a Protest: New Lessons from America

The Anatomy of a Protest: New Lessons from America

We are living in a unique moment in history when a pandemic has held the world hostage for a few months now and yet it is not the sole focus of our attention because there are still even more dramatic things happening around us. One such spectacle that has captured America’s and now global attention is the series of protests against police brutality following the death of an black man George Floyd at the hands of police. The context of this event is uniquely American, with the conversation on police brutality and high-handedness having a long history in that country. This context can not be directly translated to India and no sharp judgements can be made without an idea of those lived experiences, but I argue in this article that the ‘method’ of the protests that followed is more general in nature. This template can be used by destabilising forces in India in the future and is something that must be guarded against and prepared for.

The Anatomy of a Protest

Learning from the course of events in the USA, if someone were to attempt to enact a similar situation in India what exactly would they have to recreate? How likely are they to succeed in this attempt? To answer such questions, we can break down the method of a protest into these procedural parts and look at them individually:

  1. The spark
  2. Ground action
  3. Legitimisation through culture

The Spark

The ‘spark’ is the event that sets the whole phenomenon in motion. It is the emotional seed of the movement that follows, in its potential it is like the first domino of the domino effect. Being an emotional seed, it has to be dramatic and visual in nature, it should be able to synthesise emotion. In the case of George Floyd, we have the moving picture of a black man collapsing helplessly on the street, the weight of a policeman’s knee on his neck, his life slowly going out as he cries out “I can’t breathe!”. A powerfully charged moment.

Even with the individual at its centre, this moment has to transcend the individual and be able to be folded back into a conversation that already exists. This is what gives it its suggestive and symbolic power. The George Floyd moment, for example, directly flows into the conversation around police high-handedness and an even bigger conversation around the racial issues in America.

If a similar moment were to be looked for in India, several faultlines would present themselves. Depending on the need of the narrative, virtually any case of caste-related or communal conflict, no matter how out of context or misleading, could be fashioned into such a moment. A dalit man whose murder was misleadingly linked to his caste, a deadly brawl over a seat that was spun into a communal conflict, all of these are examples of how media ecosystem with little oversight in a politically charged atmosphere can be easily utilised by destabilising forces to create ‘sparks’.

Ground Action

This is the most crucial part of the protest because it gives the movement visibility through press coverage. It can be thought of as a participatory ritual with its own set of norms and practices. Ground action can be of many types, ranging from more restrained methods like candle marches to hawkish methods like blocking of roads, occupation of public areas etc. When uncontrolled, they may also turn violent and lead to cases of rioting or looting.

In India’s case, a weak state combined with increasingly sophisticated use of social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp for propaganda and mobilisation could result in a very fertile ground for the ‘spark’ to become a raging fire. The successful use of technology makes a centrally planned and yet decentralised movement possible.

Two examples that show how potent all of these factors can become in a low-fact, high-emotion environment, and how they can lead to quick mobilisations and simultaneous flare-ups all across the country:

  1.  The recent anti-CAA protests which occurred in “at least 94 districts across 14 States”, of which “close to 48% of protests recorded at least one violent incident”. The biggest showdown of these protests happened in the Shaheen Bagh area of New Delhi, where the protestors blocked a major Delhi road and occupied it for over a 100 days.
  1. 2018 protests against the alleged dilution of SC/ST Atrocities Act also saw violent agitation across different states, with roads blocked, shops forcibly shut down, buses damaged, and many people left dead in efforts to control the situation.

Legitmisation through Culture 

In social sciences, ‘legitimisation’ refers to the process by which an act (here, the act of the protest) becomes acceptable to the society at large by being attached to specific norms, symbols and practices. Culture, being an influencer of social norms and practices, has great legitimising power. Celebrities, journalists, social media influencers, social media trends, brands, all of these taken together become networks of cultural capital which can make any conversation mainstream.

So far as the phenomenon of the protest is concerned, legitimisation is a meta process that gives it a universal moral dimension. In this process the question moves from the concrete – a question of policy, an incident or a law, into something more abstract and universal – a question of justice, a statement against hate, oppression, persecution etc. This shift of protest’s justification from ‘issue-based’ to ‘morality-based’ makes it easy to propel it into global limelight. The international media coverage of the recent anti-CAA riots is a great example. Notice the headlines such as “As repression in India gets worse, notable figures remain silent” (Washington Post, January 4), “As Protests Rage on Citizenship Bill, Is India Becoming a Hindu Nation?” (The New York Times, December 16), “India erupts in Protests as Modi Presses Vision for Hindu Nation.” (The New York Times, December 17).

Another aspect of culture is its pervasiveness. That is why when it mainstreams a conversation, that conversation finds its way into every home, every whatsapp group, every conversation circle. In this aspect too, the recent anti-CAA outrage was a huge unprecedented revelation in its ability to polarise and spawn intense conversation. These conversations along with the performative aspect of the protest and the sheer ease of making a grand moral statement would all ensure that the protests can gather a buffer crowd who are not the victims rallying for a cause but the people in solidarity, this makes the appeal to universality even more concrete. In the current George Floyd protests, it is the sizable number of non-black people in the swelling crowds that give it an air of universalism.

All of these factors taken together make culture a critical force in the protest, giving it a moral dimension, adding aspects of performance to it, making it a subject of debate and conversation, bringing it to global limelight, and as a result of it all, thwarting the chances of protest being subjected to physical uprooting by the government.


In this article, the method of protest has been broken down into its elemental parts to show that India’s faultlines make it very vulnerable to the exact same phenomenon we see raging in the USA right now. All the raw elements required for such a flare-up are already present here and have become partially visible in a number of incidents over the past few years. On the aspect of culture especially, India is deeply vulnerable to any such potential destabilising plans owing to the near total ideological capture of cultural institutions. 

The spectacle in the USA must serve as a lesson to India and should prompt us to carry out a realistic assessment of our vulnerabilities on all levels.

Featured Image: NBC News

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