The protests and unrest that defined 2021: Coronavirus, climate change and the Capitol riots

World

By Claire Parker | Dec 21, 2021

It has been a year of major protests and unrest — 2021 began with a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and ended with hundreds of thousands demanding civilian rule in Sudan.

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The pandemic fueled new movements around vaccinations, lockdown measures and covid-19’s adverse economic effects. This caused a rise in far-right groups and an increase in libertarianism.

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While economic woes tended to dominate the global protest landscape in the past, governance issues took center stage this year — a continuation of a recent trend. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recorded 72 anti-government protest movements this year through November — down slightly from the same period in 2020, but significantly higher than the pre-pandemic count in 2019.

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Insurrectionists loyal to Donald Trump swarm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post

Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post

Democracy and democratic backsliding

Concerns about real or perceived subversions of democracy pushed people around the world to mobilize online or take to the streets.

Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post

On Jan. 6, President Donald Trump’s attacks on the integrity of the country’s voting systems reached a violent climax. The world watched as a pro-Trump mob breached the U.S. Capitol, trapped lawmakers and vandalized the seat of Congress, leaving a trail of broken glass and existential questions in its wake. Five people died during or immediately after the attack, and 140 police officers were assaulted.

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Trump supporters scale the walls on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol and gain access to the building during the insurrection in Washington on Jan. 6.

Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post

Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post

A decade after the Arab Spring uprising toppled Tunisia’s dictator, a new generation of Tunisians defied coronavirus restrictions in January to voice their anger at political leaders and the government’s failure to improve the economy. Protests continued over the summer — and on July 25, President Kais Saied fired the prime minister, suspended parliament and seized broad powers. Throughout the autumn, demonstrations against and for Saied’s actions continued. Saied declared in December that next year would see elections and a constitutional referendum.

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Protesters face Tunisian police officers in Tunis on July 25.

Hassene Dridi/AP

Hassene Dridi/AP

People shout slogans as they attend a protest in the city of Sidi Bouzid on Dec. 17, the 11th anniversary of the start of the Tunisian uprising.

Riadh Dridi/AP

Riadh Dridi/AP

On Oct. 25, Sudan’s military detained the prime minister and dissolved the government, dealing what many feared would be a fatal blow to the country’s fragile democratic transition. Hundreds of thousands protested against the coup throughout December. Peaceful protests were met with deadly violence from security forces that left at least 45 dead and hundreds wounded.

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In November, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was reinstated — but protesters weren’t satisfied. On Dec. 19, they turned out in huge numbers, as rumors swirled that the country’s military leaders were on the verge of resignation.

Riadh Dridi/AP

People march to the presidential palace, protesting against military rule, in Khartoum, Sudan, on Dec. 19.

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

Myanmar’s military seized power on Feb. 1 and detained Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s political leader. Many thousands of people in Myanmar joined the general strike to stop violence. In March, security forces opened fire on protesters and killed more than 100 people in one bloody day — including children. By mid-December, activists say, the death toll had reached more than 1,300.

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

Many residents of Myanmar’s cities fled the violence. Some pro-democracy activists, meanwhile, set up “self-defense” units. In September, a shadow government declared an armed revolt.

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

Anti-coup protesters run around a makeshift barricade during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar, on March 28.

Protesters stand behind a barricade on March 27 in Yangon, Myanmar.

Russians kicked off 2021 with mass protests calling for the release of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. More than 3,000 people were arrested over one January weekend in demonstrations across dozens of cities and towns. Russian police beat protesters with batons, as they shouted: “Police are the shame of Russia.”

Russian authorities clamped down further, but protesters returned to the streets in April.

A pro-Navalny protest in Moscow in April.

Nanna Heitmann/MAGNUM PHOTOS/FTWP

Nanna Heitmann/MAGNUM PHOTOS/FTWP

Public health

As the coronavirus and accompanying restrictions swept the world for a second year, new protest movements gained steam.

Nanna Heitmann/MAGNUM PHOTOS/FTWP

In France, summer weekends brought mass demonstrations against the government’s “health pass” system and requirement that health-care workers get vaccinated. Right-wing activists, nurses and restaurant workers marched in protest of the government’s “health pass” system and requirement that all health-care workers be vaccinated. Extremism experts warn that these demonstrations could lead to far-right recruitment.

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In November, violent protests against coronavirus restrictions broke out in Guadeloupe and Martinique, two of France’s overseas departments in the Caribbean. The French government responded by sending special police officers and postponing a mandate to vaccine health workers. However, the demonstrations raised more questions regarding the governance of the department and the French government responded by sending special police forces to the scene. They also delayed a mandate for vaccines for health workers.

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Anti-health-pass demonstrators stage a protest next to a cafe terrace outside the Constitutional Council in Paris on Aug. 5.

Michel Euler/AP

Michel Euler/AP

People walk through a roadblock made of burned vehicles and debris in La Boucan in Sainte-Rose, on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, on Nov. 30.

Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

Protests broke out across Europe in November as governments tightened coronavirus restrictions amid rising cases.

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Thousands rallied in Vienna on Jan. 31, despite a ban on the gathering.

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In Brazil, meanwhile, angry citizens blamed President Jair Bolsonaro — known worldwide for espousing virus-related conspiracy theories — for failing to stop covid-19 from ravaging the South American country. Brazil racked up the world’s second-highest coronavirus death toll while hunger and unemployment increased.

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Reuters

A demonstrator holds a sign that reads “Vaccine now” in Portuguese during a protest against President Bolsonaro’s handling of the covid-19 pandemic in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on June 19.

Marcelo Chello/AP

Marcelo Chello/AP

This year also showcased what Thomas Carothers, senior vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, called “the battle of technology,” as digital tools catalyzed protests in some cases and facilitated their repression in others.

Marcelo Chello/AP

In Thailand, where young people are “very technologically sophisticated,” Carothers said, protesters harnessed online communication platforms to great effect — mobilizing to demand the prime minister’s resignation over his handling of the pandemic. These demonstrations evolved into an even larger movement calling for reform of Thailand’s monarchy.

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Thai pro-democracy protesters hold up a three-finger salute during a March 24 rally in Bangkok.

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Getty Images

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Reuters

Economic grievances

For developing countries, the economic effects of the pandemic have been devastating. Protests erupted around the globe because of empty stomachs and gas tanks.

Reuters

Thousands filled Cuba’s streets in July in the biggest show of resistance since the 1990s. Anger at rising poverty and limited access to coronavirus vaccines, medicines and electricity fueled the demonstrations.

Reuters

Police beat and arrested demonstrators, and authorities restricted Internet access. By October, the extent of the crackdown was coming into focus — and hundreds of people remained in jail.

Reuters

A man is arrested during a demonstration against the government in Havana on July 11.

Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

Riots in South Africa paralyzed the country in July. Protests spread in response to the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma in connection with a corruption probe. Zuma supporters blocked roads in KwaZulu-Natal Province and set fire to trucks. Mass looting of shopping malls and grocery stores, clashes and racial violence followed, and the government sent troops to quell the unrest.

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More than a thousand people were arrested and hundreds died in the worst spell of violence since the end of apartheid in 1994. Commentators see the destruction and theft as an answer to economic inequality and widespread unemployment.

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African National Congress (ANC) supporters protest outside the courthouse in Verulam on July 30, where seven of the suspects who were arrested for various crimes during the recent unrest requested bail.

Gulshan Khan/FTWP

Gulshan Khan/FTWP

After Colombian President Ivan Duque’s government proposed an overhaul of the tax system in April, Colombians responded with a national strike. The government withdrew the tax proposal, but protests continued, increasingly animated by outrage over police violence and calls for the government to alleviate economic suffering exacerbated by the pandemic.

Gulshan Khan/FTWP

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Reuters

Protests that Indian farmers launched last year against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s effort to liberalize the agricultural sector continued through 2021, sustained by protest camps structured around mutual aid. Tens of thousands blocked roads outside Delhi, drawing international attention via Twitter. After trying for a year to repress the protests, Modi gave in to farmers’ demands in November, apologizing to them and announcing he would repeal the farm laws. The movement disbanded in December.

Reuters

Farmers block railway tracks at Devi Dasspura village on the outskirts of Amritsar on Dec. 20, during a demonstration demanding compensation and jobs for the families of those who died during protests against the central government’s agricultural reforms and other economic issues.

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Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images

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Human rights

Protesters took to the streets of Warsaw and other Polish cities in late January after a near-total ban on abortion took effect. The conservative Catholic nation had already severely limited abortion, and Poland’s constitutional court ruled in October 2020 to ban terminations of pregnancies with fetal defects.

Reuters

The death of a 30-year-old pregnant woman in September revived protests this fall around the abortion restrictions, prompting Polish authorities to clarify that doctors should act to save a mother’s life or health.

Reuters

Police officers are reflected on a mirror held by a protester during a demonstration against a new antiabortion law in Warsaw, on Jan. 28.

Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Israel and the Palestinian territories experienced a major flare-up of violence this year. Israeli settlers had moved to displace some 70 Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, galvanizing a broader Palestinian protest movement against the Israeli occupation.

Czarek Sokolowski/AP

In early May, Israeli police confronted Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and on the Temple Mount, leaving more than 250 Palestinians injured. An 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip, ensued. Nearly 250 Palestinians and 12 people in Israel died. Protests continued through the year in Sheikh Jarrah, where one family faces eviction at the end of this month.

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Palestinian citizens of Israel demonstrate against the war in Gaza in Tel Aviv on May 18.

Kobi Wolf/FTWP

Kobi Wolf/FTWP

Climate change

World leaders huddled in Glasgow, Scotland, in November for a United Nations climate summit described by some as the last best chance to save the planet. Climate activists were unimpressed. Climate activists 40143057 and an iceberg from Greenland a homemade bulls— cart.

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The protests featured creative costumes, an iceberg shipped from Greenland and a homemade “bulls— cart.” Still, the conference produced an agreement that many activists and world leaders described as disappointing.

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Demonstrators march during a “Global Day of Action” protest on the sidelines of the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 6.

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