Will Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. over racial injustice spur change there and around the world? Human rights advocate Steve Crawshaw hopes so.


Will protests over racial injustice in the United States bring lasting change in that country and to other nations around the world?

For an answer, I turned to Steve Crawshaw, an author and human rights advocate with an unparalleled global perspective on human rights, resistance and change.

Crawshaw is policy and advocacy director at Freedom from Torture and has held senior posts at Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. He is uniquely qualified to comment on the global implications of the U.S. protests.

Among his books on Germany, Russia, creative protest and change is “Street Spirit: The Power of Protest and Mischief,” which examines protests around the world through a series of stories, including one involving the Black Lives Matter movement. Activist Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous artist, wrote the forward to the book.

From the newspaper’s launch in 1986 until 2002, he was a journalist at The Independent, where he reported on East European revolutions, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Balkan wars.

The transcript has been edited and compressed for clarity.

* * *

ND: Do the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States have any relevance for other countries?

Crawshaw: I think the Black Lives Matter protests have huge relevance for other countries. It’s been really interesting and quite energizing to watch what started as an American story, that people were looking at and people were shocked at various other things that they partly knew or partly discovered.

Here in Britain, it’s been absolutely huge. It’s had cascading impact in many, many different ways. It’s a very different country from the United States, but the inequalities, the discrimination, various things have all really come to surface in a way that they have not done before at all. I think many different countries around the world are both looking at America and also looking at themselves.

In Britain, one of the most dramatic things, really almost unthinkable a few months ago, was a statue to a big slaver that had been erected in Bristol and that had been controversial in Bristol, that ended up being tugged down and thrown into the water in the port with incredible echoes of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad or what I myself was reporting on at the end of the Soviet Union when the statue of the founder of the secret police was torn down.

That was very interesting to see, that huge coming to a head from events which were thousands of miles away and in a very, very different context, which has triggered a huge conversation which is still partly related to the U.S. but very much also focused in the country itself. And I think that’s true of many different countries around the world.

ND: The Black Lives Matter movement has existed for some time. Why would the protests in the United States have such resonance now overseas?

Crawshaw: It is interesting. First, just within the American context, Black Lives Matter has been there for a good few years. So in the book that I wrote on creative protest, “Street Spirit,” I was looking back, and one of those stories was about Black Lives Matter, which in 2014 had already been there but which really came to a head in 2014 with the killing of an unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown, and in a series of other things. There was a huge wave of national protests, and that seemed to have some impact at the time. Police chiefs were forced to resign, prosecutions were reopened. There were a lot of small but important changes happening then, but of course the underlying thing is none of that did change.

‘There’s no question this time will go into the history books.’

So, I think it’s never entirely predictable because, sadly, the kind of event that we now saw with George Floyd, that was not really in isolation. The fact that it was recorded and on social media had a pressure. I mean, at a time when people didn’t have video on their phones, it is dramatically unlikely that any of the cascading impacts that we’ve seen could have been had.

So, within America you can see again a pattern which you see elsewhere as well. Things bubble to surface, achieve some change, not enough, but bubble along, and then something else makes it crest again.

But your question is also why it has had impact elsewhere. That’s really hard to answer. I guess it has to some extent to do with the ‘joined-up-ness’ of people looking at things, perhaps more than happened before. But frankly, we’ve been living in a world where for a long time we’ve had TV news, which is able to broadcast live from all these different countries.

Black Lives Matter,protests,world

A Palestinian boy on a bike next to a mural of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis police custody, in Gaza City, 17 June 2020 (EPA-EFE/MOHAMMED SABER)

It’s very interesting to me, speaking as a Brit and in the UK, in Britain there have been huge Black protests, including riots and looting and so on, but protests which led to some change throughout almost my lifetime. In 1981 in Brixton, in London and in Liverpool and elsewhere. Then, again every decade, 20 years, there were some new dramas. In 2011, huge protests, very violent actually.

I say protests which they were, but actually quite unfocused. And I think that’s a huge, huge difference that we’re seeing at the moment. Two very big differences, one is that overwhelmingly the protests have been peaceful, and where they’ve been violent, actually, it’s been definitely counterproductive, but overwhelmingly they have been peaceful.

The other thing, which you see very strikingly, certainly in America, in Britain and I think elsewhere also, it’s very mixed, so it is Blacks or Black minority ethnic people speaking out on what is happening to them, but also people of all colors, of all backgrounds, saying this is about all of us, this is how we should join together. This does give me hope that this may get us into a different place, and politicians are reacting in a at least slightly different kind of way.

I think it’s a very, very interesting time. There’s no question this time will go into the history books. What comes out of it is a bit more difficult to say. Will it be in the history books? Absolutely.

ND: So you’re a Twitter user. Black Lives Matter has a hashtag. MeToo has a hashtag. Is there something about social media, maybe even Twitter in particular, but social media in general that is driving these global movements?

Crawshaw: I guess there is. I mean there’s often asked the question, is social media the game changer or not the game changer? One answer is that social media is just the latest thing that has changed life. Mobile phones before that changed life dramatically because you could let people know more easily what was happening. Before that, much earlier generations, it was the existence of telephones. You could ring somebody at home and say, “By the way,” and people would know. Radio changed things. Over hundreds of years, in the entire past century, each technological development changed protests a little bit in what it was able to do.

‘Yes, hashtags bring people together.’

When I was living in Poland, in Communist Poland in 1980, when huge protests erupted there, which changed everything else, there were no mobile phones, there was no social media. Most people didn’t even have phones at home. On the grapevine people found out, partly from radio stations which were partly blocked, but people would listen in, and you would say “Did you hear, it’s going to be on Saturday afternoon.” Then you would get a huge crowd, which just knew somehow on the grapevine. Now, social media obviously makes the sharing of things more easy to do, and yes, hashtags bring people together.

The first time we really dramatically saw that was in 2010, 2011, during the Arab Spring, now of course gone sour in every respect, but very inspiring at that time, which began partly with Tunisia but especially the really big one then was Egypt and Mubarak, who’d been in power for decades, was overthrown. Western leaders totally didn’t see that coming, which I think is often the case. They often go, “Oh, if they’re in power, they’re in power, and that’s where it is, we talk to the powerful people.”

But the fertilized ground for the huge uprising of January, February 2011 in Cairo and across Egypt was a Facebook page called “We are all Khalid Said,” which was in solidarity with somebody who had been video’d being beaten by police and died from police violence. That Facebook page gave an incredible sense of solidarity of millions being able to see, again the cliche phrase, “We are not alone.” So, in an old-fashioned context you could never quite be sure how many other people thought like you until you went out there, and that would be true even if you were just watching television or listening to radio, that you don’t have that quick sense. Whereas, social media is immediately, “Whoa, we’re all in this together.” And, yes, the hashtags themselves help kind of generate that.

MeToo, a bit like Black Lives Matter, is extraordinarily interesting for me. None of the issues were new there, and people in different ways had been trying to say it. It was a New York Times piece and then a New Yorker piece — it could have been slightly the other way around, both sets of authors had been working on it for a long time, feeling now is the moment. But people had tried to write that story, not just about Weinstein but about the issues generally, five years earlier, 10 years earlier, even longer than that. It just didn’t quite catch, or the power dynamics didn’t work, and it all got suffocated down. Now, those power dynamics on those gender issues, I would like to believe, have genuinely changed permanently. It’s very, very difficult to just brush things off.

I guess the hope of all of us must be that that is also true of Black Lives Matter, whereas in the last form of this bubbling up back in 2014 and after that, it did create change, it did create big national discussion, but a lot of fundamentals remained the same.

I would say there’s a big contrast between the current U.S. administration. Of course, we do have elections in November, so who knows what will happen from then, but with the current president, you have somebody who is so dramatically — and I would say, offensively — refusing to acknowledge the issues. In other countries, it’s a little bit more nuanced than that, the establishment is clearly unsettled but is trying harder to say, “Yes, yes, we understand. What can we do to help?” and companies and organizations are doing that as well. I think it’s extremely dangerous, and I think many of those close to him think it’s dangerous, the games that President Trump is playing are dangerous on a really historic measure. It is interesting to see that many of the people around him, including senior defense chiefs and others, have very explicitly distanced themselves from his irresponsible behavior, which has I think never been seen before in history from an American president on that scale.

ND: Do you think that the scope of the Black Lives Matter protests, in so far as they include people from many different races, do you think that that will help lead to constructive change, or does a lack of clear leadership make it likely they will eventually burn out without changing very much?

Crawshaw: On the contrary, I think it’s hugely important to have so many. As you mentioned earlier, as a journalist I covered these European revolutions. I’ve seen protests and change in many, many different countries, and both in my work at Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and now at Freedom From Torture, all meeting and inspiring people, creating change. One of the things which again and again you see, is the broader you make the understanding of why change is needed, it is self-evident that that makes it more likely that change will be achieved. So, each time that you alienate one segment, it doesn’t mean that change won’t happen, but it makes it more difficult to achieve. So, when people see things being smashed up, it’s like, “Really?” and people back off and some will go, “Yeah, I understand why they’re smashing up because the situation is so grave and how else will you be heard?” But quite a large chunk will go, “That’s not with me.” At the moment, in most places, it does remain overwhelmingly peaceful, and I think that’s a very big plus.

‘George Floyd ended up being tortured to death.’

You mention leadership. You can argue that leadership is needed. I would say from what I’ve seen, often the leader does indeed need to become well known. But I think the leadership is less important than the sense of the clarity of what needs to change. With the Occupy Wall Street movement years ago, I think one of the challenges there was that people would say it was about the one percent or it was about the inequality, and all of those things were easy to identify, but there were very few really obvious graspable, achievable solutions where there was any kind of consensus of, “Yes, let’s do that. Yes, let’s do that.” I’m not saying that’s incredibly easy on Black Lives Matter, but I think that Black voices being heard, action being taken is perhaps the most important thing, really, of accountability. It’s just obvious.

As I mentioned, I work for the organization Freedom from Torture, and on torture it’s self evident that if you don’t actually punish people who are committing torture, if you don’t lock them up or remove them from their posts, then of course the signal is that torture is kind of OK, that the prime minister or the president may say that he or she doesn’t like torture but actually that guy over there or those gangs over there who are torturing, they don’t get punished, so obviously it’s kind of OK. That’s what we’ve seen in terms of policing of Black communities. That violence has repeatedly gone unpunished.

Social media has helped change that a little bit because people are so shocked seeing an absolutely unarmed person being shot and killed or whatever it is. Or in this case, basically tortured to death is what we saw with George Floyd. You know, that knee on the throat, there was no way that that was holding back someone who was being violent, it was just inflicting, yes, it was torture. It was torture. He ended up being tortured to death. And I think the need for action is clear, and that is being called for, and I hope that will be a consequence.

To move it into a slightly different context, almost at the same time this blew up there was also the famous incident which only became famous because of social media, in an area of Central Park in New York which is famous for birdwatchers and is amazing, I never understood how it could be, but there are so many brilliant birds in that quite small area. It’s almost like a nature reserve, where dogs have to be kept on the leash for various reasons, and where a Black birdwatcher, well known in his field, was confronting someone saying put the leash on, a white woman calling 911, calling emergency services, “An African American man is threatening me. He’s threatening me.” The dangerous implications if the police could come for this “dangerous African American man” she was screaming down the phone, were obvious to all of us. That little video that he video’d saying “Please, be free, do call the police, because I’ll tell them my side. You’re breaking the rules, I am not.” Without that phone video, none of that could have had the impact that it did. Now that was a tiny little anecdote, and she wasn’t a woman in authority, but she was playing the system. She knew by saying, “Oh, an African American man is doing all these things.” What I would like to think, although it’s a slightly different context, is that both of those things become, certainly police violence might become less likely but also that mindset that goes, “I’m here, so I have all the privilege,” which is absolutely what that woman felt, that by just using that word “African American man” she could kind of dump it all on to him, that that could become less likely as well.

Now, in a sense they’re unconnected, but I think they’re not unconnected because those are all to do with the inherent inequalities and discrimination which she knew about without even needing to analyze it. She was playing to that embedded discrimination very, very strongly.

ND: White privilege after all.

Crawshaw: White privilege. Yeah, exactly. And she wouldn’t even have seen it, in a way. I have no idea how much she may have or not have learnt from this thing, where the guy almost felt sorry for her. She lost her job and various other things. But, really, it’s not about this individual, it’s about how much others who might have done the same thing are learning a little bit from what they’re seeing, to use the cliché phrase, “Check your privileges.” It was an appalling incident. There was no violence anywhere there, but the hidden background to that two-minute video, I found truly shocking.

ND: Can you cite an example of a protest that did lead to radical change and what were some of the defining characteristics of that protest?

Crawshaw: Yes, so many. It’s been my life’s privilege to witness some close up and to report on things and to be in the middle there. I mentioned briefly earlier, I was living in Poland in 1980. I studied Russian and I got to live in Poland. I was doing some work with theater and then teaching English. I was there before I became a journalist. And this organization Solidarity, mass strikes, it was said to be completely impossible to get what they were asking for, which was independent trade unions, which was almost as radical as asking for a multi-party system in North Korea today. Basically an opposition party was created. They achieved that, the tanks came in and a couple years later they declared martial law and said, “Yeah, you see it didn’t go anywhere.” But actually, in a way that I still passionately believe is understood much too little, those protests in 1980 basically paved the way for the fall of the Berlin Wall nine years later. Gorbachev’s appointment as a reformer-radical by a lot of conservatives in the Soviet Polituro was partly a response to all the pressure that was still coming in Poland. In 1989, in June, I was there for the elections, which completely got rid of the Communists. The elections were a direct result of all of those protests and pressures. And then there was a Communist prime minister, and then after that came the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that you know changed everything in East Germany itself when the wall came down.

“Because of you, Barack Obama. For John Lewis.”

Again, a date which is known for my money much, much too little, but I really encourage people to go and look it up, is the 9th of October in Leipzig, East Germany. One of the most privileged evenings of my life really, where they had threatened publicly to commit a kind of Tiananmen Square massacre, which had been done four months earlier. They had publicly praised Beijing for committing that massacre, and they basically said, if you come out this Monday night — there were weekly demonstrations — we will be shooting. It was pretty much in those phrases. It was a letter to the newspaper, which everyone knew what it meant. “We will come out if need be with weapons in our hands.” So it was explicit. Hospitals were cleared, ammunition and weapons were handed out, all of that stuff was ready, everybody, including me, had gone to a hiding place, ready not to be shot. Everyone knew what was going to happen, they thought everyone would stay at home because they were so frightened. Actually five or 10 times more people came out that Monday evening than had ever come out before, and the hugeness of that protest made the regime go, “Oh, God, this is all a bit bad.” They didn’t actually shoot. They didn’t arrest people. From there, the 9th of October through to the fall of the Wall on the ninth of November 1989, that was just a cascade of retreats.

So, if people tell you no one could have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall, that’s absolutely untrue. You just needed to look at Leipzig and what cascaded after that. The exact moment that tipped it over was a story which is quite funny but not important in historical terms, of a piece of paper which was read out by mistake in a press conference, and people tell that story quite often and it’s a good story. But was it predictable? Yes, I was working for The Independent, read what we wrote in The Independent. It was coming.

The other one I had mentioned, civil rights protests in the States, is the most obvious one, where again what’s important, true as well for those East European ones I’ve described, many people saying, “Oh, you know what, you’re taking all of these risks. And what does it change? It doesn’t change the fundamentals.” If you were in the middle of it, it’s entirely understandable why people might say that. There were dramatic generational clashes, which I totally understand, between parents and children. Many of these protests were youth led, the younger generation playing an important role. True very much of the civil rights protests in the States, which was students and other young people across Black and white but basically Black led, and often there would be clashes within the family, with the parents saying, “What are you doing? We’ve worked so hard for you. You’re now a student. You have prospects, and you do all this to get arrested. You’ll get a jail sentence, you will be banned from your university. Don’t do it.” Very understandable parental clashes. Then sometimes decades later, the parent would say, “I’m sorry that I reproached you at that time because you, my child, have opened up all of the things that happened later.”

There’s a beautiful story from Barack Obama at his inauguration lunch in January 2009. One of the invited guests to this very small lunch was John Lewis, who had played a key role as a civil rights leader as a student back, whatever that is, 50 years earlier. On the photograph, a signed photograph which he gave John Lewis, it was signed, “Because of you, Barack Obama. For John Lewis.” I thought it was a beautiful moment.

Black Lives Matter,protests,world

Rep. John Lewis, right, and then U.S. President Barack Obama embrace in Washington, DC, 24 September 2016. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

‘Yes, you can change an entire world.’

That’s a long answer of saying, Do things change? Yes, you can change an entire world. You can’t see in the moment exactly what you’ll change sometimes. I do believe passionately that nonviolence is a key thing that holds it and having allies is a key thing that holds it together.

There’s that great phrase that was originally a scientific description to do with climate and prediction and things, that the flap of a butterfly wings can set off a hurricane in the Amazonian jungle, a hurricane in Texas. That question, which was a scientific question of chaos theory and how a tiny thing here can create something else, in politics that is very, very much the case, that you have this tiny thing, and it just creates something huge elsewhere.

Greta Thunberg is an example of the butterfly wings. We can actually see the photograph of the butterfly wings flapping in that case. There was Greta Thunberg, sitting outside her school alone, with a placard for climate change, and then people got really interested in that, and then more people did it and more people did it and she has not single-handedly, of course, but she has helped to create that hurricane of change, of changing the conversation on climate change.

Black Lives Matter,protests,world

Greta Thunberg outside Swedish parliament in Stockholm, 30 November 2018 (EPA-EFE/HANNA FRANZEN)

So, does it change? Yeah, absolutely. Can it change? Absolutely. Does it always? No, but sometimes often it can be in the longer term that we see that real change rather than the short term.

ND: I never thought of Greta as a butterfly. She might like that metaphor.

Crawshaw: I hope she might. I don’t know if it’s ever occurred to her or her family. That kind of image of the small things, basically, in other words the small things creating the great change. And usually the small thing is so small that it’s not recorded by history. As it happens in this case, there was one journalist with the family who took that picture.

ND: What can young people outside the United States do if they are concerned about racial inequality in their country?

Crawshaw: I suppose knowledge and voice are the two things that really count. I think one of the things that Black Lives Matter has certainly done in the UK and elsewhere is it has opened people’s eyes to things that they really weren’t thinking about before.

Again, speaking as a Brit, there is a deep level of embedded hypocrisy in Britain’s traditional narrative, where pretty much anybody in Britain knows the name of Willie Wilberforce, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery. It was basically, “Yes, wonderful Willie Wilberforce and by extension wonderful Britain that stood up and wagged a finger at the Americans and said this is not acceptable.” So that kind of heroic narrative. I’d say William Wilberforce is an absolute household name basically. And things are named after him. But the fact that so much of Britain’s wealth and Britain’s imperial wealth and therefore its stature in the world was directly based on the slavery and what came out of it was known, and books were written about it. Of course books were written about it because none of it was secret and the documents were there. But if you went out in the street, that would be considered to be a politically controversial statement by some who would say, “But, oh, don’t you understand?”

‘Understanding is really important, and then voice.’

So I think that understanding of your own history, in each country of your own history, is incredibly important. Germany gets the gold stars, it must be said. The horror had a unique quality of what was done in the 12 years between 1933 and 1945 under Hitler, and the poison took a very long time to leach out of the system in Germany, decades really to fully leach out. What’s happened in the meantime is an incredible confrontation — during some of the earlier period of the 70s and 80s, especially, quite a gritty period, and the 60s — was young people who would go out and discover the history of their town and what had happened there. That was a very interesting tipping moment in Germany that, “OK, you’ve finally confronted your peaceful, cute little town where everything was so nice and the tourists came. Actually this chemist used to be owned by this person, this was that doctor’s surgery who was murdered in this camp, this was that person.” It became a film eventually, a film based on a true story. It was called “The Nasty Girl.”

I think that sense of gaining knowledge is not, of course, an end in itself, but it’s an incredibly important starting point, and once you’ve got knowledge, you’re more likely to feel engaged, to go like, “This needs confronting,” and seeing then all the statistics but also the things right in front of you, of the inequalities and discriminations which are built into the system in the context of Black Lives Matter, based on history.

I am struck by a number of the conversations which I think everyone has seen as well of the deep frustration of those who feel that they are obliged to “explain it” to others. I think reading is really important, to go up to someone and say, “OK, can you please tell me what your experience is like?” I still feel very uncomfortable, a number of interviews that I’m seeing or hearing, where leading politicians are asked, “Have you had experience with this discrimination? What was it like?” You think, of course, they have experience, and actually they’re not obliged to lay out what happened to them in the schoolyard, the playground. That doesn’t actually help. It’s actually the people who are not, of course, discriminated against directly but who somehow carry the burden of understanding.

Understanding is really important, and then voice. There are just so many things that can be done. Voice also means not keeping quiet. The social pressures on us not to speak out, when like, “Oh, I’m not sure I feel comfortable with that. But if I say something, I’ll somehow not be part of the gang.” I would like to think that the whole Black Lives Matter protests have made it much, much easier for people to say, “You know what? That is really out of order.”

Voices being heard and voices not being suffocated, which is kind of the same thing in some ways, two slightly different things. Actively making your voice and making sure voices are not suffocated are two of the most important things. As regards a list of things, of course there are so many in every single country that frankly needs to change.

ND: Earlier you mentioned monuments. We’ve seen statues of colonialists toppled in many countries. There’s a movement in the United States right now to rename some military bases that are named after Confederate leaders. Is there a risk, though, in the pace of change? Is there a risk that in demanding that you revisit history in such a way that it could provoke reactionaries? Is there some danger in pushing for change too quickly, in other words?

Crawshaw: I think there’s a danger in absolutely everything. In Britain, there’s a particularly ludicrous story that an episode of “The Fawlty Towers” comedy series with Jon Cleese, a very, very famous episode — I think the whole episode is called “Don’t Mention the War” — and it’s a kind of comedy-satire from the 70s about this obsessive hotel owner and his German guests, and of “Don’t mention the war,” and he keeps mentioning the war by mistake. I still argue as someone who knows Germany very well, actually that sketch is quite funny in Germany as well, they really like “Fawlty Towers.” You can say, “Oh, that was a stupid sketch,” but actually in some ways that sketch is quite interesting, the things that it plays with, of taboos and other things. But the idea that that sketch of all things needs to be taken off the streaming archives, for me is quite ludicrous, and I’m glad to hear others saying it. So that’s like way off the edge of anything that might offend somebody anywhere. That’s so foolish.

‘They are one of the weapons in the nonviolent armory.’

A different category, which I understand much better, is blackface. For example, there were a number of things, again, Britain obviously is what I’m watching most closely, but it’s true of other places as well. White people dressing up in blackface, which was entirely normal when I was growing up. Actually even in the 21st century there were still little bits of that, it was “parody,” but it was still there. Much, much less acceptable, and I fully understand that.

The one that you mentioned there, renaming of military premises, I think is super interesting. I guess Americans were aware, I wasn’t even aware who Fort Bragg, for example, was named after. It was just a famous base. I had no reason to know. I’ve been incredibly interested in going back to the subject of Trump and how he does, of course, have a very significant base who cheer him on whatever he does. I would hesitate to use such a word about an American president, but really it’s so moronic as he does some things. So he does have a base who will go with whatever he suggests. But I’ve been very, very interested that senior generals have spoken out, saying, “You know what? Actually, it’s kind of time to change this.” And I feel that’s incredibly parallel to the conversation in Britain about the Bristol statue to the slave owner and the inscription there — the a statue was put up in something like 1885 — something like, “Colston: a wise and virtuous man” was what it said on the plaque. And like “Not really wise and virtuous.” I mean he gave a lot of money to build a concert hall and build this and built that, but he actually was head of a slaving organization and made the equivalent of millions or billions in today’s money. And I find it really, really interesting that although Trump has said, “We mustn’t rename any of these things, I mean, absolutely not,” that actually senior military is saying, “This is kind of inappropriate.” So, I would like to think that if it’s done in sensible terms, you do reflect on things that you would not previously reflected on, and then use that to move forward. I think that’s a really, really interesting possibility.

ND: How does signing online petitions and engaging in social media activism fit into the larger picture of activism and protests? Are they effective methods? Or are they enough?

Crawshaw: Yeah, they are. They are one of the weapons in the nonviolent armory, I would say. This phrase that is often used of “clicktivism,” activism which is simply at the click of a button, of course it’s true that if all you ever do is click “like” or click “yes” on everything to something about elephants or lost dogs and Black Lives Matter and climate change and whatever issue comes across your Facebook page, you kind of tick that. Of course, that’s at some level completely empty.

‘If you just stop at clicking, that’s entirely pointless.’

Put differently, though, and going back to what we discussed earlier, of the power of Facebook or more generally social media in the Arab Spring, which was the first time we really saw it on that scale, for people to understand what a large movement they are part of, which you have no way of quantifying in the olden days. The only way you could quantify it was by taking the very significant danger of going out on the street, for example in the the context of the protests I described in Eastern Europe. But that sense of wide solidarity.

So in my own organization, Freedom from Torture, any other organization fighting for change, we absolutely have petitions. If you get 500 people, that’s like, “OK, I’m glad 500 people did this, but alright, well, that doesn’t really change anything.” 5000, that’s kind of, good, that already means something. But once you get into larger numbers, it does mean things, and so everything is on a gradation, and when you get millions and millions, which there have been on some of the biggest issues from climate change or on certain issues, trying stop certain kinds of weapons, for example, cluster bombs and other things. A whole bunch of things have focused minds in ways that politicians had refused to do before. Then you would hope that if you have been part of some huge part of change, then that encourages you to do a bit more. You don’t just stop at clicking. If you just stop at clicking, that’s entirely pointless.

But going back to Greta Thunberg and the climate change example, we see there that snowball of certain things, and it overlaps then. She always says, “I am not the expert. I don’t even know why you’re listening to me because all I’m doing, all I want you to do is listen to the scientists.” The scientists have a much easier way of being listened to because of this Swedish teenager, and indeed the kind of millions who will sign a petition for change. So is it relevant as part of making change? Yes. Is it something which kind of just says, “Well, yeah, I’ve done my bit because I clicked that petition and I clicked five other petitions?” That, of course, doesn’t really take us anywhere.

I think it shouldn’t be sneered at but nor should it be seen as an answer to the world’s ills, which clearly it is not.

ND: Do the protests against racial inequalities have implications for international relations? Both Russia and China have called on U.S. security forces to respect protesters’ rights. Would a continued crackdown by U.S. forces against protesters embolden autocratic leaders elsewhere? Conversely, if the U.S. adopts legislation reforming police departments, will that embolden protesters in other countries and lead to reform elsewhere? So the question really is, what impact could what happens in the United States have on international relations more broadly?

Crawshaw: I think potentially quite a lot. I mean, we’ve already talked about how the protests themselves have ripple effects, in this case, almost tsunami effects sometimes elsewhere. I’ve also been really interested by places that could be thought to be only focused inwards but are actually interested in the States as well. So both in Hong Kong and sometimes almost more interestingly in Syria, we have seen kind of solidarity protests with those in America. Either feeling simple solidarity with what is happening over there or feeling solidarity and parallels at the same time. I think those things quite often overlap, but it’s a kind of signal of the world being joined up together.

But also you rightfully put on the table that sense of emboldening repressive regimes is a huge issue. It is entirely unsurprising that state television in both Russia and China have gone to town on the pictures of police violence in America, and I’ve already seen some stuff that was really interesting. It wasn’t from either of those countries, actually. This was from Zimbabwe. There was a a tweet from the U.S. embassy in Zimbabwe saying Zimbabwean authorities must not do this, that and the other. It was to do with protests and legitimacy. I’m not saying it would’ve been listened to, but at least you would have had a degree of legitimacy in a context where America is obeying the rules. But in the current context, I think it’s quite brave, unless it was a kind of gentle satire by somebody in the embassy, which is conceivable, but otherwise there’s kind of a disconnect between what the U.S. embassy is telling the government in Zimbabwe to do and what is happening at home, it is so gross that any Zimbabwean would go, “Please!” So I think that is very worrying and troubling, and it’s been an obvious thing always.

‘I am hopeful.’

We see it as well again in the area I work on most, on torture, I mean it’s unbelievable that Donald Trump — we’ve never had this before, we’ve had presidents who let torture happen, with George W. Bush after 9/11 torture became well known, as we all know, in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. But we didn’t actually deny it was torture. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but they could see that torture was bad, they redefined torture pretending it wasn’t, which was a lie in itself. Trump doesn’t even do that. Trump says, and I quote here, “Torture absolutely works.” Well, America is still signed up for all these international treaties, which absolutely ban torture. You do have to feel sorry for the poor U.S. diplomat or the State Department trying to tell some other country, “Please don’t torture.” If I was the repressive president of Country X, I would just turn around and go like, “You do it yourselves. You know, listen to your president.” You know whether that be Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Sudan or Congo, wherever it’s been happening, those kind of things, they absolutely lose credibility. So that’s really saddening.

I’m not saying that America was never a pure moral leadership, I mean anyone that looks at history knows of the troubling times, let alone being in bed with military regimes in Latin America and elsewhere in the 70s and 80s. But the fact is, America’s voice did count for something in quite a few contexts. I saw it myself when I was working in New York at the United Nations. America’s voice on the Security Council could sometimes carry weight in a positive sense. This makes it really, really difficult. So I think that’s really very, very saddening.

I normally wouldn’t make partisan, political statements, but I think the times are so strange, I would say openly, I very, very much hope for America’s sake but for the world’s sake that there will be a change of administration in November. I don’t feel convinced about it, and I think that’s where everybody’s voices needs to be heard to understand the country needs a degree of humanity and common sense and empathy. Those things are very basic. They are all underpinned by the law, which also tries to have those things there. At the moment, we have a leader who is going in the other direction, and I think that is very dangerous if that is allowed to continue.

To end on a slightly more hopeful note, I am hopeful that what we’re seeing at the moment, both on the streets with overwhelmingly peaceful protests and we are seeing from large chunks of the senior establishment going, “No, this is not the way forward. We need to listen, we need to think, we need to be careful moving forward.” I really hope that’s the direction of change for the future.


  1. How has social media changed the nature of protest movements around the world?
  2. Why does Crawshaw talk about “butterfly wings”?
  3. Do you think the Black Lives Matter movement will lead to fundamental change in the near term?
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