A Love Song to Freedom Fighters: 2015’s Radical Movements

Concerned Student 1950 supporters jump and chant during a march through University of Missouri campus on November 13, in Columbia, MO. (Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that asked, “Why are student protesters so fearful?” Conceding that young people have much to fear -- briefly ticking off rape culture, the “grotesque proportions” of police brutality towards black people and rising hatred toward immigrants -- Gitlin proceeded to bemoan a supposed lack of courage among today's young people, compared to their 1960s counterparts.


Setting aside the fact that laws limiting public expression have increased exponentially in the last 50 years and that violence against protesters is swift and severe, I read Gitlin’s screed with the same bewilderment that accompanies any conversation with someone who refuses to acknowledge progress in favor of propping up memories of their youth. It charitably occurred to me that maybe he's been trapped under something heavy in recent years -- perhaps an old boulder-style PC with dial-up internet. That might explain how much he’s missed.

The truth is that today’s radical actions are far more nuanced, organized and networked than in any other period in history -- with young people and visual culture driving much of it. I don’t need to write a list here of the terrible things that happened in 2015. Violence, bigotry and hate seemed to reign. The news was often an onslaught, leaving us with barely enough time to recover from the previous week’s brutality before being tossed into greater horrors.

Thankfully it was also an amazing year of resistance. Deciding to embrace this moment as a movement unto itself is one way to shift away from narrow thinking, and recognizing the bold new territories of resistance is another. This is a mere sample of highlights from a year of radical actions and global movements that kept my faith in the future alive.

Turkish men wearing skirts demonstrate in Istanbul, to support women's rights in memory of 20-year-old Ozgecan Aslan.
Turkish men wearing skirts demonstrate in Istanbul, to support women's rights in memory of 20-year-old Ozgecan Aslan. (Photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Feminist Action

2015 was a decidedly powerful year for dismantling the patriarchy. Women tech workers took out a full-page ad in the Palo Alto Daily Post to thank Ellen Pao for her gender discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Following the jury’s verdict against Pao, the Twitterverse likewise erupted with its support via #ThankYouEllenPao. A win in the courtroom, it would seem, is not the only measure of victory.


In May, the Oakland-based BlackOut Collective answered a national call to action with a topless demonstration in San Francisco’s Financial District during morning rush hour, protesting state violence against black women and girls. Later in the year, after an anti-domestic violence mural was vandalized and censored for nudity, Puerto Rican women bared their breasts in protest.

Turkish men took to the streets of Istanbul in skirts for women’s rights and to honor Ozgecan Aslan, a 20-year-old student who was brutally murdered after fighting off a bus driver’s assault. #ozgecanicinminietekgiy (“wear a miniskirt for Ozgecan”) went viral overnight.

Emma Sulkowicz carries a mattress in protest of Columbia University's lack of action.
Emma Sulkowicz carries a mattress in protest of Columbia University's lack of action. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

This was the year former Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz carried her dorm mattress at graduation. It was the culmination of her yearlong protest performance centered on her own complaints of assault, a performance that prompted national dialogue around the college rape epidemic.

This was also the year Los Angeles-based violinist Mia Matsumiya leveraged Instagram to expose ten years of lewd messages sent to her online.

And in an awesome show of intersectional feminism, the Girl Scouts of Western Washington opted to return a $100,000 donation when the donor stipulated that the money could not be used for transgender girls. Instead, they launched an Indiegogo campaign that raised three times as much in less than 48 hours.

Concerned Student 1950 group supporters chant during a march through University of Missouri campus on November 13, in Columbia, Missouri.
Concerned Student 1950 group supporters chant during a march through University of Missouri campus on November 13, in Columbia, Missouri. (Photo: Getty Images)

Beyond #BlackLivesMatter

Few images of determination have been more inspiring than that of artist activist Bree Newsome scaling a flagpole at the South Carolina Capitol to take down the Confederate flag. (The title of this essay is borrowed from a song Newsome recorded, inspired by events in Ferguson and dedicated to younger organizers.)

Similarly inspiring images came out of the student-led movement against racism at the University of Missouri, initiated by #ConcernedStudent1950, and from the thousands of students who walked out of Berkeley High in November after racist threats were found on a library computer.

#BlackLivesMatter persists as a rallying cry for systemic change in numerous ways. San Francisco teacher librarians created a Black Lives Matter Resource Guide for classrooms. Following the discovery that Florida police used mugshots of black men for target practice, white clergy responded with #UseMeInstead and offered up their own images for the shooting range.

On the anniversary of the police shooting and killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, activists raised a banner reading “Racism Still Lives Here,” in front of the St. Louis Arch, using oversized balloons.

Artist and writer Chris Cobb successfully lobbied to memorialize the site of New York’s historic municipal slave market on Wall Street. Paramount sent free DVDs of Selma to every high school in America, while Dylan Marron’s Every Single Word project cataloged every word spoken by a person of color in numerous mainstream films. It was recently named Tumblr’s number one blog of the year.

Tenacity and Resilience

Throughout 2015, hate speech, terrorism and intolerance were quickly met with images of tenacity and resilience. San Francisco arts activist group Street Cred altered anti-Muslim ads on city buses paid for by right-wing organizations with messages featuring fictional Marvel super heroine Kamala Khan and summoning “all bigotry busters” to denounce hate speech. Following the murders of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, Mohammad Alsalti, a design student at the University of Cincinnati instinctively took to Instagram with a memorial image that swiftly went viral.

Inna lilah wa inna ilayhi rajioon. Rest in peace Deah, Yusor, and Razan. Amazing people gone way too soon. *Original Design*

A photo posted by Mohammad Alsalti (@teddycreates) on

After so much carnage without hard data in many areas, The Guardian launched an online initiative called The Counted to document people killed by law enforcement in the U.S. (1,103 as of press time). Rapper Calvin Broadus, otherwise known as Snoop Dogg, initiated a campaign to urge investors to dump gun stocks. Banksy protest posters objecting to a local arms fair appeared all over London in September.

Following the San Bernardino massacre, Igor Volsky, a contributing editor at ThinkProgress.org, used Twitter to expose the hypocrisy of government officials who express sorrow after gun massacres while simultaneously accepting money from the NRA. It was one the most provocative uses of social media reportage seen this year.

Karim Wasfi, former director for the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, plays on his cello next to debris in Baghdad's Sunni Adhamiya district on May 15, 2015, in a symbolic act of protest against violence.
Karim Wasfi, former director for the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, plays on his cello next to debris in Baghdad's Sunni Adhamiya district on May 15, 2015, in a symbolic act of protest against violence. (Photo: SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Peaceful Resistance

Elsewhere, generosity offered a form of peaceful resistance. In the aftermath of violence in Baghdad, Iraqi musician Karim Wasfi, former director of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, could be seen in a suit playing his cello on top of smoldering ash and rubble. In the same spirit, a German musician towed his piano with his bike through the streets of Paris to play John Lennon’s “Imagine” outside the Bataclan theater where so many people had been killed the night before.

Meanwhile, Parisians flocked to Twitter to offer their homes to strangers stranded throughout the night with the hashtag #PorteOuverte (“open door”). Following the attacks in Paris, France announced plans to invest in cultural preservation as a strategy to thwart ISIS’ goal of cultural destruction.

Design for "Refugees Welcome Sticker Set."
Design for "Refugees Welcome Sticker Set." (Courtesy: Burlesque of North America)

The plight of migrants spurred a global dialogue around racism, otherness and colonialism. More than 200 British activists staged a body bag protest to raise awareness around the issue. More than 11,000 Icelanders organized on Facebook to offer housing for Syrian refugees. Students at London’s Goldsmiths College, a respected art school (and my alma mater), rallied to raise funds to launch scholarships for refugees and asylum seekers.

In response to the current crisis and rising anti-refugee sentiment, independent brand consultant Veda Partalo collaborated with design studio Burlesque of North America to produce a storefront sticker campaign to welcome refugees into businesses. Most recently, a Chicago group of non-Islamic schoolgirls donned scarves in solidarity with their Muslim classmates.

Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, "Ice Watch," 2015.
Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, "Ice Watch," 2015. (Photo: Rebecca Solnit)

Climate Activism

Climate activism rocked the internet with righteous rage all year long, from covering the floor of the Tate Modern in charcoal script, to dangling from the Portland Bridge (who doesn’t love the word “kayaktivist?”), to occupying the British Museum and spelling out “NO” with umbrellas, to numerous acts of poetic civil disobedience during the Paris Climate summit. Media favorites included images of Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing’s Ice Watch, a melting installation of glacial ice set in front of Place du Panthéon.

Joe Viex's meta Indiegogo campaign.
Joe Veix's meta Indiegogo campaign. (Courtesy: Death and Taxes)

New Tactics

Around the world, people looked for ways to amplify gestures of solidarity, creating a composite of resistance images that have expanded tactical possibilities. San Francisco-based writer Joe Veix slyly culture jammed Indiegogo and tanked efforts to raise money in support of the South Carolina police officer who murdered Walter Scott. A group of artists and activists used red chalk to directly demonstrate Boston’s 1930s history of redlining neighborhoods to limit home ownership. Protestors occupied San Francisco’s Airbnb headquarters, lifting anti-gentrification messages into the atrium with balloons.

Rounding out the year, the University of California divested roughly $25 million of investments in private prison corporations after the Afrikan Black Coalition, UC's network of nine Black Student Unions, revealed these holdings in the University's investment portfolios.


As our concepts of public space and freedom of assembly evolve, so do the tactical responses to resistance. There are still, of course, peopled protests -- and when they are peaceful without police conflict, they are amazing, moving sights to see. But also moving are the newer modes of resistance and demonstration we see unfolding online every day, knitting solidarity within dispersed communities working toward inevitable change. Even if it looks nothing like the past, the future looks bright -- not because young people are replicating the tactics of bygone eras, but precisely because they are expanding them in new and unfamiliar ways. Here's to ever more in the new year.

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