Around the World in 13 Acts of Youth Protest

When It Breaks It Burns is a show that occupies the whole building it’s staged in – and into the streets outside. Made by young people from Sao Paulo who occupied their schools when the government threatened to shut them down, it got us thinking – what do youth protests look like around the world?

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Image description: a group of Brazilian students, mostly men, sit in classroom chairs in the middle of the road. The man at the centre has his arms folded and stares down the camera. The photograph was taken by Alicia Esteves, one of the performers in coletivA Ocupacao.


Here in the UK, Advocacy Academy has been grabbing headlines – and making their own – over the last few weeks. Fake wraparounds on 5000 free London newspapers turned Metro into Metru and the Evening Standard into New Standards. The absence of British colonial history from our school curriculum was their lead story, but they made use of the whole double page spread, saying, ‘Every aspect of our false covers captured a Britain we’d like to see.’ Find out more about their work here.

Advocacy Academy

Image description: a commuter reads a copy of ‘Metru’, with the headline Boris Backs Empire Education, and the sports lead story a racism enquiry into the FA. The picture is obviously unrealistic – the commuter is riding the Victoria line, and both seats next to them are empty.

One of the most successful student protests of the 20th century happened in Eastern Europe. Eight days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, students in Czechoslovakia took to the streets, triggering the end of 41 years of Communist government. The spark that set Prague alight that week (now known as Palach Week) was a memorial protest marking 20 years since 20-year-old student Jan Palach set himself on fire in an act of opposition to the Soviet Union.

No round-up of youth activism would be complete without mentioning 17-year old Greta Thunberg, whose dedication to the climate crisis has made her a household name. In August 2018 Greta began skipping school to sit outside the Swedish parliament, after Sweden experienced heat waves and wildfires, and pledged to continue her ‘strike’ every Friday. She’s inspired enormous turnouts of young people around the world at Climate Strikes, gaining as many fans for her excellent twitter game as for her activism.

Across the Atlantic, the US has seen its fair share of student protests. One of the earliest recorded is the Butter Rebellion of 1766, where Harvard students were punished for calling out the rancid food they were served on campus. Stateside protests since then have embraced more serious causes. Kent State University in Ohio was a powderkeg for anti-war activism in the 1960s and 70s, and four students were killed in May 1970 while protesting American bombings in Cambodia. Following a spate of high school shootings in recent years, American students began the March For Our Lives movement, calling for stricter gun control laws. The demonstration in 2018 featured a speech from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 9-year-old granddaughter.

Harvard butter protest

Image description: a coffee-stained historic cartoon of male undergraduates in tailcoats and curly wigs up in arms in their Harvard canteen over some rancid butter (butter not pictured)

You’ve probably seen the photographs of one man blocking the path of advancing tanks at student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in China, 1989. One UK newspaper identified the famous ‘Tank Man’ as 19 year old Wang Weilin, who risked his life for the cause of political and democratic reform. Fast forward 30 years, and the news is full of footage of students barricading themselves into university campuses in Hong Kong to resist a law allowing criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China.

Another amazing, though less famous, story of youth activism from Asia is the deposition of President Suharto in Indonesia, where campus protests  against massive price rises for fuel and energy culminated in students occupying the parliament building in Jakarta, and ending a 32 year rule in May 1998.

South Africa now celebrates Youth Day on 16th June, but the story behind it is one of the darker episodes in the history of student protests. Black school children led an uprising in 1976 after Afrikaans was made the default language of the classroom. There’s no definitive figure of how many people died in these protests – the police give it as 176, but some estimates say up to 700. More recent South African student demonstrations have happier endings: the #FeesMustFall prompted the government to deliver on a long-promised commitment to free university education.

LasTesis, a Chilean theatre company, wrote a song in response to rape culture and victim blaming at the end of last year. Videos of mass performances in public places, performed wearing blindfolds, began to flood in from around the world, from Amsterdam to Australia. And it showed that movements started by young people can impact change across generations, with one 71 year old in Santiago saying ‘I cried the first time I heard Un Violador en Tu Camino.’

It’s the commitment of Brazilian students in Sao Paulo that got us started looking into young activists, so it’s only fitting that Brazil is where we finish up. We’re hosting fifteen of the students who occupied their own classrooms in response to government threats to shut down their schools. They turned their story into dance, theatre and live music and Battersea Arts Centre is the latest space they’re taking over with the show. They’re showing us up close the power of young people to change the world, and we’re celebrating that and learning from them. On the last Friday of the run we’re hosting a symposium to talk all things art, activism and young people. Come along to discover the front line of global social change first hand. (2)

Gif description: Brazilian students in brightly coloured clothes dance around, jumping from one leg to the other, freezing as they punch their fists in the air.

When It Breaks It Burns is at Battersea Arts Centre from 19-29 Feb. Find more information and tickets here.


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