I HAVE always been amazed by the power of protests, strikes, social movements and other forms of community action – the empowerment they bring; the sense of solidarity you feel, the change that can be achieved.

One of the first such events I ever attended was when I was 14 years old and still in high school in Germany. It was a counter-protest, organised in response to another protest planned by a Neo-Nazi and ultranationalist political party, whose campaign posters featured images of ‘natural Germans’, racist slurs, and strong anti-immigration sentiments.

In the days leading up to the march, my friends and I talked about our motivations for going. To raise our voices alongside others, take a stand against those looking to discriminate and spread hate against others, and be part of the movement saying that such fascist views were not condoned or welcomed by us.

Teachers had talked to us about the event and why it was taking place; what peaceful protest means for democracy. The lead up in itself already felt educational but the day itself was what became even more shaping for me.

I’ll never forget the way I felt as I marched along hundreds of others. The buzzing energy of the crowd, the solidarity I felt as I chanted, and the fire ignited inside me to keep going beyond the day.

I have felt the same time and time again – both for protests that I attended myself and those that I only witnessed from the side lines: The COP26 climate march, the picket lines of striking workers I have come across, the small group of girls my friend and I met when we tied ribbons to a park gate as part of a decentralised vigil after the murder of Sarah Everard, or the many people that came out to George Square in Glasgow last weekend to join a march against the government’s Rwanda plan and its illegal Migration Bill, which is currently passing through the House of Commons.

As angry as I often am for protesting in the first place, these other feelings I have while in the streets are always refreshing, as – most of the time – the sphere in which I am dealing with the issues I find myself out protesting for is mostly online.

Navigating these at times toxic environments – and trying to voice your concerns or support towards certain causes while facing constant opposition and backlash – can be exhausting.

Yet, when I do find myself in the ‘real world’, out in the street with others, it always serves as a reminder that there is a network of people all linking issues and struggles, campaigning for a better future. What I hear and see online is just as real as these events, but it is protests and strikes that are more than the talk on my social feeds. They turn the abstract into something tangible.

Obviously such feelings and the individual gain from them isn’t what protests or strikes are about entirely. All these events are organised to achieve something.

It was protests that brought about women’s suffrage (thanks ladies!), and Glasgow's rent strikes in 1915 – in many ways led by women such as Mary Barbour (again, thanks ladies!) – laid a foundation for other housing rights movements and protecting legislation we see today.

More recently, in what was named one of the most influential protests in 2021, people gathering in Kenmure Street in Glasgow stopped the detention of two people after an early morning raid by the Home Office, by blocking the van from leaving for hours.

These are only a few of many, but – overall – peaceful protests have led to progress on rights and remain a key way to do so. That is why it is so worrying to hear news such as the UK has been downgraded in an annual global index of civic freedoms last Thursday.

CIVICUS Monitor – a research collaborative annually reviewing and rating 197 countries’ civic freedoms – published a report in which it changed the UK’s categorisation from ‘narrowed’ to ‘obstructed’ – a category we now share with Poland, Hungary, Ghana, and Greece.

It is said that the cause to not only change the country’s rating but list it as a spotlighted ‘country of concern’ within the document was a “significant deterioration in civic freedoms in the UK, particularly the right to freedom of peaceful assembly” through legislation such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act – which gives police unprecedented powers to restrict protests on the basis of noise – the proposed Public Order Bill – which could see the provision of stop and search powers of peaceful protestors – and the government’s wider discussions about the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).

Some of these proposed changes will only apply to England and Wales. However, another concern raised by researchers is the wider context in which these debates are taking place – sentiments which know no borders.

The CIVICUS report states how some politicians have “smeared and publicly vilified” campaigners “working on climate change, anti-racism and migrants’ and refugee’s rights.”

This is something that has been happening UK-wide and, more recently, we have seen more such vilification towards workers out striking, whose motives have been repeatedly thrown into question.

The frightening thing is how many people believe it. Sentiments against activists and striking workers have been expressed online, in news reports, and to those in the street directly.

However, it is these times we must remember and question the purpose of peaceful protest – to hold authorities to account – and the positive change they and other community action can bring.

Those seeking change are not villains. They are people facing barriers, or people standing in support alongside those that do, leading them to resort to protest as a collective.

Finally, those governing and looking to limit protest may not do so out of a serious concern for public order and to minimise disruption, but – arguably – to stop ways in which they can be held to account for the decisions they make.

Daniella Theis is Scottish Young Journalist of the Year