The year in protest, in 5 words

In the weird mess that was 2021, we still learned a ton from activists.

An abstract collage of people holding posters 'STRIKE', 'INSURRECTION', 'DECOLONIZE', and 'REPRODUCT...
Illustration by Dewey Saunders

With the end of 2021 approaching, we’ll close the books on almost two full years of the pandemic — and with that almost two full years of pushback against the oppressive systems that have shaped millions of people’s lives. In many ways, this year was a continuation of the groundswell of movement work and organizing we saw in 2020 that activated millions of people to take part in municipal budgeting processes, establish mutual aid funds, or hold elected officials to account for promises made.

The energy from the George Floyd uprisings, calls to defund the police, and tearing down of Confederate monuments led to sustained climate protests, national investigations into what really happened on Jan. 6, and a wave of support for abortion providers and patients in the wake of anti-abortion legislation that could change reproductive care as we know it. 2021 was also the first year of the Biden presidency, in which we got to see how a Democratic president, and the first one elected since Donald Trump, navigated both the pandemic and the previous year’s calls for change.

Amid all of this, some organizing and political concepts broke through the noise. Here’s Mic’s round-up of language that has shaped this year.


Settler-colonial is a kind of colonial displacement where settlers, or non-Native peoples, remove Native people of their land. This kind of colonialism often goes hand-in-hand with genocide and other methods of cultural erasure and annilhilation.

Resist Line 3, the movement to stop the reconstruction of the Line 3 section of a Canadian oil pipeline that runs through Minnesota, drew connections between forms of settler-colonialism present in the U.S. and extractive industries, and the fight Palestinians face against the state of Israel.

This year there was also increased awareness around the settler-colonial roots of American holidays like Thanksgiving. For instance, more guidance was offered to parents about how to approach talking to their children about the holiday (no, Pilgrims and Native peoples were not friends) and increased attention was given to Native writers and scholars who’ve been trying for years to correct the record.


Decolonize is a word that describes how to unlearn colonial systems — which are everything from how we think about land ownership to our everyday language to how we see ourselves as responsible to our communities. Scholars Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang wrote almost 10 years ago in a critical paper that decolonization isn’t a metaphor for a series of actions or belief systems, but rather it must actively demand the returning of all stolen Native land.

Decolonize is a word that’s been adopted by many factions of social justice movements, like the climate justice movement for example. It’s a word that’s also always existed within Native communities. As Mic wrote, “Whereas colonial governments would seek to privatize, sell, and own land for the purpose of extracting resources like oil, gas, and water, Indigenous teachings support a reciprocal relationship with the land — one that’s built on respect rather than exploitation.”


Striking is when workers withhold their labor as a way of pushing for a set of demands like better working conditions, higher pay, and more humane treatment. This was a record year for strike efforts, everywhere from the company owned by one of the richest men in the world, (cough cough Amazon), to media companies, to food conglomerates like Kellogg, which owns brands like Eggo and Pop-Tarts.

Frito-Lay also went on a 20-day strike in July to demand wage increases, guaranteed time off, and an end to what workers called “suicide shifts” that allowed for only eight hours of break between two different shifts. Fast food workers in California staged one-day walkouts in early November, protesting inhumane shifts of up to 16 hours and wages that can’t cover the cost of living, broadly known as the Fight for 15.

Reproductive justice

Reproductive justice, a term coined by Loretta Ross and other Black and brown feminists in the 1990s, describes work needed to achieve reproductive liberation. It’s not just about the choice of whether or not to have an abortion, but about engaging in all of the political fights that determine one’s ability to care for their own body. SisterSong Women of Color Health Collective, the reproductive justice organization Ross founded in 1997, defines the term as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”

It’s a term that’s also come to frame many of the fights around abortion access. Restrictions on abortion disproportionately impact Black women, immigrant women, and poor women. Abortion access at the state and federal levels was thrown into jeopardy this year, with the introduction of major anti-abortion legislation in Texas and Mississippi, both of which could undermine the landmark legislation of Roe v. Wade. On Dec. 1, the justices heard oral arguments in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which if upheld, would allow the Mississippi to ban abortion care after 15 weeks and essentially overturn Roe.

Insurrection (or coup)

While this isn’t exactly a protest or organizing term, this year did see the largest armed protest at a government facility we’ve seen possibly, well, ever. On Jan. 6, thousands of armed people — not coincidentally, mostly white men — stormed the U.S. Capitol Building while members of Congress were trying to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election and officially declare Joe Biden the winner.

Yet after nearly a year of congressional investigation into the day’s events, we’re still waiting for information that details the extent to which the Trump administration — and then-President Donald Trump himself — knew about the day’s events.

We know that funds were raised to “stop the steal” through platforms like PayPal, and that Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube all played a role in helping those who took Trump at his word to “never give up” organize themselves and broadcast their actions. Meanwhile, the consequences for those who perpetrated the worst attack on democracy in nearly 200 years don’t really send a strong message against their actions. The longest sentence for a convicted rioter has been just over 3 years, while others have been hit with probation, community service, and fines.

This is all to say that there are disproportionate reactions from police, courts, and elected officials when it comes to who is doing the protesting. For comparison, the ACLU of Northern California recently found that the California Highway Patrol conducted extensive surveillance on protesters who marched for racial justice, while Line 3 protesters are being charged with misdemeanors and felonies for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.