What do you do when you don’t like the way things are run in your country? Well, if it’s a democracy you can vote. But suppose all the people you could vote for are basically saying the same thing? Then it might be time for more decisive action, in the form of a protest. In every free country, protesting is a legal right and in countries that aren’t free it’s even more important to make your voice heard. Not every protest works, but some can change the world. Find out the events that made the politicians listen, in our Top 10 Most Momentous Protests.
10. Occupy Wall Street
A recent one to start with, from September 2011. The protest was anti-consumerist and calling for politics to be free from the corrupting influences of big business. It started when around 200 people set up camp in Zuccotti Park, Manhattan and didn’t leave until they were evicted on November 15. As part of the movement, there was a protest march involving around 15,000 people bearing the slogan “we are the 99%”, which refers to the fact the the wealth in America is disproportionately spread, with most going to the top 1% of the population. The movement has been criticised for not having clear aims, and being full of “professional protesters” who will jump on any bandwagon, but it was certainly an effective way of getting attention, with worldwide coverage of the occupation and offshoots in other major cities, like London.
9. Iraq War Protests
8 years before Occupy, there was another huge protest that gained worldwide publicity. It was co-ordinated between 600 cities around the world and the cause was the impending Iraq War. On February 15th 2003, 3 million people marched in Rome, in the biggest anti-war rally ever seen, another million marched in London and 1.5 million in Madrid. The message was clear – the ordinary men, women and children who marched (as opposed to professional protesters) didn’t want war. They didn’t trust the claims the government were making about Iraq’s military capacity (this would later prove to be justified) and they suspected that the war was all about the oil in the region (this too may have been justified). The protests were huge but the war went ahead anyway, and the repercussions are still being felt.
8. Vietnam War Protests
Of course, the Iraq War Protests were influenced by an older generation of protesters, who took to the streets to make a stand against the war in Vietnam, and the draft that saw young American men being forced to fight and die for a cause they didn’t even understand. The protests started in December 1964, folk singer Joan Baez leading a demonstration of 600 people. The next year saw students organizing rallies on campuses and it spiralled from there. The movement coincided with the growth of peace-loving hippie culture and “flower power” and so it captured the imagination of both the young people and the press. Musicians such as John Lennon sympathized and got involved, with his “bed-in for peace”. The protests went on as long as the war did, both tailing off in the 70s. They may not have stopped thousands of Americans dying, but they did create a generation of activists.
7. The Miners’ Strike
Talking of futile protests, here’s a heart-breaking example from 1980s Britain. Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was taking radical action to shake the country out of recession, and part of her action was to start closing coal mines. Miners who had done this job their entire lives now faced redundancy and poverty and so called a strike to protest against the closures. They held out for a year, from March 1984 to March 1985 but the notoriously hard leader was not going to back down and eventually they were forced to return to work. It was merciless. The strike was also characterized by the brutal treatment of the miners by the police during the blockade, with 51 miners injured at Rotherham in June 1984. An ugly episode in the history of industrial relations.
6. Salt Satyagraha
When your country is being oppressed in so many different ways by the British Raj, how do you choose what to protest against? Non-violent protester Mahatma Gandhi chose salt. The British in India had forbade the Indians from collecting or making salt themselves, and subsequently they all had to buy it from the British, at a premium price. With such a hot climate, salt was a necessity to replace the salts lost in sweat and Gandhi knew that it would be a cause every Indian could identify with. He protested by marching 240 miles to the coast and producing his own salt, in defiance of the British rules. It was a breakthrough in the struggle for independence and showed the population (still in shock over the bloody end to a previous protest) that it was possible to defy the British in a peaceful manner. A landmark protest.
5. Stonewall Protests
Another landmark next, and the spontaneous protest that pushed the gay liberation movement forward. In the early hours of June 28th, 1969, New York City police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn, seizing their illegal alcohol (which was not unreasonable) and beating up or feeling up the patrons (which was more unreasonable). Outside the inn, tempers were running high and eventually violence broke out, with the gay community outnumbering the police. The police were forced to retreat and call for back-up to fight the chorus-line high kicks of their opponents. The demonstration lasted all day and the next night fighting flared up again. It may have been unplanned, it may have been unorganized but it was effective – the gay community stood up together and claimed their right to be what they wanted to be. And that’s definitely a significant moment.
4. The March on Washington
Around the same time as drag queens were high-kicking their way into history, another minority group were fighting for their civil rights in America, and that was the Black community. They’d been engaged in a struggle for years, and would continue to struggle but the most significant protest of the movement happened 6 years before the Stonewall Riots, and that was Martin Luther King’s March on Washington. The radical preacher gathered 300,000 people of whom around 75% were Black, and arrived in Washington on August 27th 1963. The next day, King delivered the famous “I have a dream” speech and the following year the Civil Rights Act was passed. But the struggle for equality went on, and King was shot dead in 1968 leaving his followers to try and finish his work.
3. The French Revolution
Not all protests achieve their objectives, but every century or so there is a protest that ends in revolution. And that’s what happened in the 18th Century, when the French peasants rose up against the aristocracy and specifically Queen Marie Antoinette, who was seen as spoilt and self-indulgent while her subjects starved. Tensions had bee building for a while, due to an economic crisis, but they boiled over in June 1789. The rebels stormed the Bastille prison, which fell on July 14th and beheaded the Governor. Eventually, Marie Antoinette suffered the same fate as the Governor and a new way was established in France – that of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”. Viva la revolution!
The 1960s were a troubled time, hence the number of momentous protests that happened in that decade. Thích Qu?ng Ð?c was a Buddhist monk, who chose to set himself on fire as a protest against the treatment of his people by the South Vietnamese Catholics, who refused to let the Buddhists fly their flag on Buddha’s birthday. Nine people had been killed by government forces but the peaceful Buddists refused to fight violence with violence. Instead, the press were summoned to the road just outside the Cambodian Embassy on June 10th 1963 and there they were witnesses to Thích Qu?ng Ð?c’s final protest – burning himself to death while meditating, and not emitting even a sigh of pain. As one journalist said “As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him”. The picture has since become world famous as a symbol of self-sacrifice for your cause.
1. Tiananmen Square
The most momentous protest of all time is maybe also the most shameful. Like many of the protests on our list, it was a shocking example of government brutality against peaceful protesters. Even more shocking is that the Chinese government has never apologised for it, and now forbids discussion of the event. Bitterly ironic, as the students involved were campaigning for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, among other things. The students gathered in Tiananmen Square, and by June 3rd 1989 there were around a million of them there. Then the tanks rolled in, and the military opened fire. It is not known how many died in the square, thanks to the suppression of information from China, but it is estimated to be in the thousands. A noble cause to be protesting about and a horrific outcome, which should be remembered.