History is filled with moments where citizens take to the streets to speak out against something they don’t agree with that impacts their lives. Of course, not every protest is powerful or consequential, but some have the power to change nations or even create them. Throughout the existence of civilizations, protests have been a way to provide a voice to the masses, challenge power, and change lives for the better.
As with everything in history, it’s not always easy to overcome monumental problems. Some protests act as a catalyst for decades, if not centuries-long debates, while others affect change in mere months, if not days. What’s interesting about protests is that while some can fail in their implementation, they can still create change. While not every protest can change the world, some of these did just that.
10. The Iraq War Protests
The decision to invade Iraq had been in the making for some time in the Bush Administration. Members of the Bush administration had been seeking reasons to invade for years, and at the helm of this issue were Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. When 9/11 happened, the administration decided to use this to help justify their decisions through the ‘War on Terror’.
The US had been providing numerous reasons to slowly preempt the forthcoming invasion, but the one that made the decision for them has been a stain on American foreign policy for decades.
On February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell was at the UN, delivering what would be a consequential speech providing reasons for the imminent invasion of Iraq. However, the problem with this speech was that many of the assertions turned out to be built on both weak and not credible intelligence. The Iraq War was built on the assertion that Saddam Hussein either possessed or was building weapons of mass destruction. This was all false.
Weeks after the speech by Powell at the UN and a month before the invasion began, millions worldwide began protesting the War in Iraq before it had even begun. In New York City, 200,000 people protested the war, and in Europe, some cities saw millions of people. In total, 600 cities worldwide participated in the protest. Unfortunately, the wheels were in motion, and the powers were determined to see the mission through. The Iraq War began on March 19, 2003, and lasted nearly a decade, ending on December 15, 2011. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found.
9. The Orange Revolution
It was 2004 when an election in Ukraine brought the country to its knees. As hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens flooded Kyiv’s main square, protests against the election results began. So, how did it get to this?
The 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections expected to see then-president Leonid Kuchma was expected to run for a third term which the Constitutional Court had recently permitted. However, he surprised everyone when he endorsed Viktor Yanukovych, who had friendly ties and the support of Vladimir Putin. While running for office, a challenger emerged with a strong chance of beating Yanukovych: Viktor Yushchenko.
The campaign was brutal, but Yushchenko was becoming a thorn in Yanukovych’s side. By September, something changed, Yushchenko became ill, and it was later found that he’d been poisoned with dioxin. When the election came around, the first few rounds were won by both Yanukovych and Yushchenko, and ultimately, Yanukovych won the election. However, most Ukrainians didn’t believe the results to be true, and thus the protests began.
For 12 days, demonstrations were carried out in Kyiv before the Supreme Court ruled the election was invalid on December 3 and ordered a new runoff for December 26. Yushchenko won the election. While in power, his presidency lost substantial support and was less successful than people had hoped. Regardless, the Orange Revolution put him in power, defeating corruption and providing a win for democracy.
8. The Protestant Reformation
When it comes to the Protestant Reformation, it’s interesting because this protest all started with a very important invention, the printing press. At the center of the protestant reformation is Gutenberg and his printing press.
The Protestant Reformation occurred in Europe during the 1500s and resulted in a new branch of Christianity known as Protestantism. The term Protestantism referred to all religious groups that had separated themselves from the Roman Catholic Church. The primary reason for this separation was a difference in doctrine, and this all began in Wittenberg, Germany, when Martin Luther published his ‘Dispute on the Power of Indulgences’ document on October 31, 1517.
Luther’s document was also known as the ‘95 Theses.’ In the document, 95 ideas around Christianity challenged what everyone knew based on the Catholic Church’s teachings and opened up the possibility for debate. As you might assume, the Catholic Church wasn’t too pleased with this blatant descent and attempted to snuff out the movement that was sweeping throughout Europe. However, it was too late, religion and the Church’s power were being challenged in numerous ways, and it was all thanks to Martin Luthor, a monk and a teacher who questioned the influence the Catholic Church had.
This protest started with simply nailing a document to a door and then distributing pamphlets. The reformation would result in significant changes to the Church’s power on the state, with one such example being Henry VIII’s dismantling of religious influence in England, getting the bible into the hands of the people, and dissolving monasteries and their wealth.
7. Gandhi’s Salt March
India was under British rule from 1858 to 1947, and they set out a new law known as Britain’s Salt Act of 1882. This law stipulated that Indians were prohibited from collecting and selling salt. As a result of this law, Indians had to buy salt from British rulers who had a monopoly on the vital mineral and its sale. Even worse, they charged a hefty salt tax. Leading many in India to suffer, as salt was a staple in their diet.
The Salt March started on March 12, 1930, but was announced 10 days prior, on March 2, by Gandhi, who sent the Viceroy Lord Irwin a letter. The protest lasted 24 days, starting with Gandhi and dozens of followers traveling to Dandi.
On April 5, they reached the coastal town of Dandi with a crowd now amassing tens of thousands of protestors. Early the following morning, they walked to the Arabian Sea to make salt. The British, having already known about his plans thanks to Gandhi’s letter, had destroyed salt flats on the beach. Gandhi, undeterred, picked up small clumps of natural salt from the mud and officially defied the British Salt Law. This spread along coastal cities and towns across India.
The Salt March eventually resulted in increasing civil disobedience and unrest across India. Eventually, 60,000 people were arrested; among them was Gandhi, who was arrested on May 5. However, this didn’t stop the protests.
This protest was incredibly impactful for India as it brought global recognition to British policy in India and paved the way forward to India’s independence which was achieved in 1947. While the challenges in India were far from over, the Salt March remains one of the most important events in forming an independent India.
6. The Boston Tea Party
The British Empire was in extreme dept in the 1760s and most of the 16th century. So, to aid their financial problems, they looked to their colonies in America. The British began taxing just about anything and everything they could, starting with the 1765 Stamp Act. This act taxed all forms of paper documents in the colonies. They took this a major step forward with the 1767 Townshend Acts, which taxed essential items like glass, paper, lead, paint, and tea.
The British believed the taxes were fair as most of their financial troubles came from fighting wars on the colonist’s behalf. However, the colonists didn’t agree and were furious about being taxed without representation. These two taxation acts would be the starting point of significant civil unrest in the 13 colonies.
The first major altercation was the deadly riot known now as the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. This riot energized an anti-British sentiment. At the time of this conflict, back in Britain, the Prime Minister requested the Townshend Acts to be repealed, which they were except for the tax on tea, which generated among the highest revenue.
The 1773 Tea Act was crafted to help the floundering East India Company. This act allowed the EIC, a significant driver in the British economy, to monopolize the importation and sale of tea in the Colonies. The Sons of Liberty, a group of colonial merchants and tradesmen, rallied against the East India Company ships from arriving at Griffin’s Wharf. Despite this, they arrived on December 16, 1773. That night, a group of nearly 100 men disguised as Native Americans boarded the ships and unloaded 342 chests containing 45 tons of tea into the Boston Harbor in just three hours.
Of course, this event had its consequences on the colonist, but it was a significant point in American history, and their quest for independence, which they’d later achieve in 1776 through the American Revolution.
5. Berlin Wall Protests
Post-WW2 Germany was a mess. There’s no better depiction of that than the Berlin Wall. As a result of WW2, the country was divided into four ‘allied occupation zones’ and given to various allies from the War. So, Eastern Germany was given to the USSR, and the Western Part was split between the US, Great Britain, and France.
Tensions between the West and the USSR began deteriorating relatively soon after WW2. The Berlin Wall’s construction is one of many examples in the Cold War of the worsening relations between the various nations. On August 12, 1961, the border in East Germany was closed for good, and construction began on the Berlin Wall. The makeshift wall was completed within two weeks, and thus getting in and out of East Germany became near-impossible.
The primary reasoning behind the wall, at least according to the Soviets, was to keep Western fascists out. However, the real reason for the Berlin Wall was the harsh reality of mass defections from East Germany to West Germany.
For nearly three decades, the Berlin Wall existed. Come 1989, tensions were high in East Germany due to economic problems, food shortages, and fears of the communist bloc falling to pieces following Chornobyl. On November 4, half a million East Germans began a mass protest in Alexanderplatz, in East Berlin.
On November 9, a news conference was held by Günter Schabowski, a senior East German Communist official. He was to announce new rules for traveling between East and West Germany in hopes of quelling the protests. But he didn’t even have time to read the new rules before attending the press conference. When he announced the relaxed border rules, he revealed that the order was effective immediately. However, it was actually only meant to go into effect the next day. That day, thousands of people flowed through the border between East and West Germany. Crowds of Germans began to dismantle the wall, therefore, ending a nearly three-decade separation.
4. South Africa’s Defiance Campaign
In 1948, South Africa began what would be a near-half-century oppression campaign known as Apartheid. Apartheid was a means to govern relations between South Africa’s minority white and majority black population. The law sanctioned segregation, discrimination, and criminalization against the black population.
It was four years later, on June 26, 1952, that the Defiance Campaign was launched by leaders — including of the African National Congress (among them Nelson Mandela), the Franchise Action Council, and the South African Indian Congress. It’s important to understand that during apartheid, these factions had no political representation in any form of the Afrikaans government. The protest was intended to be peaceful, but the punishment for such crimes was notably harsh and sometimes even deadly.
This protest saw thousands of black South Africans blatantly defying unjust laws, striking, and creating general civil disobedience. The early years of this protest saw roughly 8,000 people getting arrested. This campaign led to some extreme moves by the Afrikaans government, including new laws and raiding political offices. Ultimately, this campaign was unsuccessful. It achieved its objective of causing chaos but not change. Instead, laws became stricter, fines higher, and sentences longer. The Defiance Campaign was the first major multicultural demonstration against apartheid; one South Africa doesn’t forget.
3. The Storming of the Bastille
The end of the 18th century saw France on the verge of bankruptcy thanks to involvement in the American Revolution and the spending habits of King Louis XVI. This compounded with the reality that the country was experiencing several years of terrible harvests, a drought, skyrocketing bread prices, and livestock disease. This all resulted in a rise in civil unrest across the country. The French Revolution began informally in 1787 against the King of France and what we now refer to as the ancien régime (old order), which was a classist political system dividing citizens into the three estates: clergy (First Estate), nobility (Second Estate), and everyone else (Third Estate).
In response to the unrest, efforts to moderately change France began by drawing up a constitution. However, these talks broke down as the three estates reached an impasse, leading the third estate to break away from the Traditional Assembly. The newly formed National Assembly members took an oath, now famously known as the Tennis Court Oath, to draw up a constitution, becoming a powerful act of defiance against the king.
Fears grew that King Louis XVI would send the army to crush the unofficial gathering of the National Assembly. As a result, French Citizens took to the streets heading to the center of Paris to defend the rights of the people. On July 14, 1789, the crowd armed with swords, muskets, and various other weapons- some even makeshift- gathered around the Bastille prison. The protestors stormed the Bastille, capturing and killing the military governor, seizing 250 barrels of gunpowder, and taking control of the Bastille.
This moment is significant as it marked the formal start of the French Revolution and gave incredible momentum in what would become a decades-long fight. This moment in history showcased the power of the people and helped to shape the ideas upon which modern democracies were built. The Bastille symbolized the monarchy’s dictatorial rule, and with its fall, so did the rule of law and the monarchy’s power. By 1792, the monarchy was formally abolished with the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
2. Tiananmen Square
If we look at China, we know it not to be a nation of protests, and that’s for good reasons. For over a century, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been known for having a tremendous amount of power and influence over its people. It’s a very complex country, known for many things, both good and bad, but it’s not known for its protests or uprising because they rarely occur.
During the 1980s, China was changing. The CCP was becoming more receptive to private companies and foreign investment and was slowly beginning to open up to the world, albeit in a limited capacity. These changes were brought about by Deng Xiaoping, who served as the Paramount Leader of the People’s Republic of China. This created some problems, though.
Civil unrest in China began due to several factors, including limits on political freedom, ongoing economic troubles, lack of jobs, increased poverty, and inadequate education, not preparing students for a Chinese economy with elements of free market capitalism. This is what led to the student protests beginning on May 13, 1989.
On May 20, martial law was enacted, 250,000 troops went to Beijing, and by the end of May, the protest had grown to roughly a million protestors. The marches were relatively peaceful until June 4. The CCP hoped that military presence would be enough to quell the protests, but they were wrong. So, in the early hours of the morning on June 4, soldiers and tanks descended on the square, firing live rounds into the crowd and setting off what became known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
The exact number of how many people died or were arrested that day is, and will remain, unclear. Western journalists on the scene stated they’d estimate hundred to thousands of deaths being primarily protestors. By June 5, they’d secured the square and shown the people of China what descent can bring.
1. March On Washington
America’s history is fraught with civil unrest and protests. Many of these protests and conflicts stem from a similar place: race relations. Slavery ended in the 19th century, 1865, to be more specific, but that didn’t mean The US was where it needed to be with equality. Segregation existed in many forms across the country in the form of Jim Crow laws. These laws were designed to separate white and black Americans through discrimination in African Americans’ ability to vote, get an education, hold jobs, etc. Defiance of these laws resulted, for the most part, in incarceration, fines, violence, and even death.
Throughout America’s history, there have been many occasions where race relations have been challenged. However, on August 28, 1963, one of the most famous examples of such a demonstration occurred. Led by famed civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and John Lewis, more than 250,000 people of various races gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in the National Mall to demand equal justice for all citizens under US law.
In July of 1963, President Kennedy proposed the Civil Rights Act. While initially hesitant in 1961, when he began his term as president, protests across the country- primarily in the South- were causing the issue to become far harder to ignore. The March on Washington gave existence to one of the most famous speeches in the world, Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech.
As we know from history, Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, leaving the Civil Rights Act in the newly sworn-in Lyndon B. Johnson’s hands, and was signed into law in 1964. The March on Washington was one of countless protests that occurred across the nation in an attempt to solidify equality for all, a fight that continues to this day.