Civilians with the right to exercise free speech will make the most of that right when faced with perceived injustice. So, no matter where you go in the world it’s difficult to escape the presence of protests and strikes. As a result of our exposure to such occurrences on almost a daily basis, whether in person or through the media, there is a widespread preconceived notion of what the quintessential protest actually entails. As noted by Geoffrey Nunberg, the modern-day idea of a protest march is commonly believed to have originated circa 1950 during the ban-the-bomb wave; however, it actually first came about in 1913 to describe a march headed by Gandhi which protested against restrictions that were then imposed on the Indian contingent of South Africa.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that the notion of a ‘protest’ first entered the wider American vocabulary. The work of artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were widespread during this era, and certain well-known songs became almost synonymous with the idea of protest, “Blowin’ In The Wind” being a perfect example.
The notion of the protest has now begun to be linked with, as Nunberg puts it, any sort of “a clamorous rally”. Somewhat bizarrely, you can technically protest against anti-war ideals; that is, it is possible to hold a pro-war protest, which arguably goes against what most perceive as the fundamental point of such events. This article, however, will focus on more traditional protests throughout history: various anti-war, pro-humanity efforts that have occurred over the years. This list numbers six of the biggest — either in terms of participants or of import — protests in the history of mankind, and looks at the events that sparked such widespread, strong emotions.
6. Tiananmen Square Protest, 1989
The 1989 student-led protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square is at number six on the list. The protest stemmed from a general dissatisfaction with the government system of the time: there was country-wide unrest about issues of nepotism, economics, and the micromanagement of the life of the average citizen courtesy of the Chinese government.
The latter was of particular import amongst university students; the government’s influence over campus social and political activities was problematic to many. As such, the protest was instigated by, and initially consisted entirely of, students. However, it quickly increased in number due to the involvement of general civilians: workers, academics, and civil servants alike gathered in Tiananmen Square, until the protest comprised over a million participants. The events at Tiananmen Square took the shape of a quintessential protest: there were marches with banners, rallies, speeches, and kneeling in front of the Great Hall of People in order to protest and signify grievances.
However, the students partaking in the protest also went on a hunger strike, which often goes overlooked in reports of the event. The people’s efforts were brutally oppressed; as many as a thousand people were arrested during and after the protest, which occurred on June 3rd and 4th 1989, and executions were also carried out. Estimates of the overall death toll range widely from hundreds to thousands.
5. Salt Satyagraha, 1930
At number five is the Salt Satyagraha, also known as Dandi March or Salt March, a nonviolent protest held in India in 1930. Led by the famous Mohandas K. Gandhi, the basis of the protest was the objection to the prohibition of independent Indian sale or production of salt.
At the time the British had complete control over the Indian consumption of the substance, forcing the country to buy expensive, hugely taxed, and often imported salt. In March of 1930, Gandhi instigated a protest against this exceptionally unfair arrangement by heading a march from what is now the Indian state of Gujarat, in the West of the country, to the town of Dandi on the coast of the Arabian Sea, an impressive distance of roughly two hundred and forty miles. The march, which began on March 12th, at first comprised merely several dozen of Gandhi’s followers but increased hugely in number along the way, eventually involving thousands of the general public. This protest was credited with being instrumental in India’s eventual emancipation from Britain.
4. Secessio Plebis, 494 BC
Noteworthy as the first recorded protest in history, the Secessio Plebis, or Secession of the Plebs, took place in Rome in 494 BC. The protest was the first of a series of similar strikes in Rome, and took the form of a fundamental refusal on the part of the ordinary people, or plebeians, to carry out their usual duties. The citizens left the city en masse, meaning that all shops and workshops were shut down. This simple yet effective method of protest scared the patricians into compliance with the commoners’ demands, such was their fear of foreign invasion in the absence of the city’s population. Although no official records of the number of participants is available, it comprised the body of the city – which alone makes it an impressive amount.
3. SOPA Strike
In 2012, an unusual protest took place: it was a protest against SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the Protect IP Act), which was carried out entirely online. Both proposed acts aimed to limit the infringement of copyright by granting the US government a new and unwelcome level of power, and both were strongly and consistently opposed by a large amount of the Internet community.
The strike occurred on January 18th 2012 and involved the censoring of web pages for a number of hours, generally by making them entirely black or replacing their usual content with a message noting the site in question’s opposition to the attempted instigation of SOPA and PIPA. Notable websites to participate in the protest were Google, Wikipedia and Reddit. A ‘how to’ web page, sopastrike.com, was set up, in order to instruct anyone who wanted to join the protest; an evidently worthwhile effort, given that reportedly over a hundred and fifteen thousand sites took part in the strike. Ultimately the SOPA and PIPA movements were not passed, but the Internet remains vigilant as to their potential return.
2. Protest against War in Iraq, 2003
According to the 2004 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, the Iraq War protests held in various locations worldwide on February 15th 2003 are the largest recorded to date (however, that list excluded our number one spot). Reports indicate that between ten and fifteen million people marched in protest against the Iraq War in more than three hundred cities worldwide, with roughly three million protesting on the streets of Rome alone. The support evident all over the world for the simple message ‘no to the Iraq War’ was astounding. Phenomenal as the display of solidarity was, even more phenomenal is the fact that it was ignored. The incredible protests were swept aside, barely acknowledged, although they surely proved one of the most significant displays of worldwide unity ever seen. The U.S.’s decision to ignore all pleas to the contrary and still proceed to invade Iraq resulted in innumerable deaths, incredible expenditure and proved frankly baffling to protesters worldwide.
1. Protest against President Morsi
Widely regarded as the world’s biggest protest, the Egyptian protest demanding the resignation of the President Morsi took place on the 30th of June and 1st of July 2013. A staggering estimated thirty-three million Egyptians took to the streets of various cities to protest their leader, an act compounded by the Egyptian Army’s tendering the resignation of President Morsi within forty-eight hours. The protests were unusually and horribly violent, with at least one account of sexual assault, countless other physical assaults, and a number of deaths reported. However it was also successful, with Morsi’s leaving office forced by the military days after the protests occurred. The Egyptian protests were almost certainly some of the most horrific in recent years, but also the most effective, to a bittersweet end.