How protests have changed the world

By Verity Hannah |

“Protests have deep roots in history” | Randy Colas/Unsplash

“The fight for equality has never been [an] easy [one].” Protests have deep roots in history and go back further than you’d think. We owe our right to a fair trial, along with the documentation of other basic human rights in the Magna Carta, to one of the earliest protests in 1215 when a group of rebels revolted against King John. Despite the rich history of protests, the word as we know it today was first used to describe a march organised by Gandhi in 1913, almost seven hundred years after the Magna Carta was written. Regardless of nomenclature, protests have always endeavoured to change law and policy, alter the world’s perceptions, right wrongs and find justice in sticking it to the man. And more often than not, they succeed.

The Boston Tea Party – 1773

“The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbour” | Nathaniel Currier/Wikipedia Commons 

At midnight on the 16th December 1773, in an act of political protest, more than one hundred men, known as the Sons of Liberty, dumped 342 chests of tea into the harbour. 

Tea that “would cost nearly $1,000,000 dollars today” was accumulated from three separate ships owned by the British East India Company in Griffin’s Wharf, Boston, Massachusetts. “It took nearly three hours for more than 100 colonists to empty the tea into Boston Harbor. The chests held more than 90,000 lbs. (45 tons) of tea.”

On top of colonising the Americas and refusing to represent them in parliament, Britain further imposed taxes on many essential products, and whilst eventually repealing most of them, did not remove the tea tax as it accumulated so much revenue — 1.2 million pounds of tea was taxed every year. 

The inhabitants of the colonies boycotted the British East India Company by smuggling in Dutch tea. Faced with loss of revenue and potential bankruptcy, British Parliament passed the Tea Act. This allowed the British East India Company to sell tea duty-free to colonies (much cheaper than all their competitors), and therefore granted it a monopoly of the industry, generating further profits from colonialisation. Despite the decreased cost of British East India tea, in continued protest, colonists kept smuggling tea which was much more expensive than the original British East India Company product with tax.

In response to dumping the tea and refusing to pay for it, King George III and the British Parliament declared to close Boston Harbour until the tea lost was paid for, among other Intolerable acts. 

In the coming months, elected delegates from all thirteen American colonies met to plan a resistance against British oppression. They declared to boycott British goods, their right to govern independently, as well as plans to “rally colonists to form and train colonial milita.”

Long story short, the Boston Tea Party was an inspiration to many other protests and a major contributing factor to the Declaration of Independence.  

Taxation without representation | Alex Guerrero/Wikipedia Commons 

The Storming of the Bastille – 1789

Hailed the ‘spark’ of the French Revolution, the Storming of the Bastille was one of the first major acts of violence against King Louis XVI. The Bastille, a political prison fortress on the east side of Paris, symbolised the King’s authority and power.

Following protests all around France, on July 14th, a mob of approximately one thousands Parisians ambushed the prison, in search of arms and ammunition, and with intent to release political prisoners (of which there were only seven). The Bastille, with eight thirty-metre high towers, was defended by eighty-two invalides (injured soldiers who could no longer fight) and only thirty-two grenadiers (soldiers armed with grenades); however, the outer drawbridge was not defended at all.

The commander of the prison, De Launay, realised his troops would not be able to defend the Bastille, tried to negotiate leaving unharmed, but ultimately surrendered by raising a white flag and lowering the second drawbridge into which the mob swarmed with axes. De Lauany was dragged through the streets, beaten and beheaded, his head then fixed on a pike. 

From financial crisis and a bread famine, political turmoil, protest and overthrow resulted. The Storming of the Bastille signified the beginning of the end for the Ancien Régime, a political and social system in place before the French Revolution of 1789. 

In 1792, the monarchy was abolished, King Louis and his wife Marie-Antionette were executed for treason in 1793, along with tens of thousands of others over the years, and a republic was set up. To this day, the Storming of the Bastille is celebrated as a national holiday in France every year.

“The Storming of the Bastille is celebrated as a national holiday” | Pierre Herman/Unsplash 

Suffragettes – 1903-1912

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed in 1903 to campaign for the rights of women with direct and militant action. Another notable women’s rights organisation was the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), also known as the suffragists, who believed in peaceful, constitutional campaigns (not to be confused with militant suffragettes).

In November, the Conciliation bill of 1910, which would have allowed one million women to vote, was deprioritised and ultimately scrapped by Prime Minister Asquith. In response to this, Emmeline Pankhurst, the woman that formed the WSPU, lead upwards of three hundred women to parliament on what has become known as “Black Friday.

Property destruction took place as suffragettes attempted to enter parliament, and there were long and violent clashes with the police. The WSPU detailed to a parliamentary committee many accusations against the police of violent and sexual assault. 

119 protesters were arrested but were released without charge, on Churchill’s orders as the Home Secretary, after he was blamed for encouraging the violent response from police. 

“[T]he use of extreme force on what has been a peaceful protest was the final straw.” “After decades of peaceful protest, the WSPU recognised that something far more drastic was needed to get the government to listen to those who were campaigning for women’s rights.”

The events of “Black Friday” altered the WSPU’s strategy for campaigning; “window smashing was officially adopted as a key campaign tactic,” according to the Museum of London

In 1911 and 1912, approximately 150 women took to the streets of London to protest. “The argument of the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics,” Mrs Pankhurst told members of the WSPU. With intent to destroy property that was the responsibility of the government, they sought to expose the message that the government cared more for broken glass than women’s rights, or their lives. 

Between 1913 and 1914, the Suffragette newspaper reported over three hundred incidents of arson and bombings, including setting post-boxes on fire, chaining themselves to railings and slashing paintings – including when Velazquez’s famous Rokeby Venus was slashed with a meat cleaver at the National Gallery.

Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus | Wikipedia Commons

Efforts were stopped in favour of the war effort and finally, in 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave women over the age of thirty, who were property-owners or married to a householder, the right to vote in British parliamentary systems. WW1 was supposedly a “watershed for women in Britain,” according to the National Archives. The conscription that called men to war, put women into typically masculine positions in the workplace. The violent circumstance of war contributed massively to women’s social place and their movement. In 1928, women were granted exactly the same voting rights as men. 

#March4Women | Giacomo Ferroni/Unsplash

Baroness Brenda Dean had this take: “If you look at any major social change, within it somewhere has been a degree of militancy… You’ve got to throw yourself back to the turn of the century when the whole social order was very different.” In a world still so defined by inequality and injustice, there is hope in how protests have, and how they continue to, change the world. 

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