Eight of the Largest Protests in Modern History and What They Accomplished

Eight of the Largest Protests in Modern History and What They Accomplished

Stephanie Schoppert - January 21, 2017

When people are angry, feel like they are being treated unfairly, are afraid of what the future holds for them, they may voice their opinion through protest. Some of these protests are peaceful, some end up disintegrating into violence. Most people believe that little can be accomplished through protests and yet time and time again tens of thousands of people will come together to try and get their voices heard. Here are some of the biggest political protests in modern history and what they accomplished, if anything.

Eight of the Largest Protests in Modern History and What They Accomplished
Gandhi marches with his followers to protest the salt tax. Beautifultrouble.org

The Salt March

In 1930, India was still under British rule and at the time there were many who were against the British and sought peaceful ways of protest. Mohandas Karamachand Gandhi preached of civil disobedience – a way of acting out against the British colonizers in non-violent ways. In March of 1930 Gandhi decided to stand up to the British colonizers by acting out against the salt tax. At the time the British were taxing salt production. Many people in the village of Dandi would make their living by producing salt from seawater, a process that became illegal after the introduction of the tax on salt production. The British would often use force to stop the populace from creating salt from the sea water.

So, on March 12, 1930 Gandhi and 78 others decided to 240 miles to the village of Dandi from Sabarmati Ashram. Gandhi and his followers planned to make the 24-day trek to the village solely to produce salt from sea water in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience. As Ghandi marched more and more people joined along the way. He would stop in villages and convince local leaders to abandon their positions and rise up against their colonizers. On April 6, at 6:30 am he broke the salt laws and produced salt from the seawater. That simple act caused millions more Indians to follow suit and commit their own acts of civil disobedience.

Ghandi and over 80,000 other protesters were arrested in response to the civil disobedience and protests. The movement continued for a year and drew worldwide attention to the plight of Indians under colonial rule. A year after the protest began, Ghandi was released from prison and given a spot at the Second-Round Table Conference.

While the movement did little for the independence movement or the rights of Indians, it did prove to the British that they remained in control of India only as long as the Indians allowed it.

Eight of the Largest Protests in Modern History and What They Accomplished
Protesters fill St. John Lateran square during an anti-war rally in Rome. Howstuffworks.com

Iraq War Protest

In 2003 public opinion around the world was against the Iraq war. From 2002 until 2003 the world erupted into thousands of protests as people spoke out in their individual countries against the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. Between January 3rd and April 12th, 2003 it is estimated that more than 36 million people around the world took part in more than 3,000 protests. On February 15th, numerous countries collaborated on one worldwide day of protest against the decision of the United Stated to enter into war against Iraq.

In November of 2002 a British group called Globalise Resistance proposed the idea of a day of protest throughout Europe. Numerous anti-war groups joined in and word spread quickly that everyone was going to stand together to speak out against a war that threatened to bring many of their countries to war. More than 600 cities became hosts to the protests. The protest in Rome, Italy drew more than 3 million people and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records are the largest protest in history. As many as 2 million showed in Madrid.

The protest in London drew more than a million people as well. In France and Germany, hundreds of thousands marched in protest. In the United States 150 cities hosted hundreds of thousands of protesters. Estimates put the worldwide total of protesters on February 15 at up to 30 million.

Despite the massive protests against the war, nothing was accomplished. Protests continued periodically but they never reached the same strength, largely because it became obvious that world leaders were not listening. The United States still invaded Iraq and many of her allies still joined in the fight. Many politicians argued that public opinion was actually in favor of the war and that the number of people at a protest was not an indicator of public opinion.

Eight of the Largest Protests in Modern History and What They Accomplished
Protesters in Paris in May of 1968. Frenchmythsandrealities.wordpress.com

May 1968 France Protests

The civil unrest in May 1968 in France began with student protests. The students were fighting against a range of issues including capitalism, consumerism and the traditional institutions. They were against the class structure that discriminated against some people and that affected the funding for universities. On May 2, Sorbonne University in Paris was closed after numerous conflicts between students. On May 6, more than 20,000 students and supporters marched to the school which was surrounded by the police. The police reacted to the students with batons and tear gas.

Another protest began on May 10 and once again protesters clashed with police. The students were met with violence and arrests. When the aftermath was shown on television the following day and many people began to feel sympathy for the students. Another protest was planned for May 13 and this time more than a million people came to support the students. Over the next few days’ workers joined the strikes by doing sit-downs in factories.

The movement grew until two-thirds of the French workforce was on strike. The protests continued throughout the month and the government believed that it could lead to a revolution. Charles de Gaulle temporarily fled the country and when he returned he refused to resign and instead announced a new election for June.

The news of a new election calmed the protesters and gradually things returned to normal. The workers went back to the factories and students returned to classes at Sorbonne. When the elections were held, the Gaullist government took its greatest victory in Parliamentary history. De Gaulle’s party took 353 out of 486 seats leaving 34 for the Communists and 57 for the Socialists. The crisis did lead to many thinking de Gaulle was no longer able to act as President. A referendum in April 1969 led to de Gaulle’s resignation.

Eight of the Largest Protests in Modern History and What They Accomplished
Thousands gather in Tiananmen Square before military force is used. CNN.com

Tiananmen Square

In 1989, China was just coming through a period of economic growth and political liberalization and the students in China wanted more. In 1986 and 1987 students began holding demonstrations asking for more individual rights and freedoms. This caused the Chinese Communist Party to try and suppress the growing liberalism among students and within the government. Hu Yaobang who was the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party had encouraged democratic reforms.

Under the tightening restrictions, he was forced to resign from his position in 1987. Then in 1989 Hu Yaobang died and his death became a symbol for change among those seeking political liberalization. Tens of thousands gathered in Tiananmen Square on April 22, the day of Hu Yaobang’s funeral.

The government responded with severe warnings but that did not stop other demonstrations from occurring in cities throughout China. The protests grew and as many as one million gathered in Tiananmen Square, all of which was captured on television and broadcast overseas. The Chinese government was at a loss for how to respond to the growing protests with debates on whether to negotiate or respond with force. Martial law was declared in Beijing and troops were placed around the city. However, they were not able to get access to Tiananmen Square due to the protesters blocking their way.

On June 3, the Chinese government decided that they had enough of the protests. They ordered the army to open fire on anyone who tried to block their way into the square. By the following morning, the area was clear and the military was back in control. Accounts vary on the number killed when the military used force ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand. Many of the protesters and leaders were arrested and given jail sentences or executed. To this day the Chinese government suppresses any information about what really occurred and commemoration of the incident is banned.

Eight of the Largest Protests in Modern History and What They Accomplished
Tens of thousands march in Bahrain on February 22, 2011. Wikipedia

Arab Spring

The Arab Spring is hard to classify as just one movement as it occurred in numerous countries and in many different forms. It started in early 2011 with the political uprising in Tunisia. The success of the uprising led to more anti-government protests in other Arab countries. The protesters sought an end to long-standing dictatorships, brutal regimes, unemployment and rising prices.

The problem was that other than dissatisfaction with the current government, many of the protests and uprisings had little plan of what they wanted to do other than change the status quo. Some nations ousted regimes and had elections, such as in Egypt and Tunisia. Others had their existing regimes undergo transformations to suit the demands of the people. For some the power vacuum that was created by the uprisings led to war.

The Arab Spring was characterized by the ability of social media to be used as a method for organization. Protesters were able to use the internet to coordinate gatherings and work against the government. This led to authoritarian leaders attempting to shut down internet access and suppress the protesters with force. In countries where the military assisted the protesters there was greater chance that the movement was successful. In countries like Saudi Arabia, the military worked to suppress the protesters and stopped the movement.

The Arab Winter followed the Arab Spring. This continues to be a period of instability throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Despite the elections in Egypt political turmoil continues. Syria experienced a civil war that continues to this day that had ravaged the country killing and displacing millions. The overall success of the protests of the Arab Spring is still up for debate as few countries that experienced protests and uprising have stability today. What little progress was gained by some countries others experienced only violence and devastation.

Eight of the Largest Protests in Modern History and What They Accomplished
Protesters with Orange Flags in the Ukraine. Wikipedia

The Orange Revolution

The Orange Revolution took place in the Ukraine from November 2004 to January 2005. The protests began after reports that the election that took place on November 21, 2004 was rigged in favor of Viktor Yanukovych. The fraudulent elections were considered to be the tipping point for Ukrainians who were waiting for an economic and political transformation to revitalize the country. The outgoing president was Leonid Kuchma and many had turned against him and his policies. He used his administration to support the candidacy of Viktor Yanukovych. The opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko took on the color of orange for his movement, and this would be the reason why the protests that followed the election became known as the Orange Revolution.

On November 22, the first of the massive protests began all across the Ukraine. 500,000 gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square and then later marched to the headquarters of the Ukrainian Parliament carrying orange flags. Many cities began to pass refusals to accept the legitimacy of Viktor Yanukovych as president.

Viktor Yushchenko even went as far as to take his own presidential oath believing that he was the rightful president of the country. Despite the freezing weather protests continued through December and on some days more than one million people walked the streets in protest. It is believed that over 18% of Ukrainians participated in the Orange Revolution.

The end to the Revolution came when the Ukrainian Supreme Court declared that there had been too much electoral fraud in the election and it was impossible to determine the rightful winner. Therefore, they decreed a run-off election would occur on December 26, 2005. The new election was strictly scrutinized and on January 10, 2005 the Election Commission declared that Viktor Yushchenko was the winner. He was inaugurated on January 23 in front of hundreds of thousands of supporters who had brought about a peaceful revolution.

Eight of the Largest Protests in Modern History and What They Accomplished
Protesters at the Rally for Peace and Disarmament June 2, 1982. WNYC.org

Anti-Nuclear March

In 1982 the largest protest in New York City history took place on the famous Great Lawn in Central Park. Dr. Randall Caroline Forsberg was the leader of a movement that would become known as the “Nuclear Freeze.” The Nuclear Freeze began right after the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. He began a large military buildup that had many afraid of a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets. The fear of a nuclear war had many willing to do whatever it took to show President Ronald Reagan and the world that the nuclear arms race needed to come to an end.

On June 12 1982 hundreds of thousands converged on Central Park for a March and Rally for Peace and Disarmament. 2,000 volunteers worked to bring the rally together and raise the estimated $700,000 that was needed to host the Rally. More than 2,000 buses were chartered to bring protesters to the event. A huge stage hosted the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. The peaceful rally was timed to mark the United National Special Session on Disarmament and rally organizers shouted through megaphones that there was no way the world could ignore them now.

It was the largest peaceful protest in the history of the United States and many believe that in some respects it did accomplish what it set out to do. While Ronald Reagan initially spoke out against the Nuclear Freeze movement, a close call with the Soviets and the massive crowd in New York City caused him to re-evaluate his position.

By his second term he not only toned down his nuclear rhetoric but he went beyond the goals and suggestions of the Nuclear Freeze. The accomplishment of their goals makes the anti-nuclear protest not only one of the largest in U.S. history but one of the most successful.

Eight of the Largest Protests in Modern History and What They Accomplished
Protesters organize to get Corazon (Cory) Aquino to take her place as President. www.seasite.niu.edu

People Power Revolution

In February of 1986 the people of the Philippines rose up against the repressive and authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Under Marcos’ regime his political opponents were jailed and martial law was declared in order for him to remain in power indefinitely. Ninoy Aquino was one of those jailed and he formed his own political party, People’s Power from his prison cell in 1978. He was eventually released from prison but exiled. He spent three years in the United States but he was determined to return to the Philippines. He was assassinated at the Manilla International Airport on August 21, 1983.

His death caused widespread suspicion of the government among Filipinos, who responded with civil disobedience. Protests escalated until Marcos finally agreed to an election with Ninoy Aquino’s widow running for the opposition. Marcos declared himself the winner despite evidence that Corazon Aquino actually got the most votes. Millions gathered together in protest of the elections that many believed were completely false. Members of the military defected to join the protesters and landed their planes and helicopters in the rebel camps.

With many of the military defecting, the protesters now had military weapons which they used to destroy some of Marcos’ air assets. The army that was loyal to Marcos suggested an airstrike against the protesters because they could not keep withdrawing. But Marcos refused to fire into the crowds. Eventually he agreed to hand over the presidency to Corazon Aquino.

He then phoned the United States in order to get safe passage for himself, his family and his close followers to the United States. The revolution allowed for the restoration of the democratic institutions which had been stifled after 13 years under Marcos’ authoritarian rule. The uprising of the Filipino people is now celebrated every year as a non-working holiday.