The Strength of the Streets: The 12 Most Important Protests in Human History
The Strength of the Streets: The 12 Most Important Protests in Human History

The Strength of the Streets: The 12 Most Important Protests in Human History

Mike Wood - September 12, 2017

The Strength of the Streets: The 12 Most Important Protests in Human History
Long angle view of an unknown Beijing man facing down a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. Reddit

11. Tiananmen Square

For our penultimate protest, we are staying in East Asia, but moving to the North. What to call our next protest is debated and depends on where you are and what your pre-existing opinion is. Known in the West as either the Tiananmen Square Massacre and in China as the June Fourth Incident, the events of June 4, 1989, have become one of the defining political moments of recent years, a watershed (or bloodshed) for nascent political dissent in China and something of a forebearer of things to follow.

The end of the 1980s represented the biggest sea change in world politics since the great uprisings of 1968 and a landmark moment in which the world balance of power shifted. The so-called “second world” communist societies had begun market-orientated reforms throughout the Eighties and from Gdansk to East Berlin to Moscow and Beijing, people were taking advantage of liberalized freedom of speech laws and the political weakness of the state to challenge the long-held orthodoxies.

While the protests in Eastern Europe would ultimately see the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, in the Far East, the government dealt with dissent in a far more decisive manner. In China, there was growing anger, particularly among the young, about the way that the country was headed. Market liberalization had benefitted some, but plenty of others, especially students and recent graduates, could not see where they fitted into the new China. In Tiananmen Square, Beijing’s central plaza, hundreds of thousands had gathered to demand more democracy and accountability in government.

Initially, the authorities let it run, but as the summer continued, it became clear that the protestors were not giving up. Students began a hunger strike and were joined by counterparts in 400 other cities. The regime declared martial law and began plans to send the troops in to clear out Tiananmen. On the evening of June 4, the action started. Soldiers were met by opposition sympathizers, who ignored TV messages telling them to stay home for their own safety, and opened fire. By midnight, troops were in the square and by the end of the night, anywhere between hundreds and thousands lay dead.

The image that endures from Tiananmen Square is that of the lone man standing before the line of tanks comes from June 5, by which point the army was in total control. In the coming months, mass arrests were carried out and many more executed. China still suppresses talk of Tiananmen Square and June Fourth and resisted the regime changes that would be seen in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

The Strength of the Streets: The 12 Most Important Protests in Human History
The Media Co-op

12. Arab Spring

Our most final famous protest is our most recent and, arguably, is still ongoing. The revolutions that broke out in the Arab World in late 2010 have defined the last decade or so of history, with regime changes and the fallout from the mass protests still being felt in the region and beyond.

Like so many of our protests, the Arab Spring began with the actions of just one individual and ballooned into mass movements that changed the face of society. The small individual that sparked the revolutions – quite literally, in this case – was Mohamed Bouazizi. A Tunisian street vendor who had been targetted by police and unable to sell his wares, he burned himself to death in front of the local governor’s office in the town of Sidi Bouzid. Protests against his treatment were instant and after weeks of solid demonstrations, the autocratic President of Tunisia was forced to flee after 23 years in power.

It was just the beginning. Demonstrations in neighboring Egypt began, with hundreds of thousands filling Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak. Within three weeks, the power of the streets had spoken and Mubarak, who had been in charge of the North African nation for 30 years, had left the country. Nearly 900 people were killed in clashes between protesters and government forces, but eventually, the regime fell.

No sooner was Mubarak forced into exile than protests had begun in Libya, where strongman Muammar Gaddafi had been dictator since 1969. His hold on power weakened but was not totally overthrown: a civil war began between the opposition and government forces that would result in Gaddafi’s eventual demise in August of 2011 when he was killed by rebels in the city of Sirte.

As the war raged in Libya, a similar conflagration had begun in Syria, where President Bashar Al-Assad and his Ba’ath Party had held power since the early 1960s. Again, the war in Syria had begun as street protests demanding more democracy, economic reform and anti-corruption reforms, but in Syria, the waters would become murkier and murkier. The government reacted violently to protests and sparked the war, but after 6 and a half years, the situation has deteriorated and diversified into a conflict with multiple parties and no end in sight, not to mention a huge refugee crisis and untold misery.

The biggest political issues of our time – refugees, terrorism, lack of democracy, energy economics – do not stem from the Arab Spring, but the injection of local protests into the autocracies of the region has completely transfigured the way that we see the Middle East and North African region and cannot be underestimated.


Keep Reading:

History Collection – 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts

History Collection – Uprisings of the Common Man: 4 Bloody Peasant Revolts

History Collection – The Fall of The Bastille

History Collection – Jamaican Slave Uprising that Led to Revolution

History Collection – Violent Rebellion: 8 Times American Slaves Revolted

History Collection – 20 Times Americans Rebelled Against Their Government

History Collection – 6 Violent American Labor Protests

History Collection – 9 Pivotal Slave Rebellions from Ancient Times to the 19th Century

History Collection – 12 Historic Little-Known Rebellions with Tragic and Bloody Ends


Sources For Further Reading:

BBC – The Peasants’ Revolt

Historic UK – Wat Tyler and the Peasants Revolt

History Channel – Martin Luther Posts His 95 Theses

History Channel – The Reformation

The Conversation – Five of The Most Violent Moments of The Reformation

Plimoth Museum – Mayflower and Mayflower Compact

BBC UK – A Summary of The Chartist Movement

Time Magazine – What Actually Happened on the Original Bastille Day

We Forum – Who was Mahatma Gandhi and what impact did he have on India?

History Channel – When Gandhi’s Salt March Rattled British Colonial Rule

Finding Dulcinea – Supreme Court Outlaws Bus Segregation

Rare Historical Photo – The Burning Monk, 1963

BBC – Tiananmen Square: What Happened in The Protests Of 1989?

PBS – Timeline: What Led to the Tiananmen Square Massacre