Sunday, 14 November 2010

The 10 best mass protests

The Observer's veteran foreign correspondent Ed Vulliamy chooses history's most significant public demonstrations.

[Because newspaper articles are not necessarily archived, I have reproduced in full a collection of comments and images assembled by Ed Vulliamy here on my blog. I have credited any images where the photographer was still alive within the last fifty years, and will remove them if I receive any objection to their being in my petty blog; but I regard any images where the artist or photographer has been deceased for more than fifty years as being legally in the public domain. Although I agree in broad terms with Ed Vulliamy’s views as expressed here, there are minor details on which I would take issue; however I present his views without comment from me. MM]

March on Washington 17 April 1965
There were many epic protests against the Vietnam war that inspired my generation but this photograph of a demonstrator placing a flower in the barrel of a National Guardsman’s gun – a single, small but defiant act of protest – was both of the time and, eternally, an assertion for peace against war. The moment gathered further cogency in May 1970 after the killing of four students at Kent State University in Ohio in a similar protest. It emerged that one of the dead, Allison Krause, had also placed a flower in a gun the previous day. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

The Three Glorious Days, Paris July 1830
The 1830 revolution in Paris, which overthrew the Bourbon monarchy, gave birth to the modern uprising. It was inspired by philosophical romanticism as well as political ends (the crowds ransacked the Hôtel de Ville, but guarded the Louvre). As a teenager, I was captivated by Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (above) and loved the fact that composer Hector Berlioz was involved. The revolution’s outcome illustrated the tireless pursuit of rebellion: overthrowing one monarch, only to restore another who would also be overthrown

Chartist general strike 1842 and UK miners’ strike 1984-5
The bookends of the movement for fair employment and the right to work in Britain. The workers’ movement was born in earnest with the Chartist strike – the largest industrial action in the world in the 19th century, with half-a-million workers withdrawing their labour or taking over their factories. The miners’ strike was the last prolonged struggle to preserve not only the right of organisation at work but Britain’s manufacturing base against the looting of national assets. The workers lost, the looters won: the results are plain to see in our post-industrial wastelands

Soweto school strike and uprising 1976
The walkout by pupils at Orlando West Junior School in Soweto on 30 April 1976 in protest at being taught in Afrikaans was the fuse of the movement that came to be led by Nelson Mandela and which overthrew apartheid in South Africa. By June, Soweto was in revolt and some 600 people had been killed by the police and army. But the uprising established the jailed Mandela’s ANC as a guiding force for liberation and was immediately heeded in Britain. That summer, youths chanted “Soweto Soweto” as they were charged by police at Notting Hill carnival. Photograph, AP

Prague Spring and uprising 1968
Many Czechs recall the events of 1968 with bitterness as a defeat by the Soviet tanks, and of the uprising’s reformist leader, Alexander Dubcek. But, coming as one in a wave of protests that great year of global insurrection, the demonstration was a howl for liberty – both raw and sophisticated – by the people against the forces of Moscow. For me, it was the political awakening. Prague told us that a tank was a tank, whatever colours it wore, and that our movement was the colour of liberty against whomsoever it pitched itself, communist or capitalist. Photograph: Libor Hajsky/AP

Emily Wilding Davison at the Derby 4 June 1913
How can a protest be among the “best” if a brave woman dies? Because it was a watershed for the movement for votes for women. Davison did not, apparently, intend to die when she threw herself under King George V’s horse on Derby day, 4 June 1913. The jockey, Herbert Jones, was “haunted by that woman’s face” – and so was 20th-century Britain. My late father, whose mother had been a suffragette, saw the Greenham Common protest against cruise missiles in the 1980s as a direct descendant of their pacifist policies. We took them cases of good wine, which were most welcome.

Kronstadt commune, Petrograd 1921
Four years after the Russian revolution, the Soviet Communist party cracked down on a series of strikes against it in what is now St Petersburg. In response, sailors of the Kronstadt garrison, aboard the ships Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol, drew up a list of democratic demands that encapsulated the spirit, and continuation, of the revolution. When it was rejected, the sailors formed a “provisional revolutionary committee” and set up a commune. In response, the Red Army was sent in, brutally over-running Kronstadt. This revolution against a revolution has long divided the left.

People’s democracy at Burntollet Bridge 1969
Protesters on the student wing of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association sang “We Shall Overcome” as they marched from Belfast to Derry in January 1969, demanding an end to discrimination against Catholics and basic democratic voting rights. At Burntollet Bridge, they were attacked by a mob of Orangemen, encouraged by the sectarian Royal Ulster Constabulary. The ensuing war was not fought by the IRA for equality within the UK – it was too late for that, a chance squandered by loyalist bigots to write a very different, less violent history for both countries. Photograph: Unknown

Anti-war protests worldwide 15 February 2003
The day when tens of millions of people across the planet came together to say “no” to the war in Iraq. The protests were overridden by warmongers – Bush, Blair and their cronies – but the protests are, sadly, vindicated by every day of bloody news from the ruins of that beautiful but ravaged, lost country. I walked through New York on 15 February, my children and my partner marched in London, friends marched in Sydney and Mexico. I was among those who tried to report the folly and the lie of WMD from within the US intelligence community itself, as well as protest – but also in vain. Photo: Dan Chung.

Athens Polytechnic occupation 2008-9
These have, until now, been times of acquiescence, apathy and the triumph of greed, belligerent hyper-materialism and fatuity. But in Athens, young people and trade unionists mounted a grand refusal of all these hegemonies. When I covered the polytechnic occupation and riots that followed the shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos, I was astonished by the intelligence of the rebels in their endless candlelit discourse. Their uprising was also against the virtual culture of blogging instead of doing. One told me: “We are an assertion of the real thing against virtuality”. Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

[Having said I wouldn’t comment, as a blogger I find myself chastened by that last quotation. A correction from an anonymous source might be noted in the case of the first photo: “The photograph of a blond young man placing a carnation in the barrel of a national guardsman's gun actually was taken during a protest against the Vietnam War on Oct. 21, 1967 (not on April 17, 1965, as indicated in the Guardian caption). The protester has been identified as George Harris, aka Hibiscus, who not long thereafter founded the legendary San Francisco queer performance troupe The Cockettes.” Readers of my blog may well have many other events which they would add to Ed Vulliamy’s list – people who commented on the original article certainly did. MM]



  2. Thank you. It has been a while since I listened to Laibach.