Nonviolent protest has always been a controversial method of fighting for a belief. There are the people who claim that it doesn’t actually make a difference, that it is actually the forces of history acting that made the changes we attribute to protest. There are those who claim that protests aren’t bad as long as the protesters follow the law. Others think that protesters are just a bunch of whiners.
And then, sadly, there are the people who believe in a cause but don’t see the value in it. They hear the complaints of the people around them, they hear all the attacks against the act of protest, and they see the truth in them. Why protest if it doesn’t matter? Why protest if no one will listen? Why protest when we could do something “productive” instead?
All of these views of protest, and many more, are because of a misapprehension of what protesting actually is. And now, in a new age of demagoguery and populism, it is more important than ever that we steel ourselves for a long fight ahead.
That’s why I created this post, and why I compiled these photos: you must remember what protesting is, and why it matters. You must remember that protesting is not only a political act: it is a spiritual one. It is one that exists on a higher plane than any orange wannabe dictator can inhabit.
1. The Hardcore Suffragist, 1913
We’re so used to it now, aren’t we? Voting rights for all, that’s just a given. And yet, only 100 years ago, Britain, the most powerful nation at the time, was exploding with the protests of the suffragists. These women, for decades, fought for their right to vote. And, as it turned out, sparked a global movement.
Pictured above is Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the leading suffragists and head of the “Suffragette” movement. Pankhurst was known for her dramatic acts of resistance that included getting arrested in view of the press, staging hunger strikes, and for her militancy. It was Pankhurst, and others like her, who had decided to turn the protests to fight for women’s right to vote into a radical act, one that would be impossible to ignore.
In many ways, Pankhurst’s “extremism” is an example of the same issues we face today: the need the outside world has for protester to “behave” weighed against the pressing urge of the voiceless against the tyranny of a literal empire. The debate matters, but it matters just as much that we acknowledge that women’s suffrage in Britain did not truly reach new ground until they became more radical. In other words, nonviolent resistance means breaking the rules.
The result of the British suffrage movement? Not just voting rights for women in Britain, but a movement that swept nation after nation. And the nation most directly affected by the tactics of British suffragists like Emmeline Pankhurst? The United States of America. In other words, a few brave women in one country were the key elements in allowing half of the world’s population to finally be given voting privileges.
Today, 100 years later, not one democratic country doesn’t allow women to vote.
2. The Orphans Who Challenged The Moguls, 1899
Is there any more dramatic example of the powerless standing up to the powerful than a protest by children (orphans, no less) against some of the richest men in America?
The newsboy strike of 1899 is one of the most famous strikes in American history, famously depicted in the Disney movie “Newsies.” The newsboys, dealing with a situation in which their newspapers had risen in price but sales lowered, were forced to buy back the newspapers they didn’t sell. The result: these already destitute children were made even more powerless.
They striked for days, bringing traffic and life in New York City to a standstill. Pulitzer and Hearst tried a number of tactics to break up the strikes including hiring men to do the work (who cost more, and were also afraid of the boys) and hiring others to break up the rallies and attack the children.
The strike ended quickly, with the newspapers offering to buy back any unbought newspapers.
Even more importantly: the story spread and inspired others, including one in Montana in 1914 and one in Kentucky in 1920.
3. The Japanese Who Was American, 1942
Part of my aim with this collection of photos is to challenge the idea that protests are simply acts of walking through the streets in big groups. Or even trying to persuade others. Sometimes they are simple acts of “bearing witness,” as the very broad Wikipedia definition states. An internal act, but one that is acted out for others to see.
By that definition, it could be argued that this historic image of a Japanese-American’s business after he had been sent to an internment camp is an act of incredibly powerful protest. The sign that says, “I am an American” was posted the day after Pearl Harbor. An act of unity with the United States, of course. But also an act of protest against a world that may judge a man based on his ethnicity or looks instead of his inner moral compass.
The result is seen in the very same picture: the family business, run by the son of the man who started it, had to be sold. And he and his family were interned. Just because they were Japanese immigrants. It made no difference that the family had put this sign up: they were suspects just because of who they appeared to be.
And yet. While the internment is seen as a mistake, one America wishes to forget, this sign has lived on. A reminder that we are more than we appear to be. And that, in a world that often forgets this reality, a simple, small act of protest can remind the world of what it should have known already.
4. Inner Defiance, 1931
This may be one of the most shared historical images on the internet. In the foreground: a menorah. In the background: a Nazi flag. The photo was taken in 1931, 2 years before the Holocaust, by a woman named Rachel Posner. On the back, she wrote: “Chanukah, 5692. ‘Judea dies’, thus says the banner. ‘Judea will live forever’, thus respond the lights.”
What better example of an inner, spiritual protest? One that perhaps may have never been seen or heard of if World War II had ended differently, God forbid. A sacred act of inner dignity against the face of unimaginably powerful hate.
But this protest was not simply an inner one, it was reflected outwards: Rachel Posner’s husband, a rabbi, spoke out proudly against the Nazi regime. As described by his grandson:
My grandfather, the rabbi of the Kiel community, was making many speeches, both to Jews and Germans. To the Germans he warned that the road they were embarking on was not good for Jews or Germans, and to the Jews he warned that something terrible was brewing, and they would do well to leave Germany. My grandfather fled Germany in 1933, and moved to Israel. His community came to the train station to see him off, and before departed he urged his people to flee Germany while there’s still time.
In other words: inner strength leads to outer protest. And the two feed each other. Protesting is not just about getting the word out. It’s about feeling strong enough in your convictions to stand up to evil. That is what this rabbi understood.
And the result: Rabbi Posner convinced more than half of his congregation to leave Germany, saving countless lives. This is the power of protest.
5. To Protest Is To Break The Rules, 1958
One of the biggest lies told about Martin Luther King Jr. (and about most protests that people agree with in retrospect, for that matter) is that his form of protest somehow followed the rules. That it was clear who was in the right and who was in the wrong, and all the world needed was a quiet, dignified protest to set things right.
Images like this help set the record straight: to protest almost always means to break the rules. To be unruly. To resist. When the rules are unjust, there is nothing more just than breaking them. And that’s what Martin Luther King Jr. did.
5 years after this photo was taken, MLK penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which lucidly explained to his supposed allies who had argued that his methods were too extreme that, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Protests, then, have two enemies: those who oppress, and those who are not willing to truly stand shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed. And while people try to twist Martin Luther King Jr’s beliefs to one of impotence, he was, in fact, history’s most eloquent representative of the idea that to protest inherently means that one must consider oneself in an actual fight against a stronger power.
6. Sitting In… In Love, 1970
What a moving photo. An image of two gay activists protesting in the offices of Governor Rockefeller of New York. The goal was to push for a gay civil rights bill to become state law.
But the reason I share this image is for more than its tender display of love in the midst of protest. This protest was, in many ways, a shining example of how modern resistance has enabled the few to have a voice that they once never had when faced with the power of the many.
As told by one of the members of the organization that protested, The Gay Activists Alliance, “Downstairs we were marching around chanting as loudly as we could; loud was a G.A.A. trademark. There were never more than ten of us downstairs… About two hours into the action Arthur Bell came down and told us that they could hear us over the general noise of the city up in the Republican Headquarters office! He told us that we sounded like there were fifty people or more down in the street demonstrating. A large crowd had gathered around to see what we were doing, and when the Republicans looked out the window they couldn’t tell that the demonstration consisted of only the small number of people in the middle of that large crowd.”
There you have it. Ten people. Sounding like fifty. And louder than the city of New York itself.
This is what it means to protest.
And 35 years later, on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that states had to allow same-sex marriage.
7. The People Brought Down The Wall, 1989
It had nothing to do with Reagan. His famous words about tearing down the wall were just words.
It was the people. They tore down the Berlin Wall.
One could say that the seed of it started with prayer. For almost a decade, East German dissidents gathered at an 800-year-old church in Leipzig every Monday. Most of the time, they didn’t even have a dozen people. But in 1989, those prayer meetings had turned into huge gatherings called “Monday demonstrations.” Which then turned into a mass movement. Which then took over the entire country.
On the Saturday following the biggest Monday demonstration, a protest made up of almost a million East Berliners rocked their city. 5 days later, at a boring press conference, East Germany’s spokesman mentioned offhandedly that East Germans could finally pass through the wall. And although the officials weren’t clear about how to handle the situation, the citizens of the city helped them make up their mind. They walked right up to the wall, hundreds of thousands, and demanded the guards let them through.
Which they did. And the image you see above is of that day.
Imagine how it began with just a weekly meeting that turned into something bigger. Imagine how much inner strength is necessary to stand up to a government that had talked favorably of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Imagine that strength in millions of people who demonstrated in the streets. Imagine that, and you can imagine the power of protest, and how it must always start small, with one person.
In other words, it wasn’t the wall falling that brought the people of East Germany freedom. As dissident Marianne Birthler, put it, “It was the other way around. First we fought for our freedom; and then, because of that, the wall fell.”
8. Liberation Through Song And Unity, 1989
The images above do not seem like some sort of crazy revolution or mass protest. Maybe more like demonstrations of peace and harmony than anything. It turns out that they were both.
It was called the Singing Revolution. The famous protest by the people of the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) demanding independence from the Soviet Union. It was so named because of how the protestors would sing national hymns banned during Soviet rule, as depicted in the first image.
These protests were known for how incredibly peaceful they were. When the states were initially occupied by the Soviets after World War II they had tried to rebel with violence and were crushed. These later protests, from 1987 to 1991, were undertaken by those committed to peaceful, “spiritual defiance.”
And on one of the most powerful days in the history of protests, in 1989 two million people in all three countries joined hands over 430 miles, forming the longest human chain in history. It was called the Baltic Chain, and it was completely peaceful, just like the Singing Revolution.
Over the next two years, the three states gained their independence. Through nonviolence, through spiritual resistance, the people of the Baltic states achieved what eight years of guerilla warfare could not.
Most importantly, all of this organizing was part of a movement spurred on and inspired by the protests happening all over Europe. It is no coincidence that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the same year as the Baltic Way. Protests have a way of increasing confidence in others who have a dream to be heard, to be free. And that is why every protest, even one where two million people join hands across three countries, must always start with one person.
9. The Crawl For Rights, 1990
Whether it’s in our own lives or in the world at large, humans tend to have a natural predisposition towards feeling as if the comforts and rights of our lives have always been there, even when we remember a time when they weren’t. A perfect example of this: the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990.
These days, we take it for granted that Americans with disabilities cannot be discriminated against, whether in employment, public transportation and accommodations, and much more. But it wasn’t until 1990 that these basic rights became a reality. The ADA was the Civil Rights Act for the disabled.
And while the American people largely supported this monumental piece of legislation, Congress was having trouble getting it passed.
The result: 1,000 activists descended on Washington DC to make a statement: this was a cause that couldn’t wait. And to prove it, 60 activists, all disabled, crawled up the steps of the Capitol building. Their point, made in dramatic fashion, was to illustrate to Americans, and to Congress, just how not having accessibility to public institutions was hurting them.
One of the most powerful images of the day? The second one above, of Jennifer Keelan, an 8-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, who pulled herself up the steps and yelled, “I’ll take all night if I have to!”
Four months later, the bill had passed and president George H.W. Bush signed it into law.
10. The Perfect Protest
You’ve seen this image already. I am sure of that. Depicting mother and nurse Ieshia Evans standing up to police in Baton Rouge
But why? Why this image, among so many during the height of the Black Lives Matters protests?
It’s not a coincidence. There are elements to this image that both make it an incredible photo, as well as an example of a truly great moment of protest.
What makes a protest great?
- It must be personal. Coming from within, from a place deep in our souls.
- It must be public.
- It must break the rules.
This image does all three of these in spades, in an inspiring way that is almost beyond belief. Ieshia, her back straight, wearing only a sundress, her dignity in full display. The police in full riot gear confronting her. Who is stronger in this image? The question needn’t even be answered: the image answers it.
But the outer display of the photo is just a reflection of the inner work of Ieshia, who declared after the photo went viral that, “This is the work of God. I am a vessel! Glory to the most high! I’m glad I’m alive and safe.”
The photo occurred after the police had directed Ieshia and other protesters to stay on the grass by the side of the road. Already bothered by the way the police tried to control the protesters, Ieshia became incensed when one of the police raised a gun in their direction, the very act that had led to the death of Alton Sterling, whose death they were protesting.
“That got me angry. If these people are doing what you told them to do, and you told them to go into the grass and they did so, why are you changing the position of your gun?” she said in an interview with VICE News. So she walked into the street against their direct orders and up to the heavily armed, heavily armored, policemen who were threatening her.
“We were there for a reason. It’s part of a protest. I’m not going to be pushed off [to the side], we’re not going to have our issues and our feelings and our lives pushed off to the side and swept away like they swept away Alton Sterling’s life, they swept away Freddie Gray’s life, they swept away Sandra Bland’s life, Tamir Rice’s life, you know, countless others. I’m not going to get pushed off to the side.”
In other words, it was a protest of dignity, a protest of inner spiritual wholeness, one that came from a refusal to be treated as less than worthy. And she did it by breaking the rules (which, ironically, was a criticism people who were upset by the image tried to point out in an attempt to prove her protest wasn’t valid). She was arrested, but because she chose to be arrested.
“There was no fear in my body,” said Ieshia in an interview with CBS, “which is kind of, when you see these officers and you see their gear, and I see his gun; they look impenetrable compared to me with no armor in a sundress. But there was no fear.”
In other words, the image was not staged. It was a genuine display of strength. It was a protest captured in its most perfect moment. It was a protest that was true in its inner soul, in its outer expression, and the only reason it broke rules was because the rules were unjust.
In other words, it was ruled by higher rules. Rules beyond the laws of man. And it is in these laws, in these rules of truth, where protest truly lives.
One Last Photo, One Last Message
Above sits John Lewis. Around him are the angry hordes of men who wanted to deny him and those in his world the rights they deserved. He is calm, they are angry. He is righteous, they are wrong.
And now it is happening all over again.
Lewis is now a congressman. He has stood up to Donald Trump, and in doing so has created a firestorm.
And he has a message for you. One he shared with students in 2015, but which should resonate even more for those of us who hear the call of protest:
“You have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, to speak up, speak out and get in good trouble. You can do it. You must do it. Not just for yourselves but for generations yet unborn.”
We are in a new generation, and we are hearing the reverberations of those who have stood tall in the face of darkness. It is our turn. We are the generation John Lewis fought for. Now we must fight for the generations that follow us.