Political Protest

views updated

Political Protest

Political protest involves attempts by individuals or groups to address or stop perceived injustices within a political system, without overturning the system itself. Unlike revolutionaries, political protesters maintain some level of conviction that the political system is capable of correcting and improving itself. Yet, political protesters do not rely exclusively on traditional ways of political participation, such as voting, either because they have no right or access to them or because they do not consider them effective.

forms of political protest

Political protest may take various forms. One major distinction is between non-violent and violent protest. Nonviolent forms include petitions, newspaper articles, works of art, sit-ins, strikes, and peaceful demonstrations, while violent forms include destruction of property, bodily harm, and acts of terrorism. Although violent means mainly target agents of a regime, they also may be random and occasionally self-inflicted, as in the case of Jan Palach, the Czech student who in January 1969 set himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Nonviolent protest may turn violent, often as a result of government responses to protesters.

responses to political protest

Responses to political protest vary, ranging from the harsh enforcement of bans on political protest, to attempts to calm it down by making partial concessions, to tolerance of the phenomenon. Any of the responses, whether harsh or soft, may or may not be sanctioned by law. Democratic thinkers often have called for the constitutional enshrinement of the right to protest as a way to guarantee those excluded from the polity to reenter it. Indeed, both democratic and non-democratic countries have recognized the advantages of allowing some political protest as a way to release economic and social tensions and avoid revolution. However, in many cases police or army forces facing legitimate acts of protest have used excessive power to subdue them, especially when the protesters belonged to minority races or ethnicities.

Political protest may be an individual act, as when French writer Emile Zola (1840–1902) stood up during the Dreyfus Affair in late nineteenth century France, writing J'accuse against the church, military, and political establishments that aligned to falsely accuse Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859–1935) of treason. On the other hand, it may be the product of a social movement or the alignment of social movements. Famous examples include anticolonial movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the civil rights movement in the United States, and women's movements all over the world. One characteristic of modern globalization is the shift from political protest confined to specific political regimes, as in China's Tiananmen Square (1989), to the formation of international protest movements. Examples of the latter include antiglobalization forces that have opposed international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Seattle, Washington; Genoa, Italy; Quebec City, Canada; and elsewhere.

political protest theories

Political protests have been fueled by various political theories, the consideration of which may highlight the wide range of causes, motives, and forms of political protest:

German political philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883) attributed the causes of political protest to class struggle. Considering conflict between social classes as necessary and inevitable, he envisioned a perpetual clash between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, which provided the ideological base for much of the mass protests of the modern era. Although Marx and his followers, especially Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924), feared that protest may hinder rather than enhance the coming of an all-out revolution, Marxism gave a solid theoretical base to labor unrest on a mass scale and provided it with a repertoire of engaging promises, slogans, posters, and songs. Even after Marxism fell into disrepute and political protest focused largely on what became known as "post-material" concerns—exemplified in the antinuclear movement, environmental groups like Greenpeace, and animal rights activism—this repertoire continued to nourish the protesters' legacy.

Another set of theories empowering political protest is that associated with colonialism and "postcolonialism." While the struggle against colonialism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America involved the liberation from the powers—mostly European—that colonized these regions, postcolonial theory focuses on the elimination of the cultural elements believed to lie at the core of the colonial condition. Postcolonial theorists, especially Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) and Edward Said (1935–2003), pointed to the literary and political symbolism that has justified the power of the colonizers by marginalizing and excluding the colonized "other" from the political structure on grounds of race. Consequently, Fanon introduced one of the most radical forms of protest against colonialism and its cultural manifestations, calling for severe violence that would liberate the oppressed, thus bringing the notion of political protest to the verge of an all-out revolution.

On the other hand, India's Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) advocated non-violent political protest. Gandhi called for the liberation of India through civil disobedience, which was to be carried out in accordance with satyagraha (truth and resolution). For example, on April 6, 1930, Gandhi arrived in the coastal village of Dandi after marching nearly 388 kilometers (241 miles) on foot to gather salt. This was a march of protest against the British Salt Tax used to generate revenue to support British rule. The march unleashed widespread disobedience of British laws throughout India, while employing relatively little hatred and violence toward the British authorities.

Inspired by Gandhi's non-violence, Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) became a symbol of the civil rights movement in the United States. In his famous speech "I have a dream," King invoked American values in support of black Americans, drawing legitimacy for his cause directly from the American

Declaration of Independence. His dream that "one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal," aimed not at overthrowing the American system but at exposing an inherent hypocrisy and at changing racial attitudes present within the American political culture.

Similarly, activists in the women's rights movement did not reject the American principles of equality, but rather invoked them for their own cause. In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), an activist in the movement to abolish slavery, drafted the Declaration of Sentiments, where she used the words from the Declaration of Independence and stated: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal." Though the struggle for equal rights started in 1848, it was not until 1920 that women obtained the right to vote in the United States, and not until the 1960s that feminist protests succeeded in bringing about Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

During the 1960s, known as "the decade of protest," many civil groups in the United States and Western Europe engaged in demonstrations, sit-ins, takeovers of university buildings, planting of "peoples' parks," and other forms of protest, inspired by resistence to the American war in Vietnam, and by general discontent with the modern industrial state. This era of protest was marked by a strong nexus between political protest and the arts. This nexus—the origins of which can be traced to artistic movements protesting World War I, such as "Dada"—came to bear in posters, drawings, photojournalism, displays, fringe theatre, films, music, and other artistic expressions depicting political protest. Nick Ut's 1972 photo of nine-year-old Kim Phuc fleeing a Napalm attack, Bob Dylan's (b. 1941) song "Blowin' in the Wind," or Andy Warhol's (1928?–1987) image of the Birmingham race riots of 1964 are well-known examples.

Political scientists have made various attempts to account for the causes of political protest. Ted Robert Gurr asserted that it springs from "relative deprivation," or the perception of people that they are deprived in relation to others. Of course, this theory does not account for protesters who are not deprived themselves but may engage in political protest in support of others who are. "Rational choice" theorists, who follow economic thinking in its assumption that individuals are maximizers of interests, explained participation in political protest as the outgrowth of a calculus that its benefits exceed its costs. This theory does not account for the many cases in which individuals and groups have been willing to risk costs exceeding any "cost-benefit" calculus in their protest against injustice.

the future

Many modern acts of political protest require a great deal of personal courage and sacrifice. Examples include nuns staging protests against military rule in Myanmar, students demonstrating against the ayatollahs of Iran, Israeli soldiers conducting acts of civil disobedience to protest the occupation of Palestinain lands, monks distributing materials calling for the independence of Tibet, and citizens marching on the streets of African cities to protest the lack of personal security.

tiananmen square protests

From April 15 to June 4, 1989, a Chinese "Democracy Movement" held demonstrations for democratic and socialist reforms in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Largely made up of university students and urban workers, the originally peaceful demonstrations were timed to coincide with Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to the country, and involved around 100,000 people with different agendas and demands. Deng Xiaoping's (1904–1997) gradual reforms toward "socialism with Chinese characteristics" were not moving fast enough for some of the groups who decried the Communist Party's hold on the country, while others believed the reforms were going too far, putting them near the brink of economic disaster.

Ordered to end the demonstrations and disperse, the crowds remained as they were until June 3, when the People's Liberation Army rolled tanks into Tiananmen Square and began firing randomly into the crowd. The massacre shocked the world, and left hundreds or thousands dead or wounded. The exact number of casualties remains unknown, and estimates vary widely. The event marked a turning point for many nations' foreign policy regarding China well into the twenty-first century.

Although many of these events go unnoticed, it can be expected that with increasing access to the Internet in many parts of the world, political protesters will make more and more use of the Internet as a means to make online appeals, raise funds, connect to each other, and raise awareness of their cause.

See also: Aung San Suu Kyi; Dalai Lama; Democracy; Freedom of Assembly and Association; Gandhi, Mahatma; King Jr., Martin Luther.


Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. New York: Viking Press, 1965.

Bell, David V. J. Resistance and Revolution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973.

Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto, 1986.

Gurr, Ted Robert. Why Men Rebel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Keren, Michael. Zichroni v. State of Israel: The Biography of a Civil Rights Lawyer. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002.

McAdam, Doug, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly. Dynamics of Contention. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Michael Keren

About this article

Political Protest

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article