Remarkable Images of Activism from the Last Fifty Years


Resting Student – Tiananmen Square, Beijing 1989Photo:
Image: cromacon

Missiles may rain down overhead, water canons blast people back, tear gas choke and worse, but when people decide they’ve had enough, they’ve had enough. Many would argue that if ever there was proof that actions speak louder than words, mass protesting is it. Images of individuals taking to the streets have become etched in our minds, and each one resonates with intensity long after its particular moment in history – a remembrance of how people felt about the status quo.

protestors vs water cannonPhoto:
Image via: Pixdaus

If we object to certain situations or events, mass protesting is our way of publicly and passionately expressing what we think about them, so that the powers that be sit up and take notice. Protests may involve direct action, force and even violence, though sometimes the most powerful demonstrations are the ones that that practice passive resistance. Here we look at four famous protests from the last fifty years that opened eyes and changed people’s mindsets.

Tiananmen Square Protest, 1989

tiananmen squarePhoto:
Image: Jeff Widener

The image of an unknown man halting the advancing tanks of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) near Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 5, 1989 is possibly the single most iconic photo of an act of protest. The barefaced, almost absurd audacity of a man blocking a column of tanks in a call to end the violence and bloodshed against pro-democracy demonstrators still beggars belief. The man was pulled away by bystanders, and the tanks crawled inexorably on their way.

Flag waver, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, May 1989
Flag Waver – Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, May 1989Photo:
Image: cromacon

PLA troop movement: Beijing, June 1989
PLA Troop Movement – Beijing, China, June 1989Photo:
Image: cromacon

The Tiananmen Square protests were a series of student-led demonstrations that spoke out against the authoritarian Chinese government and called for economic change. Spanning seven weeks, beginning April 14, 1989, the protests were sparked by the death of anti-corruption official Hu Yaobang, whom protestors wished to mourn. By the eve of Hu’s funeral, 100,000 people had amassed in Tiananmen Square, and the movement would continue for weeks.

Riot in Beijing: June 1989
Riot in Beijing – China, June 1989Photo:
Image: cromacon

Resting student: Tiananmen Square, Beijing 1989
Resting Student – Tiananmen Square, Beijing 1989Photo:
Image: cromacon

The government responded with brutal force, crushing the demonstration and killing hundreds, perhaps even thousands, as events culminated in the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 4. After the carnage, the government further stamped down it’s authority with methods such as widespread arrests to suppress protestors and their supporters and the banning of foreign press from the country. However, the course of China’s history had been irrevocably altered.

WTO Ministerial Conference Protest, 1999

WTO protests in Seattle November 30 1999Photo:
Image: Steve Kaiser

Pepper spray being liberally applied by police to the faces of a protesting crowd is a sight to make anyone’s throat sore, and even the onlookers look stunned in this photo from the World Trade Organisation protests of Seattle on November 30, 1999. Tear gas, concussion grenades and rubber bullets were all fired by police forces at protestors in an attempt to reopen blocked streets and allow as many WTO delegates as possible through the blockades that had been created.

WTO protests in Seattle, November 30, 1999
WTO protests in Seattle, November 30, 1999Photo:
Image: djbones

Seattle Burning: WTO protests
Seattle Burning, WTO protests, November 1999Photo:
Image: isa e

The flare-up of protests surrounding the WTO Conference of November 30, 1999 was a response to the launch of a new millennial round of trade negotiations known as N30. N30 was to be a major meeting advancing what the 40,000 or so protestors saw as the evils of globalised capitalism – issues like the unregulated power of multi-national corporations and the maximisation of profit at the expense of environmental principles and workers’ rights.

Peace offering: protester holding an olive branch while gesturing the peace sign
Peace offering: peaceful protester holding an olive branch while gesturing the peace signPhoto:
Image: shooterme

Toy soldiers: Seattle police with full riot gear just a few feet away
Toy soldiers: Seattle police exhibiting full riot gear during the 1999 WTO protests in SeattlePhoto:
Image: shooterme

A loose coalition of protestors including NGOs, labour unions and student groups took part in rallies, teach-ins and parties, as well as the marches that converged on Seattle. The events were marked by the activities of the Direct Action Network that took control of key intersections, and also by a group of black-clad anarchists who smashed windows and vandalized storefronts. Over 600 people were arrested in the ensuing days, but protests at similar such summits occur on a regular basis.

May 1968, France

A police officer threw a tear gas canister to disperse crowds, May 1968Photo:
Image: Reg Lancaster via Purse Lip Square Jaw

In an image that makes State efforts to control mass protests appear insignificant, a police officer hurls a gas canister to disperse crowds gathered in France in 1968. Depending on your political point of view, there is still fierce debate as to whether what went on over half a century ago were protests or riots. What isn’t in dispute is that they shook a nation and defined an era.

Women and men march as one, May 1968
May 1968 marchPhoto:
Image: Unknown photographer via jrawsoncowles

Police move in: Paris, May 1968
May 1968 police moving inPhoto:
Image: Unknown photographer via jrawsoncowles

The events of May 1968 in France consisted of differing movements, including the largest general strike to have ground the economy of a Western industrial country to halt, and a series of student occupation protests. The first workers strike involved over ten million workers for two consecutive weeks and almost collapsed the government, in an explosion prompted by groups critical alike of Stalinist totalitarianism, and Western technical and consumer society.

Paris’ famed cobblestones used to erect barricades around the Latin Quarter
May 1969 student barricades, Latin QuarterPhoto:
Image: Unknown photographer via jrawsoncowles

Disorder in Paris: Charles de Gaulle responded with police and mobilised troops
Paris, May 1968Photo:
Image: Bruno Barber via In Defense of Marxism

What became a social rather than a political revolution, liberating a nation from the shackles of class, education and sexual behaviour, began as a series of student protests in Paris. The de Gaulle government tried to quell this action through police force, but it only added fuel to the fire. The students barricaded themselves into the Latin Quarter where the universities are located, events that were followed by street battles with the police and eventually the wider strikes.

Anti-Iraq War Protests, 2002-2005

London anti-war protest banners STW march, September 2002Photo:
Image: William M. Connolley

Shot in London, this photo could almost have been taken anywhere in the world. It depicts the crowds who filled the British capital’s streets during the Stop the War march of September 24, 2002, which drew a crowd of as many as 400,000 people and signalled swelling public opinion against the case being made for war in Iraq.

Unprecedented protest, Rome, February 2003
Roma FebruaryPhoto:
Image: Simone Ramella

On February 13, 2003 a coordinated day of worldwide protests took place to oppose the imminent invasion of Iraq, with millions taking part in approximately 800 cities across the globe. Europe saw some of the largest mobilisations of protestors, including a rally in Rome involving around 3 million people, which became the largest of its kind in history.

Anti-war activist arrested in San Francisco during the March 2003 protests
Pacifista ArrestoPhoto:
Image: Franco Folini

Boston anti-war protest, 2005
Image: Justin McIntosh

The demonstrations were mainly organised by anti-war organizations, though in some Arab countries they were arranged by the State. While it is difficult to generalise about protests occurring on such a scale, it seems that by and large they were peaceful. There were isolated violent conflicts in places like Bogotá, Colombia, and reports of minor clashes between police and protestors in cities such as New York and Athens – but all told these huge global protests showed the strength of a peace movement comparable to that triggered by the Vietnam War.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7