The Evolution of the Protest:
8 Historical Protests You Never Heard About
I support the movement, but I don’t support vandalism or looting.”
There is a 99% chance you have heard or read this sentence in the last six weeks.
Because in times of crisis — as we are in now, the whole world, all at once — we quickly forget our collective past in the interest of solving immediate problems. We focus on the here and now. Check your email. Skim the news. Then form a half-baked opinion, and carry on with your day.
Mass media is especially guilty of this – carelessly tossing out words like “riot” instead of “protest”, underreporting the good, and overreporting the negative edge cases, the lone-wolf looter, the one bad egg. It’s dangerously easy to follow a double-standard and critique modern protests without considering the ones that came before.
That’s why you hear things like “I support the movement, BUT…”The fact is, protesting is a human right. In the UK, both our freedom of speech and right to peaceful protest are protected by the common law and Article 11 of the Human Rights Act 1998. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights also protects freedom of expression, which is absolutely essential to functioning democracies.
Protesting is not only a human right but an act which, through history, has affected enormous change.
Now we have a few questions for you.
How has the protest – and freedom of speech – evolved in the United Kingdom? Which historic, groundbreaking protests in UK have impacted your life for the better? What tactics did they use to secure your right to vote, your right to practice any religion you like, your right not to pay a poll tax? Do you think those people ever vandalized a building?
In a recent Time article by Olivia B. Waxman, author and professor of Africana Studies Kellie Carter Jackson said, “I see a lot of parallels in terms of tactics used, how people have used pretty much every tool in front of them—maybe not cell-phone footage, but the press, the pen, their speeches, their rhetoric, their physical bodies. This contributed to the abolition of slavery, and I see those same tactics playing out today in [hopes of] abolishing police brutality, abolishing mass incarceration, abolishing the gross inequities between white communities and black communities.”
We can’t strip our present of its historical context. We praise women who fought for the right to vote, but at the time many were vilified as terrorists. They were not protected by the police but assaulted instead. Black Lives Matter is not the exception to the rule.
Police brutality isn’t new. Oligarchy isn’t new. The infringement of a ruling class on lower class’ rights isn’t new. We must remember that protesting also isn’t new. It is essential.
And we see it as much in British history as we do today. Let’s take a look at the Evolution of the Protest: Part One.
1381 – Poll Tax Protests
Just a few decades after the Black Death wiped out 1/3 of the continent’s population, tensions ran high as cheap labour became increasingly valuable – giving the peasant class more sociopolitical power than they’d ever had. However, this leverage was squashed by a series of poll taxes (designed to make everyone pay the same amount regardless of their wealth, putting the poor at a significant disadvantage). These protests are reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s attempt at implementing a new poll tax in the 1990s (read on to learn more about those).
When a tax collector tried (for the third time in four years) to levy a poll tax, a rebellion broke out in June of 1381 and spread throughout the country. Protestors led by Wat Tyler marched from Kent and Essex on London – they weren’t revolting against the tax alone, but against feudalism and serfdom, against disproportionate wealth distribution, for fairer laws, for freedom, and for equality.
When they arrived to London, the protestors destroyed government ministers’ houses. Then they were violently suppressed. At least 1,500 were killed. The Lord Mayor of London killed their leader, Wat Tyler. Those unscathed returned home, but government troops later travelled to various villages and hanged men who participated in the revolt.
The poll tax was not reinstituted.
1549 – The Prayer Book Rebellion
Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI, was a staunch Protestant. He was both king and a 12 year old when the Protestant Book of Common Prayer was introduced, which proved quite unpopular in more Catholic areas of the country (e.g. Devon and Cornwall). Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity to enforce the book’s use. A group of 7,000 citizens rose up in rebellion. Within two months it was squashed, leaving 2,000 killed by the king’s troops. The Church of England later apologised, 450 years later, stating that the massacre was “an enormous mistake.”
1812 – The Luddites
You may know the term “Luddite” to mean a person who fears change and/or tech, but in the 19th century they were a group of individuals, largely textile artisans, concerned about their livelihoods due to the advancement of machinery during the Industrial Revolution. They organized to defend their rights, speaking out by breaking machinery, attacking and burning factories, and in some cases exchanging gunfire with soldiers. The government’s response was to make machine-breaking punishable by death. In April 1812, more than 100 Luddites descended upon a mill, but the owner had already fortified it and stationed soldiers, who were waiting for their arrival. Two Luddites were killed and the rest chased off. They proceeded to raid houses in search of money and weapons. The army sent several thousand soldiers to find any remaining members of the resistance, hanging dozens of them and transporting many others to Australia.
Within a year, the resistance disappeared.
1819 – The Peterloo Massacre
In the early 19th century, voting rights were restricted to wealthy men. Only 2% of the population had the right to vote, and in the North West, a million citizens were represented by just four MPs. Widespread injustice led to masses of people calling for reform – in August 1819, around 70,000 people gathered in Manchester to hear speeches on anti-poverty, peace, and democracy. They displayed banners saying “Reform”, “Universal Suffrage,” “Equal Representation,” and “Love”.
The military, armed and on horseback, charged into the crowed, seriously injuring hundreds and killing eighteen. Not only that, but the government immediately passed a bill to prevent future calls for reform. Journalists present were arrested, and others who later reported on it were jailed. Speakers and organisers were arrested and initially charged with High treason.
The Great Reform Act was passed 13 years later.
1900s – The UK Women’s Suffrage Movement
Suffragettes are often portrayed as heroes today, but they were often demonised as anarchists and even terrorists in their day. Although the fight for women’s rights began long before this time, a major turning point in gender equality started with the long-term campaign for suffrage, which started in the mid-1800s. Suffragists worked to secure voting rights for middle-class, property-owning women (already creating a major rift in a supposed “fight for equality” that excluded women of colour and people of lower social status). Even within the Suffragists, factions formed as moderate and radical members’ ideologies and strategies clashed. A new group, the Suffragettes, which included younger and working class women, was formed. They became the suffragettes – a group who favoured radical techniques including chaining themselves to railings, setting fire to postboxes, smashing windows and hunger strikes.
Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, an Oxford student with first-class honours who was not allowed to take her degree due to being a woman, hid overnight in a House of Commons cabinet on the evening of the 1911 census in order to list the House of Commons as her place of residence. Most famously, she threw herself in front of one of the king’s horses, but sustained injuries that led to her death four days later.
Suffragists worked for years to protest, petition, and demand their rights, through chained protests, parades, human letters. On 18 November 1910 (known as Black Friday), Parliament failed to pass the Conciliation Bill, which, if passed, would have granted some women the vote. Although a peaceful protest to the House of Commons had been planned, the mood changed when the bill failed, and 300 protestors marched on Parliament, resulting in a violent clash between police, Suffragettes, and the general public. 119 protestors were arrested, and many demonstrators testified about being sexually assaulted in the skirmish. Then-Prime Minister Churchill refused to launch a public enquiry into the protestors’ treatment. Following the first World War in 1918, women over 30 were allowed to vote. It was not until a decade later that women over 21 and working-class women (including a majority of women of colour) were able to vote in 1928.
1936 – The Battle of Cable Street
By the 1930s nearly 200,000 Jews lived in London, mainly in the East End. Anti-Semitism ran rampant and worsened during the Great Depression, during which abominable Jewish stereotypes were not only perpetuated, but cemented, by local organisations and the media.
Meanwhile, Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) amassed an enormous following, including the support of the Daily Mail. Mosley, a former representative of both Conservative and Labour parties, became bored with mainstream politics and founded the BUF shortly after meeting Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in 1932. He exploited people’s anger about the Great Depression and attracted followers with a message of eliminating class differences.
Regarding the infamous “Battle” on 4 October 1936, Mosley and the BUF planned a march through Stepney, the heart of the Jewish London community at the time (60,000+ Jewish residents). The Home Secretary received a petition with 100,000 signatures to ban the march, but the Government refused and left the local people to defend themselves.
The “Battle” began as Jewish ex-servicemen marched in counter-protest along Whitechapel Road, displaying their service medals. They were blocked by mounted police, ordered to disperse, and beaten after refusing to stand down. At least 100,000 antifascists gathered in Aldgate to block the BUF’s entryway. 6,000 police tried to clear the areas and attacked some of the protestors. The injured were treated in nearby cafes.
Unable to push through the crowds, the police cleared a way for the BUF through Cable Street. Little did they know, a barricade had already been set up using materials from nearby homes and shops, including an overturned lorry. The street was littered with marbles and bits of glass to deter the facists (and, as it so happens, police). Reportedly, people threw rotten veg and waste out of their windows.
Eventually the Police Commissioner told Mosley to leave the area. The counter-protest became a celebration of victory in Victoria Park. The Public Order Act, which banned wearing political uniforms in public places, was passed in 1936.
1963 – The Bristol Bus Boycott
In the 1960s, only a few thousand Afro-Caribbean migrants lived in Bristol. They were underpaid, excluded, oppressed, and wrongly blamed for the area’s poor conditions (despite it being in a shambles following the war). Workers of the privately-owned Bristol Omnibus Company had passed a resolution in the Transport and General Workers Union to ban “coloured” people from working as conductors and drivers in 1955. The company manager claimed his “hands were tied”, and the local council supported the policy. This same union was outspoken against the South African apartheid.
A group, started by some local Jamaican residents, started campaigning against the policy and boycotted against it, led by Paul Stephenson, Bristol’s first Black youth officer. He got the West Indian Development Council to boycott Bristol’s busses in April 1963. Passionate demonstrations took place in the city amongst students as well as workers, and letters poured in to local papers. Stephenson successfully sued one paper for libel. The boycott went on for four months until the company finally agreed to a non-discriminatory hiring policy – within two years, the Race Relations Act, which bans racial discrimination in public places and hatred on the grounds of “colour, race, or ethic or national origins”, was passed.
The local West Indian community, students and the local Labour party set out to oppose this racist attitude, and mounted a boycott of the bus company that lasted for four months until the company backed down and agreed to hire employees irrespective of their race. Over the next five years, two Race Relations acts banned discrimination on the basis of race in employment and housing.
Believe it or not, 600 years later, poll tax reared its ugly head. In the late 80s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government introduced a poll tax to fund local councils – even students and the unemployed had to pay 20%. Many refused to pay, and protest flared up across Britain. The largest took place on 31 March 1990 in London; some 200,000 protestors gathered in Kennington Park and marched to Whitehall. Riot police were called in, and by the time protestors reached Trafalgar Square (which has a significantly smaller capacity) tensions boiled over. Police charged at the crowd. Over 300 people were arrested and 113 injured. There were also reports of vandalism, looting, and a fire at the South African embassy
The poll tax was abolished (replaced by council tax in 1992), and Thatcher was removed from power later that year.
Throughout British history, protesting and exercising freedom of speech have left enormous marks on the policial, economic, and religious systems we see today. By better understanding the past, we can contextualise our present and build a better future.
Stay tuned for more from our Evolution of… series!