Poetic History: What we can learn from the protests of the past

Protests mean everything or nothing on the basis of four conditional factors: the number of people participating, the duration and breadth of the demonstrations, their ability to gain public sympathy, and their undeniable economic inconvenience. If a protest successfully secures at least ¾ of these factors, it is more likely to initiate change in the name of its cause. The following words will attempt to support the former statement.

Following the murder of unarmed Black man George Floyd at the hands of a chauvinistic police officer during late May, anti-police brutality protests across the globe have flooded the streets. 

This incident served as a specifically sensitive tipping point for the non-Black Masses of the U.S., catalyzing many allies and organizers to join a fight that the Black community has been carrying on its shoulders for too long.

Yet, though the movement’s intentions and goals may be generally singular, it quickly divides on the basis of how the Black Lives Matter narrative should go about its fight. It seems as though everyone has their own take on the ideal — both moral and strategic— a form of protest. This leads to the subject at hand;  in the words of mediocre thinker yet provocative writer Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Thus, to follow suit with what would best be called a Poetic History, it is only appropriate to partake in a brief examination of international demonstrations of civil unrest throughout the course of recent history. Such an analysis can reveal patterns and similarities in the name of answering a single question: what kinds of protests are actually successful?

As Twain so wittily explained, no two points in history will perfectly align. The butterfly effects of the universe will always cause varying contextualization of the differing marks on the timeline, but that is not to say that we cannot learn something from each and every objectively successful challenge of the government. The former thought is not an original thought, as it seems to be that several publications/organizations —including Global Citizen and The New Yorker —  have compiled lists of the most historically transformative protests from across the world that argue in favor of the magnitude of Masses assembling. Though these pieces, as well as many more, may present slightly assorted examples, almost all unanimously point to the following historical events for answers: Gandhi’s Salt March, South Africa’s National Day of Protest, The Orange of Revolution of Ukraine, and last but not least the U.S.A’s very own March on Washington, as organized by MLK. However, they fell short in explaining why it is that these protests worked. Thus, the circumstances of each historical incident must be further inspected.

Though in recent decades Gandhi’s attitudes on race and sex have been put into question, for the sake of knowing, the art will be separated from the artist; or, in this case, the man will be separated from the means. It is commonly misunderstood about the political ideology of MLK and Gandhi that in order for them to have been nonviolent, they also followed the law. That is false. In fact, Gandhi knew that challenging Britain’s Salt Act, which prohibited the selling or collection of salt by Indians, was the ideal subject of his march. Defying the decades-old policies symbolized Indians’ reclaiming the bounty of their own land while simultaneously publicly refuting British colonialism. He called it “satyagraha”, defined as a “policy of passive political resistance.” 

According to records presented by, “Gandhi addressed large crowds, and with each passing day an increasing number of people joined the salt satyagraha.” In doing so, the march achieved two things. First, it successfully ensured that with every passing day, their crowd grew larger and larger as it picked up supporters. Secondly, making stops for public speeches in this 24o mile trip allowed for the sentiments and motivating ideologies behind the demonstration to become widespread, mimicking an expression of solidarity. As this wave of civil disobedience sparked across the entire country, about 60,000 people were initially arrested, and soon Gandhi was too. The satyagraha nonetheless continued as he sat from his prison cell, most notably led by Sarojini Naidu in 1930 demonstration. This peaceful yet law-unabiding demonstration of about 2500 people marching to Dharasana Salt Works was quickly met with violence from British soldiers. Fortunately, at the hands of powerful media, American journalist Webb Miller successfully recorded these accounts for the world to see. In a matter of months, countries around the world began to sympathize with Indians in the face of colonial rule and quickly became critical towards the British. This outcry heard around the world built legitimacy to Gandhi’s cause and proved it to be a difficult force to refute, paving the way for India’s independence nearly two decades later. That may sound like a lot of time, but 17 years in the language of revolution is an exponential milestone.  After all, Black Americans have endured over 400 years of continuous and generational oppression.

Gandhi’s Salt March| Photo Courtesy of History

Speaking of, the parallels between MLK’s take on sociopolitical change besides that of Gandhi’s vividly resemble each other. The culturally significant “I Have a Dream” speech can be seen quoted and rebranded everywhere. Just ask Kendrick Lamar. This public statement was given in August of 1963 during the civil rights activist’s March on Washington. It must be known, however, that a march on Washington had been proposed back in 1941 by the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Philip Randolph, in an attempt to shed light upon the blatant discrimination of Black people from positions in the national defense industry. FDR, then president, so greatly feared the possibility of over 100,000 people marching to the capital, that he gave in to their demands. This came in the form of Executive Order  8802, which formed the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Such a gesture proved to be for show, however, as 22 years passed and not much had changed beyond that piece of paper. 

Randolph reached out to MLK in 1963 and suggested that he lead a march on Washington, but this time ensure that they actually go through with it without giving into the White Man’s appeasement gestures. This conversation took place in March, and, by August, the pair had secured the solidarity of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC),  National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in America, the United Auto Workers (UAW), and so many more organizations. Several smaller ally organizations also stepped forward in an attempt to advertise the overcoming of the Black struggle as a human rights crisis as opposed to a race-war. MLK gave his speech, where he stated that “the whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of this country until the bright days of justice emerge.” Additionally, he addressed members of the crowd that have fallen victim before ‘law and order’.  “Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you

MLK at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom| Photo Courtesy of The Undefeated

battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering.” Similar to what is currently being attempted between these lines, MLK was presented a historical lesson channeled through Randolph. A total of over 200,000 people participated in the March on Washington of 1963, eventually leading to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Whether or not these acts were radical enough is an alternative conversation, but they did nonetheless directly respond to the demands of march within one to two years. 

Because colorism is a universal plague, the next example follows a similar, more pigmented, narrative as the previous. In 1950, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) party in South Africa organized what can essentially be described as an economic stoppage. This motion was in retaliation to the Suppression of Communism Act, which permitted the government to excessively investigate and disturb the privacy of organizations and political parties considered threatening to the apartheid state. This stay-at-home strike took place on June 26th, and successfully received mass attention and signified the political disturbances that the ANC did not fear to bring about. The stay-at-home tactic soon became largely resorted to whenever new apartheid measures were brought about or doubled down upon. 

The Suppression of Communism Act | Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Knowing however that overusing this weapon would eventually cause its value to die out, the   ANC and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) launched their Defiance Campaign. Much like Gandhi’s satyagraha, the Defiance Campaign was one of the largest scale practices of nonviolent resistance of the law. 

Until 1994,  June 26th was celebrated as South Africa’s National Freedom Day, as it marks the founding of the anti-apartheid effort’s most prized political practice. 

A more recent example of successful protest can be seen through Ukraine’s Orange Revolution that began with the nation’s 2004 presidential election. The then-president Kuchma had endorsed the candidacy of PM Yanukovych, who was passionately supported by President Putin of Russia- that should speak volumes about the kind of candidate that he was. Anti-corruption opposition presented itself in the form of Yushchenko, a reformist that spoke out against Ukraine’s political cronyism, the practice of appointing friends and associates to positions of authority without proper regard to their qualifications. Though Yushchenko put up a strong Bernie-like fight during the earlier stages of the race, his lack of establishment resources(which his opponent bore) made it difficult for him to reach out to certain voting blocks. Additionally, he fell very ill due to dioxin poisoning, believed to be fed to him by the Ukrainian State Security Service.  

The Orange Revolution| Photo Courtesy of DW

By October, Yanukovych had been declared victorious. With that said, Yushchenko’s supporting base took their concerns to the streets, flooding the country with bodies dressed in the saturated orange hue resembling the campaign color that would later denominate a rebellion. Their stance was simple: “this election was a fraud, we demand a retry.” They refused to leave their posts, committing themselves to literally roadblocking public demonstrations that lasted two weeks straight.  Though Eastern Ukraine, in favor of Yanukovych’s traditionality, threatened to succeed from the nation, the Ukrainian Supreme Court nonetheless nullified the former election and called for a new one. Just like that, Yushchenko faced Yanukovych head-to-head once again and defeated him by a slight  2% of the vote. 

Visuals go a long way. This chart below indicates how all four of these demonstrations each majorly met the guidelines originally set in the introduction of this piece. With that said, an unspoken fifth condition must be recognized. None, not one, of these protests, took place without disregarding the law or advocating for the disregard of the law. Though President Trump says that the U.S. has “one beautiful law” the former leaders would radically disagree. Actively challenging and questioning the law, and thus demanding it be dynamic, is not only nonviolent but is also passionately peaceful when the law/institution itself permits brutality. If the law is stripped of compassion and systemizes injustice, consider this, on behalf of a Poetic History, an open invitation to break it. 

Exceptional #of Participants Duration/Breadth of DemonstrationsPublic Sympathy PointsUndeniable Economic Inconvenience 
Gandhi’s Salt MarchYesYes Yes 
Mandela’s “Stay at Home” Strike and the Defiance YesYesYesYes
MLK’s March on WashingtonYesYesYes
Yushchenko’s Orange RevolutionYesYesYes

Written by Sarah Kadous

Sarah Kadous is an 18-year-old political activist from San Diego, CA. When she's not fulfilling her duty as the Co-Editor in chief of the MC Sun, the News and Activism Editor of Pure Nowhere Magazine, and Co-Director of March for Our Lives San Diego, Kadous religiously drinks cold brew and listens to the soothing soul Luiz Bonfa.

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