Sometimes, doing nothing can be the most powerful weapon of all. Sometimes, just being there forces the powers that be to change. And sometimes, a non-violent protest can even bring an entire political system to its knees. Read More
The Salt March, India, 1930
One person immediately comes to mind when we think of non-violent resistance: Mahatma Gandhi. The lawyer and dedicated pacifist became a central symbol of the Indian fight for independence from the British crown. He developed a variety of passive resistance approaches and was jailed for his efforts, spending a total of eight years in prison over the course of his lifetime. The 24-day Salt March is one of Ghandi’s most spectacular campaigns. At the time the British held a monopoly on salt and Indians were forbidden from making or selling the seasoning. Thousands followed Ghandi’s call for civil disobedience, joining in the 388km march from Ahmedabad to Dandi in Gujarat from March 12 to April 5, 1930. The protest fanned the flames of resistance into a conflagration as people all over India rose up to demand an end to British rule. Ghandi’s Salt March would continue to inspire people for decades to come, including civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, USA, 1963
The August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is considered one of the high points of the US Civil Rights Movement that resulted in the successive removal of the Jim Crow laws on racial segregation.
Over 250,000 people peacefully demonstrated to end racial discrimination and listened to Marin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The march was broadcast live around the world, expanding its impact and symbolic significance. Like Ghandi, King would later win the Nobel Peace Prize for his support of peaceful protest (Ghandi in 1930, King in 1964).
Solidarnosc (Solidarity Movement), Poland, 1980 on
The leader of Poland’s labour movement Lech Walesa would also receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his support of peaceful protest. Back in 1970, Walesa witnessed the bloody crushing of the occupation at the Gdansk Shipyard when the Soviet-controlled Polish People’s Republic cracked down on striking workers and police officers killing over 80 people. When workers again laid down their tools in response to the soaring price of meat in 1980, Walesa asked them to pledge to absolute peaceful protest so as not to offer the state any provocation for violence.
People from all around the country, including many intellectuals, flocked to the Solidarity Movement. At its peak, 9.5 million people were members, making it the largest, independent organization in the Eastern Bloc at the time. It would later make a considerable contribution to the 1989 reforms and the first semi-free elections in Poland, which the newly formed Solidarnosc Party won in a landslide. Although this success was not reflected in the number of parliamentary seats assigned at the round table meeting, the democratic movement could not be stopped and Lech Walesa was elected President in 1990.
People Power Revolution, Philippines, 1986
The People Power Revolution, also called the Yellow Revolution for the yellow ribbons employed, ultimately toppled President Ferdinand Marcos and led to the reintroduction of democracy in the Philippines. More than two million people joined in the rallies to protest the Marcos regime’s violence and electoral fraud, mostly in Manila from 22-25 February, 1986. Marcos was declared the winner of the 1986 presidential elections on February 15 despite widespread and clear signs of election fraud, and events began to snowball over the next few days.
Marcos and the actual winner of the election, Corazon Aquino, were both able to garner supporters as frustration increased across the country and a putsch planned by members of the military to unseat Marcos was foiled – ironically by members of the opposition who considered it the wrong approach. Soon the Catholic Church of the Philippines got involved and called on the people to protest.
In a declaration, Cardinal Vidal wrote: “Now is the time to speak up. Now is the time to repair the wrong. The wrong was systematically organized. So must its correction be.” Radio Verita spread the call for civil disobedience throughout the country over the airwaves and people and entire families began streaming into Epifanio de los Santos Avenue in Manila in a show of solidarity with the opposition. By the time Marcos’ supporters cut the power to Radio Veritas, it was too late – hundreds of thousands had already taken to the streets.
“Now is the time to speak up. Now is the time to repair the wrong.”
The revolutions of 1989
The path to the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain was paved by peaceful protests. People in Soviet Union member countries took to the streets again and again demanding the end of Russian dominance and their independent as mostly peaceful opposition swept the USSR. Starting in Poland in 1988, the wave of protests soon engulfed Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania to the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania where people sang patriotic songs demanding their independence. These songs were strictly forbidden and anyone who sang them ran the risk of deportation to Siberia.
The Monday Marches began in the German Democratic Republic. Every Monday evening, more and more citizens came together to chant “Wir sind das Volk” or “we are the people”. Ultimately both the wall dividing Germany and the entire Iron Curtain fell on November 9, 1989.
The Revolution of Roses, Georgia, 2003
On November 22, 2003, armed with roses instead of weapons, protesters stormed the Georgian parliament in support of opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili and demanding President Shevardnadze’s resignation. His regime had been shaped by nepotism and corruption, and citizens watched helplessly as most of the aid sent by international organisations to help drive the bitterly poor country’s economy poured into the pockets of the government clique.
The manipulated parliamentary elections held on November 2, 2003 were the final straw. Tens of thousands answered Saakashvili’s call and took to the streets. When demonstrators holding roses marched into the chamber on the first day Parliament sat, the police forces called in by the president refused to do his bidding. Shevardnadze resigned the next day after a meeting with opposition leaders initiated by the Russian foreign secretary. Apparently even Moscow was ready for him to step down.
And although Shevardnaze’s successor Saakashvili would prove to be similarly corrupt and authoritarian so that little changed for the people of Georgia, the Rose Revolution set an example and ushered in additional, mostly peaceful upheavals in Eastern Europe and Central Asia known as the “Colour Revolution”. The 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine followed on Georgia’s heels, then the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005.
Sudanese Revolution 2018/2019
The eight-month-long protest in Sudan from December 2018 to July 2019 was not just a revolution against the sitting government and its economic policies, but also a battle by women for equal rights in Sudan. A reported 70 percent of demonstrators were female and shouldered a large part of organizing the protests. Young student Aala Salah became the protest’s symbolic figurehead after she was photographed standing on top of a car listening to a speech directed at demonstrators. Snapped by Lana Haroun, the image went around the world and gave the Sudanese revolution a face.
In April, the military pushed al Bashir out of office in a coup d’état and in July the opposition and military agreed to a “sovereign council” comprising civilians and military personnel. Some laws enacted under al Bashir have been withdrawn since and today female genital mutilation is a punishable offense, women can travel freely, and blasphemy is no longer a crime.
Nonetheless, women were again not equally represented at negotiations for Sudan’s future, a fact that Salah sharply criticized when speaking to the UN Security Council on October 29, 2019: “After decades of struggle and all that we risked to peacefully end Bashir’s dictatorship—gender inequality is not and will never be acceptable to the women and girls of Sudan. I hope it is equally unacceptable to the members of this Chamber.”