As the 20 June demo approaches, it’s worth remembering that mass marches have been crucial to all the most important struggles - Chris Nineham looks at ten of them
The role of street protest is often written out of history and sometimes even questioned by people on the left. But, as the 20 June demo approaches, it’s worth remembering that mass marches have been crucial to all the most important struggles.
Demonstrations almost always help strengthen and focus a movement and keep an issue in the public eye. But they have also helped launch campaigns and revolutions, win the vote, overturn hated laws and bring down regimes.
Marches are always part of a wider process of organising and resisting, but as this (by no means definitive) list shows, they can be a catalyst for strikes, occupations and all sorts of civil disobedience. They are an indispensible method of bringing activists together with the much wider social base necessary for real change.
No doubt I have missed many of the best examples. Send us suggestions and we will publish a master list!
1 The right to vote | 6 May, 1867 | Clerkenwell to Hyde Park, London
Panicked by the growing influence of the Reform League's campaign to widen the vote to include at least some of the working class, the government banned this demonstration, claiming it would interfere with ‘the enjoyment of the Park by the people, and is calculated to endanger the public peace’. They summoned the Hussars, drafted thousands of special constables and had Woolwich Arsenal working overtime making staves and pikes.
On the day, according to author Paul Foot, the government had to back off:
‘There were so many demonstrators, so many gates to the park, so many separate meetings planned there. The troops, the police and the special constables kept their distance. Vast crowds flocked into the park through all the entrances…This was the first time that any political organisation representing the working class had openly and successfully defied the law of their masters, and the effect on the masters was catastrophic.’
Two weeks later the proposed electoral reform bill was amended and the number of people enfranchised was quadrupled.
2 ‘Women’s Sunday’ | 21 June 1908 | Embankment to Hyde Park, London
The conventional history of the Suffragette movement focuses on dramatic acts by prominent individuals. But the women’s suffrage movement also held monster demonstrations, the first and biggest of which was in 1908. The Times newspaper reported that 750,000 people attended.
As one historian of the period explains the demonstration was key to popularising the movement by ‘bringing new people in, inspiring them at a time when they could see how broad the support is for a cause they are beginning to identify with.’
Change came a few years later at the end of WW1 in 1918 when legislation gave about 8.4 million women thevote. Women were properly enfranchised in Britain in 1928.
3Toppling the Tsar | 23 February 1917 | St Petersburg
On international Women’s Day 1917 in Russia, a strike wave started with a demonstration. The protest was organised by women, mainly at factory level. As one participant explained, 'the idea of going into the streets had long been ripening among the workers; only at that moment nobody imagined where it would lead.'
Leon Trotsky described how the demonstration became a catalyst:
‘A mass of women, not all of them workers, flocked to the municipal Duma demanding bread. It was like demanding milk from a he-goat. Red banners appeared in different parts of the city, and inscriptions on them showed that the workers wanted bread, but neither autocracy nor war. Woman’s Day passed successfully, with enthusiasm and without victims. But what it concealed in itself, no one had guessed even by nightfall.’
Next day, St Petersburg was paralyzed by a strike wave and continuous street demonstrations. Three days later the Tsar was forced to abdicate. The revolutionary cycle of 1917 had begun.
4Breaking British rule | 17 March 1919 | Cairo
In response to the British arrest of Egyptian leaders, more than 10,000 teachers, students, workers, lawyers, and government employees set off for Al Azhar in Cairo in Egypt’s biggest demonstration. They wound their way to Abdin Palace and were joined by thousands more, who ignored British roadblocks and bans.
Cairo’s lead was taken up around the country. Demonstrations, strikes and occupations followed in a national movement against British rule which reverberated around the colonial world.
The British responded with violence. By the summer, more than 800 Egyptians had been killed.But the movement was too strong to be repressed and in 1922 the British had to grant Egypt nominal independence.
5 Freedom road | 24 March, 1964 | Selma to Montgomery, Alabama
After months of campaigning and a brutal response by state police, 8,000 black and white activists set out on the fifty miles from Selma Alabama to the state capital Montgomery, demanding black voter enfranchisement. The support the campaign had built up over the months had forced President Johnson to federalize the Alabama National Guard and allow the demonstration to go ahead.
By the last day the crowd had swelled to 30,000 including a raft of celebrities. The march electrified the country. A few months later, Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act which forced all states in the US to register black voters. Selma transformed Southern politics and was followed by a wave of black militancy.
6‘Demanding the impossible’ | 6 May, 1968 | Paris
After the hated CRS riot police occupied the University of the Sorbonne in Paris, the largest student union in France and the union of university teachers called a march to protest against the police action.
More than 20,000 students, teachers and supporters showed up. Buoyed by the turnout, they marched through Central Paris to gain support, chanting ‘Sorbonne for the students! CRS = SS! And Down with police repression.’ According to one account ‘The general public was rather sympathetic. There was occasional applause and no boos”.
The situation changed when the marchers approached the university. The police attacked with unexpected savagery, and their action sparked ‘a real battle, with charges and counter-charges, cobblestones versus grenades. The air was thick with teargas, yellowish with a sweet and acrid taste’.
Images of street fighting and police brutality flashed around the country and the world that night. The confrontation led to a month of insurgent protests and the longest general strike in history. The French ‘May events’ helped ignite years of radical struggle around the world.
7The March against death | 15 November, 1969 | Washington and San Francisco.
These demonstrations against the Vietnam war were the biggest up to that time in both cities. Organisers estimated there were a quarter of a million in San Francisco and three quarters of a million in Washington.
Historian of the movement Tom Wells wrote that in Washington ‘thousands of demonstrators tired of waiting to move up the Avenue and simply streamed across the Mall’s grassy acres towards the monument’.
Publicly the government was dismissive, privately it panicked. Senior officials admitted the administration felt threatened and isolated. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ‘repeatedly referred to the fate of Weimar Germany as the streets around the White House filled with marchers.’
The Vietnam war dragged on for four and a half more years and there were further huge mobilisations. But from this point on President Nixon knew the game was up and he began limiting conscription and withdrawing troops. 50,000 were pulled out in December 1969 alone.
8Toppling Thatcher | 31 March, 1990 | Kennington Park to Trafalgar Sq
200,000 people marched from to Trafalgar Square against Thatcher’s flagship poll tax. The police attacked demonstrators as they paused outside Downing Street leading to a riot across the area.
The demonstration dominated the news agenda and took the already powerful movement to a higher level, giving a huge boost to the non payment campaign. In the weeks after the riot some council workers struck and refused to collect the tax. By June a third of people in England and Wales hadn’t paid the tax.
Crowds of protesters besieged the hearings and people stopped bailiffs seizing the belongings of non-payers. The poll tax was a disaster for Thatcher. On 22 November she resigned. The tax was scrapped before the 1992 election.
9Overturning a coup | April 13, 2002 | Caracas
Hundreds of thousands marched on the presidential Palace in the centre of Caracas when they heard that President Hugo Chavez had been removed by a coup led by big business and covertly supported by the US.
A journalist at the scene reported:
‘They were chanting slogans in favor of Chavez, and carrying portraits of the deposed president. This march was clearly headed towards the city centre, as were a stream of buses apparently commandeered by other chavistas. Neighborhood police were eyeing them carefully, but letting them pass’
The scale of the protest didn’t just paralyse the police, it broke the military support for the coup. The next day Chavez was returned to the Presidential Palace where he was ‘mobbed as soon as he left his helicopter by the thousands of supporters who were now in a state of near delirium.’
13 April, 2002 gave the left a huge boost throughout Latin America.
10 ‘The second superpower’ | 15 Feb, 2003| Global
15 February, 2003 was the biggest mass protest in history with demonstrations in around 800 cities worldwide and the participation of around 30 million people.
The protests didn’t stop the war on Iraq, though they caused consternation in British government circles. Just eight days before the invasion, British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon phoned his US opposite number Donald Rumsfeld and told him Britain might not be able to participate in the invasion. Tony Blair himself admitted later that "I thought these really could be my last days in office".
But 15 February, 2003 and the subsequent marches and protests helped turn whole populations against the West’s foreign wars. British opposition reached over 50% in the days around the demonstration, and the day after the demo the New York Times called anti-war public opinion ‘the second superpower.’ After a series of further demonstrations, Tony Blair was eventually forced to resign over the war. Anti-war public opinion has since become a major inhibitor for more foreign interventions.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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