10 Protests that Changed the World

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2011 has been an eventful year thus far. We are amid protests, both violent and peaceful, signifying discontent with the status quo. Each one further challenges the delicate balance of power, and the origination and legitimacy of this initial balance remains questionable. The majority of people in countries like Egypt and Libya did not collectively endorse the distribution of power in the Middle East, nor did they vote for leaders to indefinitely retain their (mostly appointed) roles. Last month, we saw the desperation of Egyptians and Libyans, no longer willing to tolerate iron-fisted rulers. It's a difficult, but beautiful thing to see. We now have a variety of media outlets providing constant coverage of changes in the political and economic landscape. The diverse range of these sources and social networking tools give protesters even greater incentive to publicly demonstrate intolerance;  however, protests are in no way a recent phenomenon. Protests and public demonstrations have been happening long before modern technology and media reigned. People protest, and there are long lasting implications. Here are some of the most prominent public demonstrations, some before and some during our lifetimes. One thing is for sure: Each one, unique in its own way, will leave a legacy outlasting even our children's lifetimes.

  1. Tiananmen Square Protests: The protests in Tiananmen Square, also known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, caught the attention of the world. After the Communist Party of China began to implement reforms towards a market based economy, they did so without consulting the people of the country. College students, young professionals, and intellectuals demanded democratic reforms in the Square in 1989. The movement grew to incorporate thousands of people. The government was quick to react. Troops and tanks came into the square and fired at protesters. Until this day, the total number of deaths is unknown. However, the incident did demonstrate that communism was not always in line with political liberalization.
  2. Overthrowing Ben Ali: Reportedly, former first lady of Tunisia, Leila Trabelsi, took over a ton of gold from her bank before fleeing to Saudi Arabia. This last gesture exemplifies why Tunisians became so intolerant of the Ben Ali regime. They felt Ben Ali and his family had cheated the people, by taking all of the country's wealth and political power. The ruler's 23 years in power finally came to an end after a month of protests, which began in January. Over 200 people were killed in the protest, but in the end, Ben Ali and his cronies left for Saudi Arabia. The implications of these protests were important for not only Tunisia, but also the world. The people's persistence and vigor set an example and precedent for many other Middle Eastern countries. Just a few days later, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Libyans, and Yemenis began to follow in Tunisia's footsteps.
  3. Egyptians Overthrow Mubarak: After Egyptians saw Ben Ali shamefully flee from his own country, they realized they would defy Mubarak at all costs. They had had enough. If people could spur so much change in a country as small as Tunisia, Egypt was no exception. Mubarak had become a billionaire after ruling the country for 30 years, and to say he ruled with an iron fist is an understatement. His cronies and military supporters were able to crush dissent at a frighteningly rapid pace, but this time Egyptians refused to falter. For about two weeks, Egyptians protested in Tahrir Square. Pro-Mubarak mobs attacked protesters after the first week, but they refused to get back to work until Mubarak resigned. The future of Egypt is still uncertain, but we can expect to see democratic reforms for the new government.
  4. The March on Washington: It's the 21st century, and the world's most powerful country has an African American president. The United States has come far from its once racist and brutal slave system. The March on Washington was the protest that helped us take the necessary strides for equality. This protest, which took place in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963, consisted of about 300,000 people. The purpose of the rally was to demand equal economic and civil rights for African Americans. The renowned Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, which drew great international media attention. Singers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performed at the rally and the protest lead the way for long term reform. Both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are said to be results of this great march.
  5. The Boston Tea Party: Let's look at a protest that helped America come into existence. This protest, which took place prior to the American Revolution, was an act of defiance against the British Parliament. The British East India Tea Company had a monopoly on the market of indirectly exporting tea to American colonists. The colonists, already angry that they had no representation in Parliament, could buy tea much cheaper from Dutch companies. However, the British government only allowed them to buy it from this company. On December 16, 1773, colonists decided to throw three shiploads full of tea into the Boston Harbor in rebellion. This was one of the many courageous acts leading to the American Revolution. Colonists demonstrated they would not acquiesce to Parliament's unjust demands.
  6. Gandhi Leads the Salt March: Gandhi initially tried to stay out of the political limelight. However, he was able to lead the Indian people in a peaceful resistance movement towards Indian independence. One of the hallmark protests was the Salt March, or the Salt Satyagraha. In an attempt to protest the British monopoly of salt exports to India, Gandhi led a 24-day, 240-mile march to show his defiance of the tax on salt production in India. More than 80,000 Indians were jailed during the march, and the protests received a great deal of international media attention. People started to question Britain's authority in India, and eventually Britain was forced to leave the country. However, Gandhi's nonviolent methods of resistance (Satyagraha) continue to be remembered.
  7. Fall of the Berlin Wall: The protests against oppressive communist regimes began much earlier than the fall of the Berlin Wall; however, the protests leading up to the fall of the wall were particularly important. Demonstrations began in September 1969, as Eastern Germans refused to live within an oppressive, artificial command economy system. After East Germany's head of state resigned in October 1969, travel bans between East and West Germany were lifted. Shortly after the press conference issued the announcement to lift travel bans, previous protesters went to tear down the wall. It was a peaceful but joyful occasion—Soviet strength and soft power was declining.
  8. Iranian Revolution: Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi is remembered as a very controversial figure. He was somewhat popular earlier in his reign, but by late 1977 and early 1978, Iranians organized their resistance efforts into a large campaign of civil resistance. The campaign was also religious, which explains why the Ayatollah came into power after the Shah went into exile. The demonstrations before the Iranian Revolution were particularly interesting because of their quick build up. Furthermore, they lacked the drastic event that usually precedes a revolution of its caliber. For example, there was no economic or financial crisis preceding the event. The final revolution had long lasting impacts in Iran and for its Western allies.
  9. Woodstock: A Protest for Peace and Music: This should be recognized as one of the most important protests in history. Although it doesn't necessarily have the same implications or characteristics as the protests above, it is remembered as one of the most pivotal moments in the history of Rock and Roll. Known as the "Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music," Woodstock took a turn from the mundane, depressing state of American foreign and domestic policy. While America was entangled in the Vietnam War and some financial difficulties, the Woodstock attendees decided to put it all behind them. It was time to celebrate the music and just being alive. The concert ended up being free, and it attracted close to half a million people.
  10. Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity and Fear: So, if you thought Woodstock didn't qualify as a protest, you may think this is an even more ridiculous item on the list. However, this protest drew attention around the world. It showcased the power of social media outlets, large fan bases, and most importantly, dissatisfaction with extremely conservative and liberal point of views in the media. Largely in response to Glen Beck's rally to restore honor, the two famous comedy show hosts joined heads to host a rally of about 215,000 people in Washington D.C. Jon Stewart explained that 20% of the most extreme views (both liberal and conservative) are controlling the American media. He wanted to, well, restore sanity. Whether it worked is still being debated, but he tried something new as a way to challenge the system, and that's the spirit of all true protests.
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