In light of recent events in the United States (the Dakota Access Pipeline, the election of Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, etc) protests and their importance have jumped smack dab right back into the social climate of our country. Contrary to many people’s belief, protests have been an important and integral part of our history and progress. Even throughout the last five years, protests have demanded attention to important legislative battles throughout the states, spanning from income, racial and gender inequality.
Brief History of Important Protests in the United States
Perhaps the most famous protest of American history, The Boston Tea Party, is one of the events which this country was built upon. For those of us that need a refresher, the Boston Tea Party was when protesters gathered in Boston Harbor to speak out against the Tea Act. The Tea Act allowed the East India Company to sell its tea at reduced cost, giving the British government-controlled company an effective monopoly. This also protested the larger issue of lack of representation of the colonists in the British Parliament. By flinging 46 tons of tea overboard in 1773, Americans stood up not only against an injustice of being forced to buy British tea, but also against a greater injustice forced onto the people of the country inhibiting their progress.
Our founding fathers included “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” in the very first amendment to the constitution, making clear that it is one of the most important of our civil rights.
Fast forward a hundred years to the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 and the work of women’s-rights trailblazers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott. After this convention, the push for equal voting rights gained traction eventually leading to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Giving women the right to vote took almost seventy years of protests, demonstrations and activism.
August 28th, 1963 the March on Washington, also known as the most important protest of the civil rights movement, made history. Over 200,000 people congregated in the August Washington D.C. heat to stand up for the rights of African Americans. These non-violent protesters made history and gave Martin Luther King Jr the platform for his renown “I Have a Dream” speech we still celebrate today. This march has been attributed to one of the most important events in the successful passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
We then saw the biggest protest of the 20th century in 1969 protesting America’s involvement in Vietnam. Although antiwar protests have been a part of the history of the United States, this protest was more than 500,000 people. Also in 1969, we saw riots from the police raid of the Stonewall Inn turn into a full-scale rally for acceptance and equality of LGBTQ rights. This was the first step in bringing the gay-rights movement out from underground and into the national spotlight. This has also been an almost seventy year fight for equality – still going on today.
Social justice movements are not the only topics protested. The labor movement has seen many strikes, protests and riots throughout American history. From railroad, coal and steel strikes to the Garment-Workers Strike to the Seattle General Strike to the Wisconsin Protests, these major oppositions to the labor movement lead to progress at every stage. There were also protests at the turn of the century against globalization and its role in increasing the gap between the rich and poor in the United States.
Protests in the United States in the last five years (2011-2016)
The first major protest in the last five years was Occupy Wall Street (started on September 17th, 2011). On its first day, 3,000 people descended on Wall Street to protest the corruption and greed in the financial system and government. With slogans like “We are the 99%”, small scale marches were organized against the system which used taxpayer money to bailout the banks that majorly contributed to the financial crisis of 2009. It succeeded in igniting the conversation about economic inequality and reducing corporate influence on policy-making in the US.
Anti Obama Protests occurred across the nation both when he was elected in 2008 and in 2012. Like in all countries across the globe, not every citizen is happy with the outcomes of elections. President Obama’s election was no different, but he did not have large scale protests erupting across the country, they were concentrated and few. These protests seemed to have an underlying element of racism (see signs below). He also faced prolonged questioning of the “legitimacy” of his presidency with speculations about his faith and country of birth. Many people in the public eye from lawmakers to current president elect Donald Trump continuously questioned if Obama was a citizen, even after he produced a birth certificate (something no other president has ever had to do).
Black Lives Matter movement (from 2013 to now) was ignited in Ferguson Missouri after the death of a teenager, Michael Brown, who was shot by police. This spread across the country as other black men and women (Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and others) were killed at the hands of police officers under less than “justified” circumstances. Protests erupted in towns where these people were killed, along with all over the United States with the goal of bringing attention to systemic racism, racial inequality, racial bias and violence against people of color in the United States. Although these protests have been heavily criticized, they have started a conversation on the national level about implicit bias and racism in America.
The Dakota Access Pipeline was another important protest in 2016. This demonstration intended to put a stop to the new oil pipeline that was originally planned to cross the Missouri River near Bismarck. It was moved about a mile over due to concerns that an oil spill at that location would have wrecked the state capital’s drinking water. A mile over was the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. They too shared the concerns of the pipeline threatening their public health, water supply and cultural resources. What began as a small protest camp in April, turned into the encampment between 1,000 and 3,000 people by the end. Protesters were met with pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets, dogs and even water cannons in below-freezing temperatures by law enforcement. After this, about 2,000 veterans pledge to take over for and protect protesters. On December 5, 2016 (after eight months of protesting), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers legally blocked the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, denying it a needed easement to drill beneath the Missouri River. They then began an assessment of whether the pipeline should be moved or cancelled altogether.
Anti-Trump Protests (2015 to now) have taken place throughout his presidential campaign and election and are among the biggest, and most frequent, this country has seen. These protests range from demonstrations at Trump sponsored political rallies to campus demonstrations at colleges around the country to calls for boycotts of Trump associated brands and products to full fledged demonstrations with thousands of people in some of the biggest cities across America. Reasons for protest cover a wide range of topics due to the constant drama of the Trump campaign from issues with racism and sexism to sexual-assault allegations to mimicking a disabled reporter to association with “alt-right” (white supremacist) groups to issues with the Trump Foundation to simply outright outrageous comments about women, veterans, Mexicans and sex-tapes. Protests immediately followed the election of Donald Trump due to democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, winning the popular vote, but Donald Trump winning the electoral college vote. During Trump’s inauguration, protests erupted in DC, other states and around the world, with over 100 people arrested and many sent to the hospital with injuries. The Women’s March on Washington, scheduled for the day after the inauguration, had over 600 “sister marches” simultaneously taking place around the globe where hundreds of thousands of women, men and children marched to “stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families, recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.”
These various protests have led to many different outcomes: attention to the issue, progression forward for the issue and legislative changes. Check out some of the bills related to these protests.
Pertaining to Black Lives Matter, there have been immense legislative movements toward combating racial bias and unjustified police use of force. There have been 65 bills introduced this session pertaining to requiring an independent investigation when police use force. Take a look at this map of all of the bills proposed having to do with racial bias and police body cameras introduced around the states since the movement began in 2013.
Currently there are 23 different bills that relate to protesting in general. Perhaps the most interesting bill relating to protests was recently proposed on January 9th, 2017. North Dakota introduced ND 1203 regarding “pedestrians on roadways”. The bill effectively allows motorists to run down protesters if they are “obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway.” Arizona HB2116 pertains to rezoning protests. Indiana SB0285 relates to traffic obstruction by protesters requiring a responsible public official to dispatch all available law enforcement personnel with instructions to clear the roads of persons unlawfully obstructing vehicular traffic within 15 minutes. North Dakota 1304 which would prohibit wearing of masks, hoods, and face coverings at certain functions (like protests); and to provides a penalty. One might question if these new laws would be compatible with the bill of rights.
Without these movements and protests, we wouldn’t move forward. The moments that have made our history, the Boston Tea Party, the suffragettes, the civil rights movement, are some of the most celebrated successes of America. We fought and stood up for human rights and we obtained those human rights. Often using our successes as “examples” for how countries need to change to promote equality for all. Through protest we obtained the progress needed to step forward into the 21st century as a human rights activist in the world.