With a hand raised in the air, I marched along the city streets, accompanied by drumbeats and slogans on megaphones. Around me were signs that read Women’s Rights are Human Rights and The Future is Female. Hundreds of protestors lined the streets for the Women’s March in 2018, united by a single cause. As a young woman, I hoped to alter the status quo of gender inequality and become the first generation to achieve parity. Together, our raised arms represented a mass movement and a plea for change.
Each day, hands reach towards the sky – in prayer, protest, and purpose. It is a sight to be seen in classrooms, offices, and even on streets across the world. Hands may be raised in dissent or solidarity, to question or to consent, but regardless of the various meanings, a raised hand is a symbol understood by many.
To raise one’s hand takes immense courage. In educational environments, raised hands are used to impart knowledge through the sharing of questions, answers, and ideas. The method of hand-raising to facilitate dialogue is not limited to classrooms; it applies to any forum or marketplace of ideas. Raised hands in protest are icons of democracy, as it allows the voice and passion of each individual to be heard and conveyed across the globe through media outlets. In the twentieth century, the image was in fact adopted as the symbol for several important movements and organizations, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Feminist movement.
Throughout history, these movements and many others have relied upon a combination of raised hands and protest marches to further their causes. Nonviolent demonstrations have played an important role in facilitating social progress, especially in racial justice and equality movements. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which occurred during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, is a noteworthy example in which hundreds of thousands of hands were raised in support of racial equality. This rally, which featured famous protest leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and John Lewis, is cited by historians as one of the most important factors in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark bill that outlawed discrimination based on identity. More recently, the Women’s March of 2018 became a worldwide phenomenon to protest gender inequities that exist in modern society.
Protest marches have also tackled global political and economic issues. For instance, the People’s Vote Marches in Britain harnessed the power of protest to promote democracy and call for a public vote on Brexit. In fact, the rally in March 2019 is said to have exceeded one million participants, which would make it one of the largest marches of the century. The Arab Spring involved a series of protests in North Africa and the Middle East intended to promote governmental reform. The demonstrations led to changes in authority in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, and provoked worldwide resistance against governments. Just this year, the passage of an extradition bill spurred a series of large-scale demonstrations in Hong Kong. Thousands of individuals have put their lives at risk to rally for autonomy and the protection of just and democratic procedures. While the protestors were opposed by the Chinese government, their dedication has gained international attention, with leaders across the world calling for the Chinese government to listen to their demands.
However, as acknowledged by the United Nations, these protests have led to some outbreak of violence, which could undermine the aims of civil disobedience. Despite the positive advances that can result from protesting, some legal and ethical guidelines exist to regulate such activity. The right to protest is one that is recognized as a human right by the United Nations and the European Convention on Human Rights, among other intergovernmental bodies. In some countries, such as North Korea, people lack the freedom of assembly altogether, while others, such as the United Kingdom, retain the ability to restrict protests in the name of security. In select cases, protests can lead to hostility, which renders nonviolent resistance ineffective. The Yellow Vests movement in France, which advocated for economic reforms, is an example of a protest movement that has posed a threat to participants, resulting in thousands of unintended injuries and a handful of fatalities. Such dangers undermine the success of protests, which are most meaningful when nonviolent.
Protests not only have the power to alter widespread political discourse, but it can also positively impact those who are involved. As a student activist, protesting has given me a voice to express my perspectives and advocate for change, even before I gain the right to vote. It allows for historically underrepresented groups, including gender minorities, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ populations, and young people, to participate in politics. March for Our Lives, founded and led by students, is an ongoing social protest movement that has created formidable change in gun control legislation in America. Many protestors raised their hands in protest with the words “Never Again” written on their skin. As indicated by studies, students who engage in civic activism enhance their own future success and the well-being of their communities. The positive impacts of activism, therefore, apply both to individuals and to communities at-large.
Though protesting may appear as commonplace in light of today’s protest culture, its widespread popularity is quite recent. According to linguist Geoff Nunberg, the phrase “protest march” was first used in 1913 to describe a protest organized by Indian Independence leader Mahatma Gandhi and did not become well-known in America until the 1960s, during large-scale protests against the Vietnam War and racial discrimination. Since then, Gandhi and Dr. King have emerged as symbols of protests, as they both advocated for nonviolent resistance through rallies, boycotts, etc. In fact, Nunberg notes that the usage, meaning, and pronunciation of the term shifted in the twentieth century as the term “protest” was applied in a political context.
Protest culture emerged as a global phenomenon with the increasing accessibility of politics through social and traditional media and the dissolution of the boundary between politics and culture. As a result of this modern culture, individuals no longer have to raise their hands on the streets to express their perspectives and have their voices heard. Virtual platforms and social media serve as forums that widen the discourse to people in all corners of the planet. These platforms have expanded social justice movements to international stages, as they allow for online discussion and organization of events. Yet protest marches remain especially valuable as a means of active engagement that can result in quick and decisive action.