How will the protests end? History tells us much depends on how government responds (2022)

ByPeniel E. Joseph

Published June 12, 2020

12 min read

(Video) Ronald Reagan's "A Time for Choosing" speech October 27, 1964

America is on fire, and we know how it began. On May 25, a 46-year-old black man named George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis, unleashing political demonstrations that have spread to at least 140 cities in the United States and continue more than two weeks later.

How it ends is an open question. The National Guard was deployed to curtail outbreaks of violence in many states and President Trump called for military intervention, inflaming an already volatile national racial climate. Yet the protests have become larger and more peaceful. (See what ‘nonlethal’ weapons can do to the body.)

Protests against racial injustice and repression have a long history in this country. Examining the government and national response during previous eras of racial unrest, especially during the “long, hot summers” from 1963 to 1968, might help us predict what comes next—and guide us toward eventually ending this tragic cycle once and for all.

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Like the George Floyd protests, the demonstrations in the 1960s were rooted in a search for black citizenship and dignity against the backdrop of institutional racism, segregation, discrimination, and violence.

Like the current protests, the earlier protests demanded that the country fulfill its promises. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., characterized African American protests enveloping that city in 1963 as a call for the nation to “return to those great wells of democracy dug deep by the founding fathers.”

And like the unrest now, the outcome of the “revolution,” as President Kennedy called it in a nationally televised speech on June 11 that year, will be either violent or peaceful depending on government response. “Those who do nothing invite shame and violence,” said Kennedy. “Those who act boldly recognize right as well as reality.” After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson introduced the Great Society, a program that would build on the anti-poverty and social welfare policies established by the New Deal. Civil rights activists, most notably King, enthusiastically supported it.

But the Great Society didn’t address some of the intractable racial problems that plagued the country and triggered urban rebellions in Harlem in 1964 and Watts in 1965. In both places, predominantly white police officers patrolled overwhelmingly African American neighborhoods, leading to police brutality—a situation that both King and Malcolm X had railed against.

Harlem: A teenager killed

In 1964 Harlem retained some of the cultural vibrancy—the jazz clubs, the literary scene—that fueled the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s. But the New York City neighborhood had also been scarred by poverty, disinvestment, dilapidated housing and tenements, and tense relations between residents and the largely white police force.

On July 16, 1964, these tensions reached a boiling point when a white police officer shot 15-year-old James Powell, an African American. Powell’s death turned Harlem into a domestic battleground featuring clashes between bottle- and rock-throwing residents and police who at times indiscriminately attacked rioters as well as innocent bystanders. The uprising lasted for six days. (Learn what photographs reveal about our understanding of protests.)

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The immediate aftermath of Harlem’s urban rebellion was promising. Plans to provide the neighborhood with anti-poverty funds from the federal government accelerated. The Economic Opportunity Act, passed a month later as part of the Great Society and President Johnson’s War on Poverty, seemed to bode well for the neighborhood’s recovery—and New York City’s. Early childhood education, nutrition, and afterschool programs received infusions of funding.

But hopes of building a new revitalized Harlem fizzled. Harlem’s dire need for economic investment proved too great for the limited resources and political will of the era, in which far more money was spent fighting in Vietnam than fighting poverty. Revitalization eventually came to Harlem but in the form of gentrification that has been both a blessing and a curse to local residents.

Watts: A contentious traffic stop

On August 11, 1965, little over a year later, Watts exploded. A similar mix of poverty, racial segregation, and police brutality triggered protests and civil disorder in the Los Angeles neighborhood. Ninety-eight percent of Watts’ residents were African American; 30 percent of black men lacked employment. Through decades of abuse, the Los Angeles Police Department had earned a reputation as violent, racist, and prone to using excessive force with the black community.

This all came to a head five days after the passage of the Voting Rights Act when police pulled over a black motorist named Marquette Frye, whom they suspected of drunk driving. A restive crowd watched as police arrested Frye, his brother, and his mother. Within an hour, a full-blown urban rebellion began that lasted one full week.

The zone of rebellion, rioting, and violence spanned some 46 miles and drew 14,000 law enforcement members, including the Los Angeles Police Department, the California Highway Patrol, and the National Guard. The unrest left 34 people dead, 1,000 people injured, at least 4,000 arrested, and property damage estimated at $40 million. The damage proved to be massive, widespread, and enduring. Parts of Los Angeles have still not fully recovered.

Afterward, Johnson sent an emergency infusion of anti-poverty funds to Los Angeles, a subject he discussed with King in one of their last secretly recorded phone calls. Publicly, however, the president decried the rioting and violence as disconnected from civil rights, denouncing looters as antithetical to the cause of racial justice.

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As in Harlem, federal efforts to revitalize Watts proved short-lived, largely ineffectual, and under-resourced. Community members attempted to forge political solidarity between gang leaders, Black Power activists, civil rights organizations, and faith and civic groups. But local efforts to support African American arts, gang diversion, playgrounds, school integration, and secure investment for small businesses were underfunded. The federal government’s priorities had shifted.

As the story played out in the national media, the Watts’ rebellion represented a failure of Johnson’s Great Society agenda. That narrative facilitated the rise of Ronald Reagan, who was elected California’s governor in 1966, and fueled a conservative political movement more interested in crime control than eradicating the roots of racial unrest. Johnson recognized he was on the losing side of a political war of attrition: Congress was more willing to support the Vietnam war effort, which both parties deemed vital to democracy’s future, than anti-poverty efforts that increasing numbers of Republicans and Democrats believed sapped individual initiative and encouraged lawlessness. (Read why protests may not be enough to change systemic racism.)

The answer to the question of whether America’s Great Society would center racial and economic justice or further criminalize and pathologize black communities came in 1968 with the Safe Streets Crime Bill. The bill put the federal government, for the first time, in the business of funding states’ anti-crime resources, transforming the war on poverty into a war on crime.

Unlike the Great Society, this war has endured, successfully criminalizing vastly more African Americans than could have been imagined in the aftermath of Watts. This unequal justice system impacts employment, housing, education, and social welfare for tens of millions of African Americans and inaugurates a supply chain of grief, trauma, and suffering that inevitably leads to national political unrest.

The George Floyd protests represent another major inflection point in American history. Americans of all backgrounds have a generational opportunity to choose love over fear, King’s “Beloved Community” over “Law and Order,” investing in racially segregated and economically impoverished black neighborhoods over punishing, containing, surveilling, and imprisoning black people. We have had such stark choices in the past, as Harlem and Watts reveal, and picked the wrong path every time. We have, just as we did in 1968, a stark moral and political choice to make. I choose hope.

Peniel E. Joseph holds the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. His latest book is The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

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Why is it important to have the right to protest? ›

Protests encourage the development of an engaged and informed citizenry. They strengthen representative democracy by enabling direct participation in public affairs.

What are the biggest protests in recent history? ›

Here are ten of the biggest protests in modern history.
Jump to:
  • Indian farmers protest (2020-2021)
  • George Floyd and Black Lives Matter (2020)
  • Women's March (2017)
  • Anti-Iraq War protests (2003)
  • Tiananmen Square (1989)
  • The Baltic Way (1989)
  • People's Protest (1986)
  • Earth Day (1970)
Mar 10, 2022

What was the most successful protest? ›

1George Floyd Protests/2020–2022 United States racial unrest15,000,000 - 26,000,000
2Earth Day20,000,000
32017 Women's March3,300,000–5,600,000
4March for Our Lives1,200,000-2,000,000
22 more rows

How do you write a good protest speech? ›

Planning your rally speech
  1. Know your goals. ...
  2. Know the one thing you want people to remember. ...
  3. Advocate for the audience. ...
  4. Read — and heed — the agenda. ...
  5. Get right to the point. ...
  6. Keep it simple. ...
  7. Establish who you are. ...
  8. Motivate, don't educate.

Why is it important to protest peacefully? ›

Courageous, inspiring people have engaged in peaceful protest, at risk of repercussions, to stand for their cause. It remains effective in shining a light on injustice, in raising awareness and in mobilising others to speak up with a collective voice.

What is an example of a protest? ›

An example of protest is when you deny that you feel the way that a person is accusing you of feeling. An example of protest is when you carry signs and picket a workplace to show your disapproval for their bad labor practices. To express a strong objection to (something). Protest a job assignment.

What was the first protest in US history? ›

A group of Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1688 created the “first written protest against slavery in the new world,” according to the Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust. The group saw the enslavement of others as a contradiction to its religious values and its history of fleeing oppression from the British.

What is a protest movement? ›

1. Punctual political actions that may or not involve social movements and may take different forms, such as strikes, uprisings, riots, boycotts, sit-ins and demonstrations.

What things do you need to take on a protest? ›

Items to bring:
  • Water (consider bringing bottles with sports caps to help flush eyes if there is exposure to tear gas)
  • Sunglasses.
  • Mask.
  • Hand sanitizer.
  • Tissues.
  • First aid kit.
  • Snacks.
  • Hat to protect from the sun and help cover your face.

What defines a peaceful protest? ›

A peaceful protest, also known as nonviolent resistance or nonviolent action, is the act of expressing disapproval through a statement or action without the use of violence.

How many types of protest are there? ›

Practitioners of nonviolent struggle have an entire arsenal of “nonviolent weapons” at their disposal. Listed below are 198 of them, classified into three broad categories: nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation (social, economic, and political), and nonviolent intervention.

How do you use protest in a sentence? ›

Protest sentence example
  1. She began to protest but he stopped her. ...
  2. He began to protest but she waved him aside. ...
  3. When Lori opened her mouth to protest, he continued. ...
  4. You view it as your duty to protest when people who do not hold to those values gain power. ...
  5. She collected a handful of the material in modest protest.

What happened as a result of the protest march? ›

On 28 August 1963, more than 200,000 demonstrators took part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the nation's capital. The march was successful in pressuring the administration of John F. Kennedy to initiate a strong federal civil rights bill in Congress.

How do you start a school protest? ›

Publicize your protest.

Hand out pamphlets. Publicize in your school newspaper and on social media. Make a press release and send it to local newspapers, to websites and blogs, and to other organizations that may support your message. Call local newspapers and radio stations and ask them to promote the protest.

How do you start a speech GCSE? ›

To begin your speech, try using some of the following language techniques:
  1. A rhetorical question. Rhetorical questions are questions that you don't expect your audience to answer. ...
  2. A surprising statement. Surprise is a powerful tool in any speech. ...
  3. A famous quote. Before your exam, take a look at a list of famous quotes.
Apr 30, 2018

How do you write a good short speech? ›

Spice it Up
  1. Give it rhythm. ...
  2. Vary the sentence structure. ...
  3. Use the active voice and avoid passive sentences. ...
  4. Repeat key words and points. ...
  5. Ask rhetorical questions in a way that attracts your listeners' attention.
  6. Personal experiences and anecdotes help bolster your points and help you connect with the audience.
Jan 11, 2013

What should I write about in a speech? ›

105 Topics for a Persuasive Speech
  • Should art and music therapy be covered by health insurance?
  • Should all students be required to learn an instrument in school?
  • Should all national museums be free to citizens?
  • Should graffiti be considered art?
  • Should offensive language be removed from works of classic literature?
Jan 25, 2020

Do we have the right to protest? ›

The right to protest may be a manifestation of the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of association, and the right to freedom of speech. Additionally, protest and restrictions on protest have lasted as long as governments have.

Has peaceful protest worked? ›

It won't ever be finished. But peaceful protest really can achieve lasting change. And often this will be change that is so enduring, society forgets all about how it was won – or that it ever had to be fought for in the first place.

What do you do at a peaceful protest? ›

PREP: Before the Protest
  1. Make signs. ...
  2. Drink lots of water. ...
  3. Plan your exit. ...
  4. Tell a friend who isn't going. ...
  5. Write an emergency contact number on your body. ...
  6. Charge your cell phone, and be prepared for it not to work anyhow. ...
  7. Download this App from the ACLU for your state, if available. ...
  8. Know the local laws regarding protest.

What is it called when you protest? ›

Activism, rebellion, protest and terrorism.

Whats the meaning of a protest? ›

1 : a complaint or objection against an idea, an act, or a way of doing things. 2 : an event in which people gather to show disapproval of something. protest.

What do you call a person who protest? ›

A person who participates in a protest can be called a protester or a protestor. (The -er spelling is much more common, but the -or spelling has increased in usage.)

What is a protest in history? ›

A protest (also called a demonstration, remonstration or remonstrance) is a public expression of objection, disapproval or dissent towards an idea or action, typically a political one.

What state has the most protest? ›

This is a list of some of their locations in the United States. The state with the most protests is California, which has over fifty protest locations (see List of Occupy movement protest locations in California).

Why according to the report do extreme methods make protest movements less effective? ›

Why, according to the report, do extreme methods make protest movements less effective? Extreme methods can cause backlash by making it harder for observers or bystanders to identify with the protestors.

What are the causes of social protest movement at present? ›

Political alienation, however, reflects a loss of faith in the political community and predisposes the individual to join a movement that challenges it. Deprivation, discontent, and frustration are frequently assumed to be sufficient causes for initiating or joining a social movement.

What type of communication is protesting? ›

Protesting is a form of political communication. It's a form of political persuasion, where those without power or influence find ways to get their voices heard in order to express a message of dissent.

Who led the protest movement? ›

Answer: Wolfe Tone led a Protest Pavement against the Protestants in Ireland.

How do you protect yourself from a protest? ›

Best Practices for Protesting Safely
  1. Avoid direct police contact. ...
  2. Maintain physical distancing and do not have close physical contact with others. ...
  3. Do not run. ...
  4. Use ONLY water to treat pepper spray.
  5. Protect your cell phone privacy. ...
  6. Protect your identity and the identity of others. ...
  7. Use white privilege to protect others.

What should be done before the protest? ›

Protest Preparation - Tips for Activists
  • Check the weather forecast. ...
  • Make signs. ...
  • Hydrate. ...
  • Make a plan with your posse. ...
  • Plan your transportation ahead of time. ...
  • Wear face masks and bring hand sanitizer. ...
  • Write an emergency contact number on your body in permanent marker. ...
  • Charge your cell phone and carry a spare battery.

What should you not do when protesting? ›

Here's their advice. Do not go to a protest without knowing what it is you're fighting for. Don't show up and ask someone there to educate you. If you're an ally, do the work yourself and study as much as possible—not only about the actions you're protesting but the context around them.

Do we have a right to protest? ›

The First Amendment protects your right to assemble and express your views through protest. However, police and other government officials are allowed to place certain narrow restrictions on the exercise of speech rights. Make sure you're prepared by brushing up on your rights before heading out into the streets.

Is it a human right to protest? ›

About the right of peaceful assembly

The right of peaceful assembly includes the right to hold meetings, sit-ins, strikes, rallies, events or protests, both offline and online.

Is right to protest a fundamental right? ›

Although the Right to Protest is not an explicit right under the Fundamental Rights, it can be derived from the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19.

What does the Constitution say about protesting? ›

“The right of the people to peaceably assemble” is enshrined in the Constitution's First Amendment, protecting the right to peaceful protest from government intervention. But like most constitutional rights, the right to peaceful protests has limits that the Supreme Court has had to articulate.

How do you plan a protest? ›

How to plan a peaceful protest
  1. ASSEMBLE. Gather like-minded people and make a case for why a protest action is necessary. ...
  2. ORGANIZE. Designate an effective mode of leadership or agree to opt for a more open, nonhierarchical structure.
  3. DEFINE. ...
  4. RESEARCH. ...
  5. PREPARE. ...
  6. NOTIFY. ...
  7. PUBLICIZE. ...

What you need for a protest? ›

Supplies you should bring to a protest
  1. Water.
  2. A face mask (while outdoor gatherings are relatively safe, masks can still slow the spread of COVID)
  3. Hand sanitizer.
  4. A power bank.
  5. Your ID.
  6. Cash.
  7. Snacks.
  8. Protective goggles, for tear gas.
Jun 30, 2022

What is the right to peaceful protest? ›

The right to protest may be a manifestation of the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of association, and the right to freedom of speech. Additionally, protest and restrictions on protest have lasted as long as governments have.

What is the right to freedom of movement? ›

The right to freedom of movement includes the right to move freely within a country for those who are lawfully within the country, the right to leave any country and the right to enter a country of which you are a citizen. The right may be restricted in certain circumstances.

How do schools promote human rights? ›

Encouraging educators to draw on their personal stories and develop connections to rights, offering targeted resources for human rights education, supporting connections to Indigenous curricula, and working toward building a culture of rights at the level of school administration are all important ways to make sure ...

How do you define freedom of speech? ›

Freedom of speech is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction.

Where is the right to protest in the Constitution? ›

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

What is the law of protest? ›

In the Constitution, Article 19(1)(a) explains this right to freedom of speech and expression. It includes that each individual has the privilege to express their own viewpoints however exposed to reasonable restrictions. The right to assemble peaceably and without arms is under article 19(1)(b).

Do you need a permit to protest in India? ›

To hold a lawful protest, you have to get prior permission from the police. For this, you need to: Get the forms to obtain permissions. These will be available at any police station or even on the Karnataka State Police website.

How do you protest at school? ›

You do not lose your right to free speech just by walking into school. You have the right to speak out, hand out flyers and petitions, and wear expressive clothing in school — as long as you don't disrupt the functioning of the school or violate the school's content-neutral policies.

Why is freedom of speech important? ›

Why is free speech important? Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. It reinforces all other human rights, allowing society to develop and progress. The ability to express our opinion and speak freely is essential to bring about change in society.

How does the Constitution protect the rights of individuals against government? ›

Civil liberties are protections against government actions. For example, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights guarantees citizens the right to practice whatever religion they please. Government, then, cannot interfere in an individual's freedom of worship.


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