The Power of Protest


As protests in the United States against the intersecting injustices of police brutality and systemic racism continue, the legacies of past riots and rebellions are discussed with a new urgency. Revolt and rebellion are as old and varied as human society; wherever injustice is experienced it will be met with opposition from those demanding a fairer world. Here, using extracts from the new edition of the Verso Book of Dissent, we bring you examples of riots, rebellions and uprisings from recent world history that demonstrate the power of protest.

1914: Giriama Resistance, Kenya

In 1913–14, an old woman, Mekatilili, led the Kenyan Giriama people in

resistance against the British, personified in this story in the figure of Arthur

Champion, the district commissioner. Mekatilili is the hen. The British demanded

taxes and young men for labor from the Giriama; Mekatilili’s charisma brought

together Giriama women, powerless young men and elders to push back.


And the Giriama said, who will give away his sons to go and be killed?

You try taking the chicks. And Champion took the chick and the hen

flapped and attacked him. And the Giriama said, you see what this hen

has done? If you take our sons, we will do the same. [1]

1917: Dervish Movement, Somalia / Horn of Africa

The Dervish movement and state, which spanned the Horn of Africa, fought an anti-imperialist war against the British, Italians and Ethiopians for over twenty years, led by Hassan a Somali religious leader. The British people, whom he addresses here, knew him as the “Mad Mullah.”

MOHAMMED ABDULLA HASSAN: Letter to Colonel Swann

If the country were cultivated or if it contained houses or property, it would be worth your while to fight for it. But the country is all jungle, and that is no use to you. If you want bush and stones you can get these in plenty. There are also many ant-heaps, and the sun is very hot. All you can get from me is war and nothing else. [2]

1919: The Munich Uprising, Germany

The Munich Commune was established as part of the 1918-19 German Revolution, and controlled the city for a month before it was toppled by the military and far-right local groups, many of whom would later back Hitler. Leviné, a revolutionary socialist and a leader of the German Spartacus League, thought the Munich Uprising was premature, but once overruled by social-democrats and independent socialists, he assumed leadership.

Leviné was found guilty of treason and executed on July 5, 1919.


We Communists are all dead men on leave. Of this I am fully aware. I do not know if you will extend my leave or whether I will have to join Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. In any case I await your verdict with composure and serenity. Whatever your verdict, events cannot be stopped . . . Pronounce your verdict if you deem it proper. I have only striven to foil your attempt to stain my political activity, the name of the Soviet Republic with which I feel myself so closely bound up, and the good name of the workers of Munich. Long live the Communist World Revolution. [3]

1930s: Hami Uprising, East Turkestan

The Hami Uprising of 1930-4 sought an end to Chinese rule in East Turkestan and the establishment of a Turkish Islamic Republic of East Turkestan in what is today Xinjiang Province. Abdukhaliq, a Uyghur nationalist poet whose poems describe the lives of the Uyghur people under oppression, was killed by the Chinese government at the age of twenty-two in retaliation for the rebellion. “Uyghur” was Abdukhaliq’s pen name, and when he adopted it, the Chinese saw it as a nationalistic move.


“It Is Close at Hand”

Arise. Time is at hand.

It is very close.

Stand up, brothers. Do you want to die lying there?

We now face our deepest winter.


Time is very short but we still have time.

If we miss this chance,

The winter will freeze our lives. [4]

1956: Protest of South African Women, South Africa

On August 9, 1956, 20,000 South African women converged on Pretoria to present letters of protest to the Prime Minister. Their target was a law making it obligatory for all black men to carry a pass, and that allowed police and government agents to arrest any black man without one. At the time of the rally, the government was considering extending the policy to include women. Today, August 9th is celebrated as National Women’s Day in South Africa.


Raids, arrests, loss of pay, long hours at the pass office, weeks in the cells awaiting trial, forced farm labor—this is what the pass laws have brought to African men . . . punishment and misery, not for a crime, but for the lack of a pass. We African women know too well the effect of this law upon our homes, upon our children. We who are not African women know how our sisters suffer . . . [5]

1954 - 1962: Algerian Revolution, Algeria

Between 1954 and 1962, the FLN waged guerrilla warfare against the occupying French until Algerian independence was achieved, lasting eight years and resulting in between 960,000 and 1.5 million Algerian deaths, and 28,600 French casualties. Bouhired, a member of the National Liberation Front (FLN) from her student days, would come to be known as the “Arab Joan of Arc.” She placed one of the three café bombs that marked the beginning of the Battle of Algiers, and was later captured, tortured and sentenced to death. Her execution was commuted just before it was to be carried out; these are her reflections about that day.

DJAMILA BOUHIRED: “The Most Beautiful Day” (1957)

It was the most beautiful day of my life because I was confident that I would be dying for the sake of the most wonderful story in the world . . . I still remember that on returning from the courtroom to the prison, when our brother prisoners shouted to us to ask what our sentence was, we replied with the hymn that those condemned to death would sing and that begins “God is Most Great . . . Our sacrifice is for the motherland.” [6]

1960: April Revolution, Korea

On March 15, 1960, a student demonstration against the fraudulent election victory of South Korean strongman Syngman Rhee was attacked by police. One month later, the body of student protester Kim Ju-yul washed ashore, his skull split open by a tear-gas grenade. The public outrage would eventually result in the April Revolution, which would end Rhee’s rule, leading to the establishment of the Second Republic of South Korea.

ANONYMOUS: Poem by Korean Elementary-School Student

On the way home from school,

Bullets flew through the air

And blood covered the streets.

The lonely discarded book bag

Was as heavy as it could be.

I know, yes, we all know

Even if Mom and Dad say nothing

Why our brothers and sisters were bleeding. [7]

1968: Rodney Riots, Jamaica

Guyanese scholar and political activist Rodney was a prominent Pan-Africanist and leading activist in Black Power movements in the Caribbean and North America, while also writing defining works of African history, such as How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Rodney’s activism brought him from Guyana to London and Tanzania; his agitation in Jamaica on behalf of the working poor led to his banishment by the Jamaican government. Student activists at the University of the West Indies responded to Rodney’s exile by organising a demonstration on October 16th 1968, which spread across Kingston and came to be known as the Rodney Riots. Rodney was assassinated in 1980 while running for office in Guyana.

WALTER RODNEY: “The Groundings with My Brothers”

The little black girl plays with a white doll, identifying with it as she combs its flaxen hair. Asked to sketch the figure of a man or a woman, the black schoolboy instinctively produces a white man or a white woman. This is not surprising, since until recently the illustrations in

our textbooks were all figures of Europeans. The few changes which have taken place have barely scratched the surface of the problem. West Indians of every color still aspire to European standards of dress and beauty. The language which is used by black people in describing ourselves shows how we despise our African appearance. “Good hair” means European hair, “good nose” means a straight nose, “good complexion” means a light complexion. Everybody recognizes how incongruous and ridiculous such terms are, but we continue to use them and to express our support of the assumption that white Europeans have the monopoly of beauty, and that black is the incarnation of ugliness. That is why Black Power advocates find it necessary to assert that BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL. [8]

1969: Alcatraz Occupation, USA

From 1969–71, the Indians of All Tribes occupied Alcatraz Island, announcing their intent to establish education, ecology and cultural centers. Although none of this was achieved, the occupation was successful in bringing negative publicity to the government’s Indian termination policy, which had been adopted in the 1940s and sought to assimilate American Indians into mainstream society; the policy was subsequently rescinded by Richard Nixon.

INDIANS OF ALL TRIBES: Alcatraz Proclamation

We, the Native Americans, reclaim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery. We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land, and hereby offer the following treaty:

We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for twenty-four dollars (24) inglass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago. We will give to the inhabitants of this island a portion of the land for their own to be held in trust by the American Indian Government and by the Bureau of Caucasian Affairs to hold in perpetuity—for as long as the sun shall rise and the rivers go down to the sea. We will further guide the inhabitants in the proper way of living. We will offer them our religion, our education, our life-ways, in order to help them achieve our level of civilization and thus raise them and all their white brothers up from their savage and unhappy state.

We feel that this so-called Alcatraz Island is more than suitable for an Indian reservation, as determined by the white man’s own standards. By this we mean that this place resembles most Indian reservations in that:

It is isolated from modern facilities, and without adequate means of transportation.

It has no fresh running water.

It has inadequate sanitation facilities.

There are no oil or mineral rights.

There is no industry and so unemployment is very great . . .

The population has always been held as prisoners and kept dependent upon others.

Further, it would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world, entering the Golden Gate, would first see Indian land, and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation. This tiny island would be a symbol of the great lands once ruled by free and noble Indians. [9]

1980: Kwangju Uprising, Korea

For ten days in May 1980, the citizens of Kwangju, South Korea, took control of the city, making demands for democratization, an end to martial law and an increase in the minimum wage. Citizens passed out meals and voluntarily cleaned the streets as they waited for the counterattack. This poem was written two days before the Kwangju Uprising broke out, at the site where rallies had been occurring and which the protesters renamed Democracy Square.


The day when the pepper fog and tear gas stopped.

People came from the Mujin plain.

All democratic citizens: intellectuals, laborers, farmers.

People gathered in front of the fountain of the provincial capital.

People tried to touch the fountain.

Sitting on the lawn, hugging each other

Exchanging smiles with each other

There is no song as beautiful as this,

The song we sang all together. [11]

1979: Grenada Revolution, Grenada

The Grenada Revolution of 1979 was the first armed socialist revolution to occur in a predominantly black state outside of Africa. Maurice Bishop was the inspirational leader of the Bishop’s New Jewel Movement which overthrew the government, after which Bishop became prime minister; just four years later, a faction of the NJM staged a coup, executing Bishop and other cabinet members. One week later the US followed by invading Grenada and ending the revolution.

MAURICE BISHOP: “Fraternal Love” (1981)

This is the true meaning of revolutionary democracy. It is a growth in the confidence in the power of ordinary people to transform their country, and thus transform themselves. It is the growth in the appreciation of people organizing, deciding, creating together. It is a growth of fraternal love. [12]

1966 – 1988: Sanrizuka Struggle, Japan

In the late 1960s, student activists, left-wing parties and residents of Sanrizuka and Shibayama villages in Japan, not far from where a new international airport (now Narita International Airport) was slated to be built, began protesting against the plan and all that it represented. For over twenty years, the movement made popular appeals, filed lawsuits and utilized guerrilla warfare and direct action tactics to hinder its construction. This statement was read at a mass rally five years after the airport had opened, yet it would be another three years before the last anti-airport riot finally ended.


The whole world faces now a great crisis of imminent war—nuclear war; the human being is thus threatened with holocaust and total annihilation. An urgent demand for peace expressed in antiwar, antinuclear protest is becoming more and more common not only among the Japanese people but also among people all over the world. We, members of the opposition league and those who are rallying around it, have been fighting for seventeen years against the construction of Sanrizuka military airport under the banner of “Stop war! Fight for peace!”—in diametrical, violent confrontation with state power. Now that antiwar, antinuclear struggle is gaining momentum anew, we feel it our duty, as ones fighting in Sanrizuka—a fortress of people’s struggle of the whole of Japan—to fill responsible positions in this struggle. [13]

1983 – 1987: Burkinabé Revolution, Burkina Faso

The Burkinabé Revolution, led by Thomas Sankara, nationalized mineral wealth and redistributed land; built earth dams and public houses; began literacy and immunization programs; and fought the oppression of women by promoting contraception and condemning polygamy. Sankara was assassinated in 1987, just four years after taking power, by an alliance that included Liberian warlord Charles Taylor and Blaise Compaoré, who has ruled Burkina Faso ever since.

THOMAS SANKARA: “I Want to Be One of Those Madmen” (1985)

I would like to leave behind me the conviction that if we maintain a certain amount of caution and organization we deserve victory . . . You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future. [14]

1977 – present: Green Belt Movement, Kenya

In 1977, Kenyan activist Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, a non-Profit organization promoting environmental conservation and empowering poor, rural women—and she has been building this movement ever since. Maathai has been jailed twice and badly beaten by police, and the Green Belt offices have been shut down by the government. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

WANGARI MAATHAI: “Until You Dig a Hole” (1991)

Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking. [15]

2007: Spread this Number, USA / Online

When the Motion Picture Association of America and the Advanced Access Content System Licensing Administrator tried to prevent the spread of a proprietary DVD encryption code on the Internet—the code for Blu-Ray and HD DVD discs—Internet geeks reposted it over 700,000 times, peppering the Internet in what has been described as a “digital riot.” Considered the firs instance of Internet geeks using social networking to defeat major corporations, the code has since become code—among Internet activists—for the idea that information should be free.

DIGG & INTERNET GEEKS: “Spread This Number”

09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0 [16]

2008 - present: Gulabi Gang, India

The Gulabi Gang (Pink Sari Gang), founded by Sampat Pal Devi, is a group of women from one of the poorest districts of the Uttar Pradesh province of India, who, armed with sticks, battle against those who abuse women, and seek to empower the poor, the underprivileged, and the lower castes.


I am the commander of the Gulabi Gang . . . First we go to the police and request that they do something. But since the administration is against the poor people of our country, we often end up taking matters into our own hands. We first speak to the husband who is beating his wife. If he doesn’t understand then we ask his wife to join us while we beat him with lathis. Our missions have a 100 percent success rate. We have never failed in bringing justice when it comes to domestic problems. Dealing with the administration is the tricky part since we cannot always take the law in our hands—especially with such corrupt lawmakers. We did beat up some corrupt officials but we were ultimately helpless. The goons of the corrupt officials and the political parties constantly threaten me. Once, a few goons came and threatened to shoot me down, but the women came to my rescue and threw bricks at them and they ran away. They haven’t come back since. [17]


Taken from The Verso Book of Dissent: Revolutionary Words from Three Millennia of Rebellion and Resistance, out now in a new edition.

This anthology, global in scope, presents voices of dissent from every era of human history: speeches and pamphlets, poems and songs, plays and manifestos. Every age has its iconoclasts, and yet the greatest among them build on the words and actions of their forerunners. The Verso Book of Dissent should be in the arsenal of every rebel who understands that words and ideas are the ultimate weapons.


[1] Mekatilili Wa Menza. Quoted in Cynthia Brantley, “Mekatilili and the Role of Women in Giriama Resistance,” in Donald Crummey, ed., Banditry, Rebellion and Social Protest in Africa, Heinemann, 1986.

[2] Mohammed Abdulla Hassan. Quoted in D. Jardine, The Mad Mullah of Somaliland, Greenwood Press, 1923.

[3] Eugen Leviné. Quoted in Rosa Leviné-Meyer, Leviné, the Spartacist,

Gordon and Cremonesi, 1978.

[4] Abdukhaliq “Uyghur.” Quoted in Justin Rudelson, Oasis Identities, Columbia University Press, 1997.

[5] Federation of South African Women. Quoted in Helen Joseph, Side by Side, Zed Books, 1986.

[6] Bouhired, Djamila. Quoted in The Arab Human Development Report 2005: Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World, UNDP, Stanford University Press, 2006.

[7] Anonymous. “Poem by Korean Elementary-School Student,” quoted in George Katsiaficas, Deliver Us From Evil: South Korean Social Movements in the Twentieth Century, forthcoming.

[8] Walter Rodney. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Howard University Press, 1974. (Now available in paperback from Verso).

[9] Indians of All Tribes. Quoted in Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, Like a Hurricane, New Press, 1996.

[10] Antonio Agostinho Neto. Quoted in Aquino De Braganca and Imman-

uel Wallerstein, The African Liberation Reader, vol. 2, St. Martin’s Press, 1982.

[11] Congregation for the Democratization of Chonnam Province. Quoted in George Katsiaficas, “Remembering the Kwangju Uprising,” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 14 issue 1 (January 2000).

[12] Bishop, Maurice. Quoted in Manning Marable, African and Caribbean Politics, Verso, 1987.

[13] Sanrizuka-Shibayama Farmers’ League. Quoted in David E. Apter and Nagayo Sawa, Against the State: Politics and Social Protest in Japan, Harvard University Press, 1986.

[14] Thomas Sankara. Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution

1983–87, Pathfinder, 1988.

[15] Maathai, Wangari. Quoted in Priscilla Sears, “Wangari Maathai: ‘You Strike The Woman . . .’,” In Context #28 (Spring 1991).

[16] Digg & Internet Geeks. Quoted in Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies, Harvard Business Press, 2008.

[17] Pal Devi, Sampat. Quoted in Sanjit Das, “A Flux of Pink Indians,” Vice (February 2008)