"We fight to preserve the planet because even though there is only one Earth, we know that another world is possible. You should too."

Captain Peter Hammarstedt, Sea Shepherd

A Brief History of Brave Activism


The protestant reformation

Possibly the simplest, smallest act of protest in history would have global ramifications. Although protest groups had yet to become organised, individuals still protested. A German monk called Martin Luther was concerned about the sale of indulgences - payments of money in exchange for forgiveness from God - so pinned his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. With this act of dissent, Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation.

1517 - The protestant reformation

The Diggers

The Digger movement occupied St George's Hill in Surrey, England to "lay the foundation of making the Earth a common treasury for all, both rich and poor…" In The True Levellers Standard Advanced they explained that they would refuse to countenance violent action and instead sow corn and eat bread together. Their actions can be seen as an early precursor to protest camps like Climate Camp - held in 2005 at an international summit in Scotland. Author Tim Gee writes in The Occupied Times: "On the fact of it, camping does not seem like the most likely tactic to bring about the transformation of power relations in society. But it has frequently played a role in movements for change."

1649 - The Diggers

Boston Tea Party

When a group of outraged men from Massachusetts called the "Sons of Liberty" threw some 342 chests of tea into the Boston harbour to protest the British taxation of the American colonies, they couldn't have realised that they would affect the "minds, hearts, souls, and lives of almost every American then and now" (Harlow Unger, American Tempest). Their act would ultimately lead to the declaration of independence, the American Revolution and the formation of the United States of America. "Activists from a variety of political viewpoints have invoked the Boston Tea Party as a symbol of protest" ever since, writes author James M. Volo in his work The Boston Tea Party.

1773 - Boston Tea Party

The Anti-Slavery Movement

The first wave of the anti-slavery movement was up against it. Their task was to make the public care about something happening very, very far away, without the media tools that campaigners benefit from today. Yet they succeeded. "Slaves and other subjugated people have rebelled throughout history, but the campaign in England was something never seen before: it was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else's rights." states Adam Hochschild - author of Bury the Chains. How did they do it? They changed the rules of the game, creating techniques we now take for granted like the political book tour and the consumer boycott.

The 19th Century - The Anti-Slavery Movement

Fighting fashionably

Cally Blackman, a lecturer in fashion history and theory, argues in a piece for The Guardian that, "The suffragettes' colour scheme, devised in 1908 by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, co-editor of Votes for Women, was an early triumph for fashion branding. Suffragettes wore purple for loyalty and dignity, white for purity and green for hope." The women of the suffrage movement drew on the methods of abolitionists to become experts in marketing their cause, communicating it clearly and creating a strong visual identity. Nowadays campaign style guides are a given, with most citing specified typefaces and colour palettes. They weren't before the suffragettes.

The 19th Century - Fighting fashionably

Gandhi's Salt March

Mohandas Gandhi developed satyagraha, meaning the force which is born of truth and love or non-violence, then in 1930 he set off with a handful of supporters on a 241-mile march from his ashram to the sea in an act of nonviolent defiance against British rule. After addressing crowds, and being joined by thousands, Gandhi and his supporters symbolically resisted British policy by collecting salt from seawater. "His masterful manipulation of Indian national symbols, combined with a well-organized mass civil disobedience campaign, demonstrated just how potent nonviolent resistance could be", says Michael J. Nojeim in Gandhi and King: The Power of Nonviolent Resistance.

1930 - Gandhi's Salt March

Change in 381+ days

On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man, in defiance with racial segregation laws. In doing so, she spurred the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott and inspired an entire generation of civil rights activists. Her story is one of a single act of disobedience, of courage and of the power of the individual. It is also a story of an entire movement and of the capacity of perseverance to triumph against what can seem like insurmountable discrimination. In the LA Times, Paul Rogat Loeb writes: "Had she and others given up after their 10th or 11th year of commitment, we might never have heard of the Montgomery boycott".

1955 - Change in 381+ days

Tiananmen Square

"Those watching the scene did not know his name. But soon millions would know about his bravery and about his desire to stop the military from trying to squash free speech and protest in China", says Michael Burgan (Tank Man: How a Photograph Defined China's Protest Movement). One of the most famous images ever taken: a man - his identity has never been confirmed - stands in the way of a column of tanks on the morning after military units opened fire on civilians in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, massacring hundreds - if not thousands - of peaceful pro-democracy protesters. In China today, the massacre is still taboo: "One can't help wondering why a government that is so proud of its economic and diplomatic achievements is so worried by an event that took place more than 20 years ago." writes Jean-Philippe Béja in The Impact of China's 1989 Tiananmen Massacre.

1989 - Tiananmen Square

Re: Friends of the Earth

Today, enabling change via sending targeted emails and tweets seems almost second nature, but it wasn't all that long ago that it was a revolutionary idea. Symon Hill, author of Digital Revolutions: Activism in the Internet Age, states that "In 1997, Friends of the Earth encouraged supporters with email access to send emails to the world leaders attending the United Nations Climate Change summit in Kyoto. It was one of the first incidences of what has become a very common practice."

1997 - Re: Friends of the Earth

The 99% are occupying

In Zuccotti Park, amid New York's financial district, roughly 200 people camped overnight to protest against social and economic inequality. Within weeks - bolstered by social media attention - the movement had spread across the globe, from Auckland, to Cape Town and even to Antarctica. Income inequality had been pushed to the front of people's mind and the front page of papers. Mark and Paul Engler, in their work This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-first Century, claim that Occupy "showed the power and potential that unarmed uprisings possess when they make use of a vital combination of ingredients: Disruption. Sacrifice. Escalation."

2011 - The 99% are occupying

Do It Yourself

Write on!
Write on! - Thumbnail
Write here, write now
Write here, write now - Thumbnail
Staying safe as an activist
Staying safe as an activist - Thumbnail
Know your rights as an activist
Know your rights as an activist - Thumbnail

99 Ways to Activate Your Life

Start a petition Petitions can have a real impact on decision making. Whether you’re aiming to persuade your local council to set up more water fountains or asking the government to ban non-recyclable packaging, it's time to get collecting signatures.

Ideas to Emulate

How to raise a changemaker in 26 letters

How to raise a changemaker in 26 letters

Explaining activism to children would likely leave most parents stuck sounding out the first “Ah”. The same cannot be said for author and illustrator Innosanto Nagara, who has skilfully navigated the idea in just 26 letters.

Crafting change one stitch at a time

Crafting change one stitch at a time

Sarah Corbett thinks people should build more bridges. Not in the sense of traversing waterway, railway or motorway by means of concrete mixer and steel...

Refugees welcome

Refugees Welcome: a vehicle for change

Britain has been keeping a diary. And one artist has been reading its entries. Friday 24 June 2016, the day of the Brexit outcome: "At the British Museum, the whole notebook was full of anger because of the vote."

Moving Pictures

Moving pictures: can documentaries change the world?

In the digital age, investigative journalism has obstacles to overcome. The dwindling numbers of reporters in newsrooms has not gone unnoticed...

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The Soapbox App

Free speech is a right worth preserving. If you don't like what you hear, get up on your soapbox. Respond. Fight back. The Soapbox App is a platform for passionate people with an opinion. Check out the app prototype at the 2017 Lush Summit.