5 historic UK protests you need to know about

With the right to protest under threat in England, Bootcamp graduate and campaigner India looks back at five UK protests that have shaped history and why protecting our right to demonstrate matters.

From Bristol to Leeds, activists up and down the country have been taking to the streets to fight for their rights to protest.

The government is pushing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill through Parliament in the wake of the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion movements. The bill would put prison sentences on the table for protesters causing “a public nuisance” or “a serious annoyance.” You could even go to prison for protesting alone.

As trade unionists, anti-racists and disabled activists demand the government to change course, we look back at five historic UK protests. Let’s remind ourselves of how powerful people can be when we come together – and why we must continue to fight for our right to organise and speak out.

Black People’s Day of Action, 1981

A black and white image of the Black People's Day of Action protest. Signs are held up, including 'Mc nee no Black Scapegoats', 'command Stockwell no Black scapegoat' and 'equal rights and justice'.
One attendee described 1981’s Black People’s Day of Action as “the most powerful expression of Black political power this country has ever seen”.

In 1981, young people in New Cross, London, were celebrating their friend’s birthday. During the party, a fire set the house ablaze and killed 13 young Black people. When survivors said they’d seen someone throw something into the building, they felt like no one was listening – and that the government didn’t care. The National Front had been marching through UK streets in a summer of racist violence – and now this.

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee organised a show of defiance against racism. 20,000 people marched through London on a Monday to cause as much disruption as possible. One attendee described the day as “the most powerful expression of Black political power this country has ever seen”. 

Survivors did not get justice in the courts – but coming together did give them an outlet for their pain and an opportunity to send a message to the country. 

Some of the activists involved, such as Darcus Howe, would continue to be powerful voices against racism in the decades to come.

Bermondsey Women’s Uprising, 1911 

A black and white photo showing a group of people on strike.
The Bermondsey Women’s Uprising in 1911 ended successfully with wage increases and improvements in working conditions.

In the early 1900s businessmen were making a killing from ordinary people working in deadly conditions. Trade union membership doubled across the UK, and strikes became more frequent as people demanded better lives for their families.

In 1911 a transport strike kicked off in Southampton, spreading to Liverpool and beyond. 250,000 people went on strike to demand better working conditions. 

Inspired by the success of the transport strike, working class women were ready to rise up too. 

Women in South London were earning a measly wage making things like jam, biscuits and tin – and many lost limbs doing so. Though most had  never taken political action before, by acting in their thousands, they found they could use people power to fight for their rights. 12,000 people walked out of work and 14,000 demonstrated in a local park. 

Just like the transport strike, the women’s action ended successfully with wage increases and improvements in working conditions. 

Reclaim the Night, 1977 

A group of women walk in protest, holding signs, at a Reclaim the Night demonstration. The photo is in black and white.
More recently, trans women and non-binary people have participated in Reclaim the Night protests, in recognition of the gendered violence they face.

The Reclaim the Night protests started in Leeds after a series of murders of women in Yorkshire. Protestors took issue with the police response to the Yorkshire murders which had demanded women change their behaviour, rather than violent men, and diminished the value of sex workers lives.

The English Collective of Prostitutes organised protests and a group of feminists planned a protest through Leeds that would spread to other cities in the years to come.  

Much like the Black People’s Day of Action, this was an opportunity for collective grief in their community. 

Taking to the streets for some women was a powerful act of defiance and solidarity. Landing their placards in the papers sent a message to the whole country – women refused to be silent and refused to allow sexist violence to sweep their cities. 

Reclaim the Night protests still happen regularly in the UK and other countries across the world. More recently, trans women and non-Binary people have participated in Reclaim the Night protests, in recognition of the gendered violence they face.

The Bristol Bus Boycott, 1963

A black and white photo of Paul Stephenson and Guy Bailey, walking and smiling, with other folks in the background.
Paul Stephenson, Guy Bailey and other activists, successfully organised to fight the employment discrimination Black people were facing.

In the UK in the 1960s it was legal to discriminate against people because of their race. The problem for campaigners was that businesses denied they did it. Inspired by the US civil rights movement and activists like Rosa Parks, Paul Stephenson and Guy Bailey decided to prove that Black people were being denied jobs as bus drivers.

When Guy Bailey went for a job as a bus driver in Bristol he was, as expected, told no. Both the bus company and the workers’ trade union were collaborating to prevent Black drivers being hired. From then, a protest movement was born.

Paul, Guy and other activists, announced that West Indians would no longer use Bristol’s buses, and many in the wider Bristol community supported them including students who marched through the city. 

In 1963 it was reported that discrimination in hiring bus drivers would end. Two years later, the government introduced the Race Relations Act

Don’t Attack Iraq protests, 2003

An aeiral view of thousands of protestors, holding signs like 'Don't Attack Iraq' and flags.
The Don’t Attack Iraq protests in 2003 are thought to be one of the largest protests across the world, including in the UK.

15 February 2003 is thought to have been the day of the largest ever protest event in world history. 600 protests took place all over the world and in the UK. Around one million people are thought to have protested in London alone and school children walked out in protest. Despite the huge numbers, the Labour government won a majority of MPs’ support for the attack on Iraq so the bombs began to fall. 

This unsuccessful protest was a turning point for many activists, who started to think about different ways of building movements and winning campaigns in the future. It contributed towards future hesitancy for British wars. It was also the beginning of the Stop the War Coalition which would go on to protest Western wars. 

Why our right to protest matters

These five examples show the varied but powerful nature of protest. Protests are collective outrage, they are a sign to those in power that they will be held to account. Sometimes they are painstakingly organised over time (like the Battle of Cable Street or Greenham Common). sometimes they happen in a day (like the vigil for Sarah Everard). Sometimes they quickly lead to change (Poll tax protests). And sometimes change takes longer (Save the Arctic). 

They are never simply effective just through attendance – winning involves a diverse range of tactics. But the one thing that connects all of these protests is , in some way, the government or police tried to stop them. Until 1973 in the UK, The Riot Act allowed police to break up groups of more than 12 people. 

Our right to protest matters – and is worth defending. For those of us from marginalised communities, like people of colour, working class folks, travellers and gypsies – protests are even more important. The streets can be one of the only places to come together. But when the right to protest is threatened , it’s these groups who face the worst of the backlash too. This bill includes new stop and search powers and powers to stop gypsy and traveller’s “unauthorised encampments”

That’s why activists like Sisters Uncut, and many more, will not let the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill halt protests and organising without a fight – whether this becomes law or not. 

India is a campaigner passionate about using people power to win. She was Head of Membership Mobilisation for The Labour Party during the 2019 General Election and has led digital campaigns for organisations like Greenpeace. You can find out how to work with her on her website. 

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