A side-by-side look at some of the political protests that have shaped American politics over the past hundred years.
I went to my first protest at the age of eighteen. I joined a group of around forty-five people on a summer day, in 1986, just outside of Amarillo, Texas. We gathered a hundred yards back from a thin gravel road, near the cattle wire that surrounded the Pantex munitions plant. For decades, most of the weapons in America’s nuclear arsenal had been assembled there, before being distributed by train across the country. It was just a few months after the disastrous meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant, in Ukraine, and I was young and full of rebellion. It was the perfect place to go.
My companions were mostly Quakers. They had travelled six hundred miles by bicycle from Houston. After spending two nights in wet ditches on their journey, they quietly sat in the middle of the road outside the plant and refused to allow vehicles to pass. They were unceremoniously arrested.
The Quakers’ peaceful approach to protest was not the only option. The handful of revolutionary Communists nearby were also demonstrating alongside us but they were more provocative. They taunted us with broken pieces of the Challenger space shuttle and talked of storming the gate. Protest, I learned, is a messy business.
From the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in the sixties and seventies to the Unite the Right rally in 2017—and the even larger counter-protest that appeared in response—protests have always been about confrontation. The Yale historian Timothy Snyder, in his book “On Tyranny,” writes that, while a movement may be sparked or organized on social media, “nothing is real that does not end on the streets. If tyrants feel no consequences for their actions in the three-dimensional world, nothing will change.”
The video above highlights some of the most famous moments in the last century of American protest. It traces the ways these demonstrations of dissent have evolved as generations of Americans took to the streets to express their First Amendment rights.