Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Anti-war protest, San Francisco, March 2008.

It remains to be seen whether or not the escalating protests in Tehran will ultimately overturn the outcome of the controversial elections, and change the power structure in Iran. As news and images of the demonstrations unfold virally in blogs and Twitter and Youtube, the world is held spellbound by the people's phenomenal display of defiance -- the same people who have been conditioned to acquiesce for almost three decades, and who now anxiously await the response of a regime that is unaccustomed to dissent. One thing is certain: futile or victorious, the demonstrations in Tehran will find an important place among the epoch-changing civil protests in modern history.

Defiance, as seen from the lenses of great photojournalists:

Marc Riboud captured the essence of the peace movement in this photograph from the 1967 anti-war demonstration in Washington, DC, that altered the public's perception of US involvement in Indo-China.

In the Spring of 1968, Paris was a combat zone and the country found itself on the brink of revolution. What began in the month of March as sporadic student protests in the city's universities escalated to other sectors of the city. By May, 15 million workers were on general strike, hundreds of factories were shut down, government buildings were seized, and students from all over the country marched in solidarity with the workers in protests marked by rioting and police action. Sweeping reforms, notably in minimum wage rates, were enacted by De Gaulle to quell the insurgency; by early June, the strikes ended, order was restored, and dreams of revolution were subverted.

In June 1989, 2600 Chinese demonstrators were killed in Tiananmen Square, the bloody outcome of a series of pro-democracy demonstrations that started in April in the form of student protests to commemorate reformist Hu Yaobang. As the protests and mass sit-ins grew in number, the government responded by declaring martial law on May 20. On June 3rd, the military was ordered to retake the Square at all costs. More than 10,000 students confronted the armed troops, resulting in one of the bloodiest massacres in recent memory.

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King proclaimed to the world that he had a dream. The forum for that historic address was a rally in Washington, DC, attended by 300,000 people, a watershed event for black civil rights that has come to be known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The rally was a cry for equality and opportunity by African-Americans. Malcolm X famously called the rally a farce, underscoring sharp divisions within the black community at the time. But no one can undermine the importance of the march as an impetus to unprecedented civil rights reforms in America. The years that follow saw the passing of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the National Voters Act (1965).

Defiance can be as much about social change as it is about political change. This 1972 photograph by Leonard Freed shows a demonstration during the incipient stages of the post-suffrage feminist movement. Called into action by Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, women across the country took to the streets demanding equal rights, equal pay, and more importantly, a re-examination of the role of women in society.

In my native country, the Philippines, civil protest in 1986 turned to nonviolent revolution, ending the 21-year dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. The seeds of discontent scattered in 1983 following the assassination of opposition senator Ninoy Aquino, whose wife, Cory, assumed the reins of power after the revolution. Protests in Manila, as seen in the photograph by Susan Meiselas, oftentimes assumed an air of festivity as workers showered the streets with yellow confetti. Confetti served as stand-ins for the yellow ribbons in the pop song "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree," the song Aquino supporters appropriated as an anthem to welcome the former senator back from exile, a homecoming that turned fatal.

Finally, back to Tehran. In 1979, at the crest of the revolution that would bring fundamentalist Islamic regimes into power, David Burnett photographs an anti-Shah demonstrator, his hands covered with the blood of a fallen comrade on the day before the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini from exile.

Gunfire in Tehran

Tehran photos from The New York Times.
Marc Riboud, Washington DC, 2967.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, ruie de Lyon, mai 1968.
Claude-Raimond Dityvon, boulevard Saint-Michel, 23 mai 1968.
Gilles Caron, rue Saint-Jacques, 10 Juin 1968.
Stuart Franklin, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1989.
Leonard Freed, March on Washington, August 28, 1963 (detail).
Leonard Freed, March on Washington, August 28, 1963.
Leonard Freed, Feminist demonstration, New York City, 1972.
Susan Meiselas, Remnants of political posters. Manila, Philippines, 1986.
Susan Meiselas, Manila, Philippines, 1983.
David Burnett, Tehran, Iran, January 1979.

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