5 Books on the Power of Protest: From Pussy Riot to the Arab Spring

Measuring a protest’s success is a challenge. If “the arc­­ of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, how exactly do we take stock? Protests come in many shapes and forms, inspired by a range of events and issues. Some are created by students, organizing for specific rights. Some are forged by artists who use performance to subvert paradigms of power. Others embrace a thoughtful and well-planned strategy to tackle broad discrimination. And there are groups that possess no leader or galvanizing principle besides demonstrative response to a singular event.

In the United States, charged social consciousness has stepped forward to demand attention and urge for change. The Black Lives Matter movement as well as Occupy Wall Street (and its subsequent manifestations) showed Americans that despite constant adversity, injustice cannot stop the swell of desire to respond through creativity and determined resistance. Unlike the social movements of roughly the first half of the twentieth century, these two groups have no iconic leadership. Like Riot Grrrl, which gave voice to feminism in the 1990s, these groups resist a predetermined hierarchy. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi were charismatic leaders who inspired their followers to keep the faith. This is less necessary today, although there are those who would argue that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump lead social movements of their own.

Yet, what is true across all groups is the conviction of its members. A successful protest is one whose message influences the greater public in ways that shift everyday life. The housewife who wears a hoodie in support of Trayvon Martin, the kids who think of Zuccotti Park instead of Woolworths when they talk about sit-ins, the teenage girl who picks up a guitar to accompany her passionate protest song. These books chronicle various stories of protest. While they may speak to historical events and concrete actions, the work of resistance is never a fixed, quantifiable event. Its impact ripples onward without end.

  • The cover of the book Freedom is a Constant Struggle

    Freedom is a Constant Struggle

    This new collection of speeches and essays by Angela Y. Davis, Black Power activist and distinguished professor emeritus at University of California Santa Cruz, connects incidents of state violence and oppression worldwide and across history. Freedom is a Constant Struggle is a terrific entry point for those who want a thoughtful overview of resistance in theory and practice. Combing the intersection between race and gender, Davis offers her unique perspective as an activist whose life has been devoted to change and equality.

  • The cover of the book March: Book One

    March: Book One

    The National Book Award-winning graphic novel by Civil Rights activist and Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and artist Nate Powell, March is a powerful first-person account of Lewis’s life, from his childhood to his work as an activist and politician. This vivid book is a particularly crucial one for young adults who are not entirely familiar with the struggle for civil rights in mid-twentieth century American history. Using Lewis’s personal history, the first book in this trilogy centers around Lewis’s childhood in the Deep South and his powerful meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. It goes on to cover the birth of the Nashville Student Movement and their efforts to end segregation through nonviolent means. An essential read for every young person.

  • The cover of the book The New Middle East

    The New Middle East

    Stitched together with first-hand accounts from Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Tunisia, Syria, and Libya, Paul Danahar’s comprehensive book The New Middle East provides a fascinating look at the events that precipitated and fed the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. For over forty years, the western world has remained mystified by the dictatorships that ruled the Middle East. The events surrounding the Arab Spring uprisings were met worldwide with support, but also curiosity. As former political establishments dissolved or weakened, people of the region can finally reveal their own histories and hopes.

  • The cover of the book Words Will Break Cement

    Words Will Break Cement

    The Passion of Pussy Riot

    Courageous journalist Masha Gessen brings her sharp eye and rich knowledge of Russian culture and history to bear on the protest, trials, and imprisonment of the members of the Russian rock group Pussy Riot. In February 2012, the group of five young women performer a “punk prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in order to appeal to the “Mother of God” to “get rid of Putin.” Immediately, they were interrupted by security. Three of the women were arrested, then brought to trial, after which two were sent to a remote prison colony. Much to the dismay of the Russian government, this assault against free speech and self-expression became a global sensation, drawing attention to the authoritarian regime. Gessen’s terrific access provides an intimate look at these brave artists and their continued efforts to speak out against Putin and his policies.

  • The cover of the book Great Soul

    Great Soul

    Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India

    When people speak of the origins of nonviolent resistance, Mahatma Gandhi springs immediately to mind. In this magisterial book, Pulitzer-prize winner Joseph Lelyveld considers in depth Gandhi’s achievements and setbacks as he worked tirelessly toward Indian independence. Examining Gandhi’s experiences during two decades spent in South Africa, Lelyveld shows the manner in which Gandhi developed his mission and philosophy. Celebrated as an ascetic, known for his trademark loincloth, few realize that Gandhi was, in fact, a successful lawyer. His tragic story culminates with his violent death, yet his legacy ripples outward through the partition of India, the establishment of Pakistan, sympathy for the untouchables, an interrogation of the caste system, and his influence on others such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Great Soul is a testament to the work of nonviolent protest.