Wilson, Seán Michael, Benjamin Dickson, Hunt Emerson, John Spelling and Adam Pasion. Fight the Power! A Visual History of Protest Among the English-Speaking Peoples. Oxford: New Internationalist, 2013.
The title of Fight the Power! A Visual History of Protest among the English-Speaking Peoples may be a little long winded, but it does sum up the book well. Through the medium of comic strips, the book tells the story of some of the key moments in the history of protest in the English-speaking world (well, from the last 2 centuries anyway). The protests discussed are wide ranging in terms of topic and geography, taking in race, class, labour and governance issues, as well as such diverse countries as Ireland, Australia, America, and the former British Empire.
The format of the book makes it incredibly approachable and engaging, ideal for young people (although some of the images are a little graphic) or those with little previous knowledge of protest. The examples lack detail and can be one-sided, but neither of these are inherently bad things. The book is a fantastic introduction to many protests, and it does not claim to be an unbiased account.
Despite the diversity of the examples, several themes recur throughout the book. One is police brutality. The actions taken by those in authority attempting to suppress protest have frequently proved provocative, causing demonstrations to escalate into violent clashes. The Battle of Peterloo (1819) and the Battle of Toledo (1934), amongst others, are good examples of this. Violence, or the lack of it, is another theme that recurs throughout the book. Whether or not to use violence is one of the most fundamental decisions a protest movement makes, which can drastically influence the outcome of a campaign. There is no ‘right’ answer; apart from the moral debate, both violent and non-violent movements have proved successful in the past.
The lasting impression which the book leaves is one of hope. Particularly in the past few years, it can be very easy to believe that protest does not achieve anything, that it is all too easy for those in authority to repress or ignore demonstrations and social movements. But what the examples in Fight the Power prove is that protest can force change. The Suffragettes, Rosa Parks, and the various independence movements of the British empire demonstrate that change may take time, decades even, and it may not be exactly the progress that you imagined, but it can be achieved.
Another key message of the book, which is particularly relevant to my PhD, is that past protests can provide both practical suggestions and inspiration to contemporary protest movements. As Tariq Ali writes in the Introduction, “History rarely repeats itself, but its echoes never go away” (p5). An image on the back cover of the book shows an Occupy protester holding a “We are the 99%” placard, backed by a Suffragette, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and others mentioned in the book. It is a powerful image of historical solidarity.
This book was given to me as a Christmas present (I got a lot of books this year, so brace yourself for a lot of reviews over the next few months!), and it certainly fulfills that role perfectly. It is a nice introduction to some of the most famous protests in the history of the English-speaking world, but I would recommend it even if you are already familiar with most of them as a refreshing approach to the history of protest.