How Resistance to Power is Effective at Bringing About Social Change

In this essay, I will explore the extent to which resistance to power effectively brings about social change. To do this, I will focus on two case studies, including the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and counterculture in 1960s-1970s America. I will also provide links to relevant theory and social, political and cultural contexts to assess how successful these events brought about short and long term social change. Firstly, however, it is helpful to define what we mean by ‘power’ and ‘resistance’. According to Scott, “to have power is to have an enduring capacity or disposition to do something regardless of whether this capacity is being exercised” (Scott, 2002). This conceptualisation implies that a group, organisation or individual possesses power if subalterns comply with their wishes without the need for intervention or punishment. More generally, power is an actor’s ability to produce successful performances, as long as there is an intention to do so (Wrong, 1979 cited in Scott, 2002) showing up in overt and covert ways. Furthermore, “as soon as there is a power relation, there is the possibility of resistance” (Foucault, 1994 cited in Heller, 1996). Resistance is the idea of opposing or undermining forms of power and domination, which can fabricate in many ways, such as protests, illegal acts and applying pressure to institutions. I have chosen these case studies because they showcase different forms of power, social movement, authority and resistance. For example, power from the bottom (masses), violent resistance to sovereign power and power shown through compliance to oppressive laws and societal norms, which I will explore further throughout this critical essay.

In the following section, I will explore the extent to which the Stonewall Riots effectively brought about social change. America’s laws had always punished gay men and women due to Puritan heritage that oppressed same-sex relations (Carter, 2005). However, during the post-war era, gay men and women found themselves in a worse legal position since the Republic’s birth. They were used as scapegoats for hysteria around communism, conformity and child molestation. As a result, new crimes were invented, such as loitering in public toilets, wearing inappropriate clothing for your sex, selling alcohol in gay bars and increased penalties around sodomy (Carter, 2005). Bars and restaurants in Greenwich Village, the seafront and the West side of Central Park were spots where LGBTQ+ individuals would go for casual sex, to express themselves, socialise and gain a sense of community. Once this became common knowledge, gay men were intentionally sought out by police officers, which included routine bar raids and closures, homophobic slurs, ostracism, harassment, physical force, entrapment and arrests (Carter, 2005). These instances highlight the overlap between sovereign and disciplinary power. Foucault defines sovereign power as the ability to stop or limit one’s behaviours, such as through the use of violence, law and regulation (1979, cited in Lilja, 2014), which is reinforced through our example as there were restrictive laws around ‘homosexual’ acts, fear of punishment if one did not adhere to these laws and police force. Furthermore, disciplinary power can train and control individuals through institutions and scientific discourses while simultaneously punishing (1979, cited in Lilja, 2014). This is shown through consistent surveillance (hidden cameras and undercover police officers), self-regulation and psychological reinforcement that homosexuality was a mental illness, criminal and sinful. This encapsulates the power the police and state held because it deterred LGBTQ+ individuals from acting upon their desires due to the fear of being beaten, arrested and humiliated. Despite these power relations, the Mafia boss, ‘Fat Tony’ opened a gay bar named The Stonewall Inn on March 18th 1967 (Carter, 2005). To operate under restrictive laws, Fat Tony fronted as a private/bottle club that did not serve alcohol (but in reality, they served anyone the doormen admitted and made a profit through watered-down drinks and overpriced tickets). Furthermore, to limit the chance of police raids and entrapment, there were secure windows, steel doors and strict bouncers. Due to police corruption, the Mafia paid police officers to turn a blind eye to broken laws. In return, the police gave the Mafia notice before raids, so incriminating evidence could be hidden (Carter, 2005). However, on June 28th 1969, officers raided The Stonewall Inn at peak times and planned to confiscate alcohol, money and trash the bar, as they were tired of the Mafia re-opening shortly after raids (Carter, 2005). There was immediate verbal resistance when officers asked Stonewall customers to get their ID out. Usually, LBGTQ+ individuals would comply and sit quietly. However, this time they were acting up: “get your hands off me” and “don’t touch me” (Carter, 2005), as lesbians were inappropriately frisked, and transgender women were targeted and ‘checked’ in the toilets. Those who had identification were allowed to leave but decided to gather outside to wait for friends instead. The crowd grew fast due to curiosity and anxiety, and patrons began shouting and throwing coins when officers handled transgender women with unnecessary force (Carter, 2005).

According to eyewitness accounts, everything was reasonably peaceful until a lesbian came out kicking, cursing and screaming. This instance acted as the catalyst for the riots as someone shouted, “why don’t you guys do something?” (Carter, 2005, p. 151), which resulted in officers barricading themselves inside The Stonewall Inn after rioters started throwing rubbish, cans, glass, fire and bricks to attack them (Carter, 2005). This reinforces how illegal and violent acts are often the only way to undermine and challenge sovereign power because it controls the agency of subalterns otherwise. So, resistance becomes a matter of breaking such commands or repressions, for example, rebellions, disobedience, political revolutions and overthrowing oppressive governments and regimes (Foucault 1979, in Lilja, 2014). Although not as common, we see some resistance to disciplinary power within the Stonewall Riots, including passive and hidden forms of resistance, such as sarcasm, cursing, chanting, refusal to follow orders and foot-dragging (Scott, 1989, cited in Lilja, 2014). For example, some onlookers deliberately blocked the street so police officers and cars could not enter (Carter, 2005), which offered others more space and opportunity to confront and attack the officers. Although, similar movements at the time, i.e., the Civil Rights Movement, took on a non-violent approach to resisting sovereign power, such as protests and boycotts. The Stonewall Riots were effective as they expressed a collective resistance to oppressive regimes and built up fury from subordination. They were also necessary to show the police that the LGBTQ+ community would no longer act as passive bystanders, which they did by showcasing a united front and a sense of “Gay Power” (Carter, 2005) by claiming Christopher Street as their own and not backing down.

Even though the LGBTQ+ community were demonised in the media for orchestrating the riots and it was not the only event that led to the Gay Rights Movement. The Stonewall Uprising sparked social change and was a galvanising force for political activism. It introduced organisations such as the Gay Liberation Front and Human Rights Campaign and magazines such as ‘GAY’ (History, 2021). These magazines and their affiliated political groupings began to pursue a policy of raising consciousness and ultimately driving for equality, lack of legal harassment and greater tolerance and respect from the American public (History Extra, 2021). This shows how the Stonewall Riots gave other LGBTQ+ individuals the courage to stand up for their political rights and resist overt and covert forms of homophobic oppression and bureaucratic authority, as there was power in numbers. On the first anniversary of the riots, we saw America’s first gay pride parade as thousands of people marched the streets of Manhattan (History, 2021).

Above and Opposite: The First Gay Pride March, Sixth Avenue, New York City (Evans, 1970, cited in Duberman, 2019)
“At a time when the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual still listed homosexuality as a mental disorder, the march was a rare opportunity for gay people to publicly express the love and strength of their community. As they walked north, the crowd chanted: “Say it loud, gay is proud.(Evans, 1970)

After the first parade, progress sped up. In the decade that followed, the federal exclusions on gays and lesbians were lifted, the medical profession reversed its belief that LGBTQ+ individuals needed psychiatric treatment, the government struck down many anti-sodomy laws, and homosexuality was made legal. The legal progress was matched by a change in cultural attitudes, as 3/4 of Americans accept gay relations (BBC News, 2019). This shows the significance of the Stonewall Uprising, as it lives on as a part of LGBTQ+ history and culture within contemporary society due to how ‘pride month’ is celebrated every June worldwide. Even though resistance and political activism before the riots are overlooked. They set the trajectory for the riots and greater change after that, such as the legislation of same-sex marriage in 2015 (BBC News, 2019).

The following section will discuss how effective the American counterculture (from 1964-1972) brought about social change. The Hippie subculture followed in the footsteps of an earlier countercultural rebellious group in the 1950s named the Beat Generation. The political environment of 1960 America informed and inspired the hippie rebellion, including the civil rights movement, America sending troops to Vietnam, the anti-nuclear movement and Cold War tensions (Issitt, 2009). These issues founded the values and aims of the subculture, such as pacifism, ecological consciousness, women’s, LGBTQ+ and Black rights, Eastern religion and hedonistic living (Issitt, 2009). However, many Hippies were involved in political and global activism, such as the International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF) and Youth International Party (or Yippies). They participated in the civil rights and anti-war movements (Issitt, 2009). At the core of Hippie philosophy was the rejection of American norms and materialism and the promotion of ‘love’ and nonviolence. For example, “hippies envisioned a world freed from the pursuit of wealth, where communities would provide for one another in the spirit of love and harmonious coexistence” (Issitt, 2009). Their aims were not to specifically create social change. The Hippie subculture was a place for identity formation, community and enjoying the pleasures in life such as music festivals (Woodstock and Summer of Love) and spiritual enlightenment. Hippies showed resistance to traditional and conservative norms and capitalism simply through their lifestyle, including sexual positivity and exploration, psychedelic drugs and rock music, colourful clothing, emphasis on pleasurable living and freedom, as long as it did not hurt anyone else (Issitt, 2009). We can link these actions to disciplinary power because the power structure Hippies were resisting is more subtle. Individuals were monitored and controlled through the law, regulation and surveillance and expected to conform to cultural and societal norms (Foucault 1979, cited in Lilja, 2014). Some everyday forms of activism that Hippies did to undermine disciplinary power and capitalism was passivity, theft, rejection of norms as the ‘absolute’ truth, homelessness or frugal living as a choice, illegal activities such as drug-taking. Others chose to entirely ‘drop out’ of society; “those in good conscience should ‘‘drop out’’ of society, adopting a lifestyle of complete abstinence from the conventions of the mainstream, including politics” (Issitt, 2009). This ideology can be linked to Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic, as the Hippie’s rejection of religion and self-indulgence undermines capitalism as a whole because it freed them from hierarchical social structures and low wellbeing due to decreased social life (Weber, 1930).

“Hundreds of hippies gather in the San Francisco Presidio for an anti-war demonstration” (Altman, 2007, cited in Issitt, 2009)

Some more overt acts of resistance for politically active members included protests, public demonstrations and boycotts. The Hippie subculture ended in the mid-to-late 1970s. Janis Joplin’s’, Jimi Hendrix’s, and Jim Morrison’s death by overdose contributed to the shifting views around drug use and the remaining Hippies reverted to urban areas from NY, LA and San Francisco (Issitt, 2009). However, the main reason the rebellion dissolved was because the subculture and symbols of the subculture e.g., peace sign and fashion became a commodity when it was absorbed by mainstream society, which ultimately rendered the function of the subculture obsolete (Issitt, 2009). Although the movement was short-lived, its effect was profound, yet not realised immediately. By the 21st century, many ideas that Hippies thought of as ‘revolutionary’ were common sense for a generation fuelled by Hippie’s accomplishments. Gradually, trickling through generations and pervasively chipping away at the status quo (Issitt, 2009). Perhaps the most notable way the subculture impacted society was how their hunger for anything ‘un-American’ and interest in foreign culture contributed to a blending of cultures and driving force behind the evolution of a global society and multiculturalism. Therefore, Hippies must be acknowledged as agents of globalisation for spreading psychedelic rock and fashion across the globe (Issitt, 2009).

In conclusion, through the exploration into the Stonewall Riots and American counterculture, it is evident that resistance to different forms of power, such as disciplinary and sovereign, has been effective in creating long term social change. This can be achieved through overt, illegal and violent means such as riots, theft and drug-taking, or can be done more passively and unintentionally, such as refusing to follow orders, ‘dropping out’ from society or refusing to conform to cultural norms. In both cases, we see a sense of power generated from the large scale social movements, as there is strength in numbers. This can contribute to meaningful social and political change, such as removing discriminatory laws, which showcases the power of activism and transformative social movements. However, even though the Stonewall Riots and Hippie subculture sparked the future trajectory of LGBTQ+ social movements and shaped the ideas and values of the next generation. It is essential to consider that social change occurs down to an accumulation of efforts to resist power structures and not solely one instance.


Altman, R. (2007) cited in Issitt, M. (2009) Hippies: A Guide to an American Counterculture. California: Greenwood Press, p. 49.

Carter, D. (2005) Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. New York: St Martin’s Griffin, pp. 16-181.

Evans, M. (1970) The First New York Pride March cited in Duberman, M. (2019) Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBTQ Rights Uprising That Changed America. United States: Plume. Rev. Edn. p. 204.

Evans, M. (1970) The First New York Pride March. Available at: (Accessed: 28 May 2021).

Geoghegan, T. (2019) ‘Stonewall: A Riot That Changed Millions of Lives’, BBC News. Available at: (Accessed: 29 May 2021).

Heller, J. (1996) ‘Power, Subjectification and Resistance in Foucault’, Substance, 25(79), pp. 78-110.

History (2021) Available at: (Accessed: 28 May 2021).

History Extra (2021) Available at: (Accessed: 28 May 2021).

Issitt, M. (2009) Hippies: A Guide to an American Counterculture. California: Greenwood Press, pp. 1-62.

Lija, M., and Vinthagen, S. (2014) ‘Sovereign Power, Disciplinary Power and Biopower: Resisting What Power with What Resistance?’ Journal of Political Power, 7(1), pp. 107-116.

Scott, J. (2002) Power. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 9-13.

Weber, M. (1930) The Protestant Ethic and Spirt and Capitalism. New York: Scribner, pp. 35-40.

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