What makes a successful demonstration?

Ensuring you are clear about your objectives is vital if you plan to organise a successful public mobilisation event.
A late night drive back from Manchester after being involved in ‘Bearing Witness‘, a mobilisation which saw 1000+ supporters of Tearfund, Christian Aid and CAFOD march through the streets of the city ahead of the Conservative Party Conference, to call on the government to achieve its commitment to be the ‘greenest ever’ got me thinking about what makes a successful public mobilisation event.
For me, before embarking on organising a demonstration, rally or similar event that will see large numbers of supporters gathering in one place, you have to be confident that the event will achieve at least 2 of the following objective.
Political – The event will have a direct impact on presenting another policy position to those decision makers the campaign is trying to influence. This could be through a ‘mass lobby’ event where supporters meet face-to-face with MPs or other key decision makers, or a march/demonstration that is of such a size that it’ll get covered in the media or seen as it causes peaceful disruption in the area its targeting are working.
Personally, I’m sceptical about the impact that many marches that take places around Whitehall at a weekend have, because the majority of those who need to be influenced aren’t around and don’t get covered in the media. One way to overcome this is to invite politicians to speak to address those attending but negotiations to do this can be delicate to arrange to say the least!
Media – Too often the event and message from the event don’t get covered by the media. Sadly the majority of traditional marches go unnoticed by all but those attended, and even then those that attended can often feel unmotivated that the event didn’t get picked up. Bearing Witness was fortunate to get picked up by Sky News cameras looking for evidence of demonstrations happening around the Conservative Party Conference.
There are way of making a march more likely to get media coverage, for example involving high-profile individuals, but unless there is a threat of violence they don’t seem to get noticed. One way of to overcome this is to ensure that the event is linked to a political hook that the media will be wanting to cover because a march can provide good footage to demonstrate opposition, but the timings of this can often be difficult to predict.

Education – Events can be useful ways of bringing together dedicated supporters to a cause and equip them with further information about the issue and plans. At Bearing Witness, the agencies involved put on well attended training afternoons as a way of doing this, which allowed supporters to learn more about the climate change issue the campaign was focusing on and further actions that they could take. I’ve also seen this done well at Mass Lobby events where supporters spend time being briefed before going out to lobby their MPs.
Energising supporter – Marches can breathe life into campaigns and provide a focal point to mobilise lapsed and new supporters to get involved again. For example, the Make Poverty History march in Edinburgh back in 2005 helped to mobilise lots of new supporters who wanted to attend the event. Although it’s a high barrier to entry ask, if packaged right I think it can help to recruit new supporters (and energise lapsed supporters), as well as helping campaigners who might feel isolated that they’re part of a bigger movement.
What objectives would you select? Should we ever organise marches or demonstrations just for the sake of marching?

One thought on “What makes a successful demonstration?”

  1. Tom –
    Interesting post. I agree that we want to try and achieve as much as possible through activism; the first step in that is reflecting on your environment, your place in it and what you want to contribute. Setting objectives like the ones you’ve outlined above can help us stay focussed and work towards achieving something specific -rather than just making a lot of noice. That said, there’s a whole lot of underlying history behind ‘marching’ (issues of power, having a voice, being together in public spaces, etc.) – so I think you might have oversimplified things a bit.
    Here are a few other ideas for reasons we might march:
    – Financial: will raise money or similar ‘support’ (perhaps through donations, maybe through campaign profile-building) for the longer-term cause.
    – Solidarity: to publicly demonstrate support for others.
    – Activist capacity-building: To me this is beyond the warm/fuzzy ‘energizing’ (which I find a bit patronizing). This is helping people (or groups) learn how to do something, so it’ll be done easier/better the second time ’round. Organizing your first march you learn everything from local by-laws, permit issues, where to buy poster paints and public speaking. You have to learn that sometime. Also, as you note, protesting is a high-barrier-to-entry sport. A friendly, fun practice march might help people understand that activism doesn’t have to be intimidating, confrontational or extreme.
    – As a form of civil disobedience – or to make a point. (Personally, when I see police with riot shields, or when governments block off large public areas and turn them into police zones, it makes me want to go out and march peacefully, just to make the point that I can’t be intimidated off of public streets. Just being there – exercising my right to march – is kind of enough point for me.)
    A few thoughts. Hoping this will turn into a longer thread.

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