A demonstration, by its very definition, is a show of force by the people on matters which they feel strongly about. It is the physical manifestation of a groups voice in support of, or in opposition to, an action or decision. The fact that people are able to march through the streets and chant their slogans is a sign of democracy in action.
There are countries whereby such freedom of movement, freedom to gather, and freedom of expression are not allowed. Demonstrations and marches are brutally put down by regimes and dictators that allow for no opposition.
Whilst some world leaders greet demonstrations with bullets, the smarter ones simply decide to not greet them at all. The demonstrations, marches, and gatherings are allowed to occur, but no attention is paid to them. They do not influence government policy, and are ignored by those they are directed at.
Like a well oiled machine, when the pressure gets too much, a valve is switched which allows for things to cool down a little. With the ability to speak out, to petition, and to march in the streets people are led to believe that such actions, along with their ability to vote, will impact and influence upon the key decision makers in the country.
The reality is that demonstrations and marches, for all the enjoyment it may give to those on the street, do little or nothing to change the issue which is being protested in the first place.
Do you recall a time whereby 50,000 people marched in the streets of London and afterwards the Prime Minister said that he would change his policy? Do you recall a time whereby 75,000 people marched in the streets of New York forcing the President to change American actions on foreign soil? No, because such events do not occur.
I believe that such marches and demonstrations do have a place in the activist movement, but they cannot be the only tactic applied. Their aim is more aesthetic than impactful. Designed to make headlines, create good photo opportunities, and raise awareness of the issue, perhaps even attracting more supporters.
For these reasons, demonstrations and marches have to be accompanied by other tactics. Used on their own I doubt they will achieve much, but used in conjunction with other tactics, they can prove to be very useful tools.
It is all well and good having thousands of people, even tens of thousands of people on the street on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, traffic will come to a standstill, and the media will publicise it, but what happens on Monday morning when the overwhelming majority of those people have to return to work? What happens then when the pressure is off the government, when society returns to normal, when the papers run different headlines? The march had its time to shine and then it was dismissed.
Apart from signing an online petition – something I see very little value in – marching in the street is perhaps the lowest form of support an activist can give to a campaign. In all seriousness, it is not tremendously difficult to walk out of your house, meet at a specific location, and then march a planned route. It is the most basic weapon at the disposal of activists. The worry is that once that weapon has been used, and that battle lost, too many then believe the war to be unwinnable.
In any sport, in any field, and in any arena, what defines success is the ability to diversify tactics. Adjust to the situation as it unfolds and use the most appropriate tactic at the most appropriate time. There are times when a single tactic on its own may well provide victory, there are times when a combination of everything will give you the edge, and there are times when some tactics are just ignored as they can serve no purpose.
Let’s look at the state, and how they use their police force. At times a simple police presence may be enough; there are other times whereby mounted police, canine units or riot police are used; and if things are still not going in their favour they can even call upon water cannons.
But what of activism? When your march is escorted by the police, when your route is already known or expected, when the targets for your actions are protected, what then? What can your march achieve aside from simply the disruption of traffic and the wasting of police time.
With activism and campaigning, I believe there are three fundamental questions that should be asked before anything is done. Firstly, what is the aim? Secondly, who, or what, is the target? And thirdly, what is the appropriate action? Once you have the answers to these questions then the necessary foundations have been laid.
I also believe that campaigning can be broken down into two distinct categories. On one hand you have activism, and on the other you have appeal.
Appeal is using tactics which persuade, coerce, educate, or as the name suggests, appeal to those who have power, and the public at large. It is the weapon of choice when you are looking to bring more people on board with the campaign, or looking to raise awareness and educate the public about what the campaign is about. It is also a tactic that can be used when governments are likely to listen and respond to people power.
Unfortunately, appeal alone will not bring about the changes that any campaign wishes to see. Governments are not in the business of giving hand outs, and it is extremely unlikely that a government will cave to demands simply because of demonstrators on the street. For this reason, appeal has to be used in combination with activism.
How long would the suffragists had to have quietly demonstrated for in order to get the vote? How long would it have taken for female suffrage without a more radical, activist group of supporters joining the campaign? Similarly in India, would Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful movement have achieved such success were it not for the existence of more radical doers and thinkers such as Jawaharlal Nehru and members of the revolutionary movement for Indian independence? So too it is true for the civil rights movement in the United States with Martin Luther King leading the peaceful arm of the campaign, and Malcolm X and the Black Panthers being more radical and active.
Activism involves more than simply online petitions, demonstrations, and educating the public. If the defining words of appeal are coerce, educate, and persuade, activism’s defining words are confront, disrupt, agitate, and resist. It is the arm of the campaign or movement that refuses to be ignored, and its tactics ensure that this will not be the case.
Wherever there is a campaign to be fought, and won, I believe you will see both the tactics of appeal, and the tactics of activism. Without appeal, activism alienates those you should be looking to recruit. But without activism, appeal does no harm to the state, and has no effect on policy.
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