How to Organize an Effective Demonstration

by | August 15, 2019

Organizing a demonstration


The following is an excerpt from George Monbiot’s ‘Out of the Wreckage’. Published with George’s permission, I intend to help spread the wisdom to climate organizations around the world.  

Here is a small example of something we could do better, as a result of applying the kind of strategies the Bernie Sanders team pioneered. The most visible expression of dissent is the public demonstration. This, for many campaigns, is their showcase: an opportunity to explain the problems we face, to articulate an alternative, to attract new supporters, and to mobilise them into an effective force for change. A demonstration is often the first point of contact for those who have never been involved in politics before. If it is badly handled, it will also be the last point of contact.

A good demonstration should meet two definitions of the word: it should be a demonstration against the forces we oppose, and a demonstration of the better future we envisage. And it should observe the first two rules of effective campaigning: identify exactly what you are trying to achieve, and ensure that every step you take towards that objective leads to the next step. There are some notable exceptions, but most of those I have attended fail on all counts.

Typically, a march is planned. Great effort and energy is invested in publicising it and organising the logistics. Sometimes, even at short notice, these efforts will succeed in bringing together thousands of people. At this point, the planning disintegrates: having assembled the crowd, the organisers have no idea what to do with it. So they do what they have always done. They stand on a podium and bring on speaker afer speaker to ramble at the audience.

Most of these speakers are chosen not for their ability to captivate, inspire or inform a crowd, but because they helped to organise the event or belong to groups represented by the event. The speaking rota is created for their benefit – every subgroup should be given a say – rather than the benefit of the listeners. The speeches range from the inaudible to the ranty, but they have one thing in common: they are always too long. People start to freeze, the kids tug at their parents’ hands, the mood deflates.

Then the convener will lead the crowd in a chant. This tends to be either a chant thought up on the spot or one they have been leading for the past twenty years, which may or may not have some vague association with the theme of the protest. The audience will take it up out of duty rather than conviction. Soon, the words die in their mouths. Then, for want of anything better to do, the convener will announce the continuation of the march – perhaps to the nearest intersection and back, whereupon the event will either break up as people drift away, or be attacked by the police.

Those who attended the march will return home with bruises and blisters, but no better idea of what to do next than they had when they arrived. This is another way of saying that the entire exercise was wasted. The hard work applied by the organisers and the great potential provided by the enthusiasm of thousands is squandered.

The idea of a march followed by speeches is not inherently a bad one, as long as its purposes are kept in sight at every moment: to inspire, to inform, and then to direct the crowd to action, by which I mean a specific task rather than a vague call to ‘rise up’.

In every town, there are people who specialise in raising the energy of crowds: DJs and MCs at concerts and comedy clubs, motivational coaches, fitness instructors, bingo callers, sports commentators, auctioneers and chat show hosts. There is bound to be at least one person among them who is sympathetic to the cause.

In the weeks before the march, this energiser would sit down with the organisers and plan the event as carefully as the logistics have been planned. They would choose some musicians and a maximum of three speakers, all of whom possess the skill of holding an audience in the palm of their hand. The role of these speakers would not be to represent the groups that organised the march, but to explain the issues and the next steps to the audience. Once they had accepted the invitation, they would be carefully briefed about the aims of the demonstration and the messages that had to be conveyed.

The musicians would play as the crowd assembled, ensuring that nobody missed the speeches, which would now be a crucial component of the event. Then the energiser would use her or his skills to raise the level of excitement, before introducing the first speaker. The speakers would each have just a few minutes, and the final one would lay out in unequivocal terms what the audience was being asked to do. This would take the form of a request to perform a concrete action in the days or weeks that followed – generally a large and ambitious one. The energiser would bring back the musicians to lead the crowd in an anthem: there’s no better way of generating a sense of solidarity and shared emotion.

The energiser would announce the end of the demonstration, reminding the audience of the next step they had been asked to take. The march might lead directly to this step – a planning meeting in a nearby building, for example – or stewards would line the exit points to take email addresses or to sign people up on the spot as volunteers for a specific task. In other words, the event would not be an end in itself, but would be overtly and specifically designed to support a wider programme.

Every step builds towards the next one, each combining to build towards the eventual aim of the campaign. Nothing is done without strategic thinking, no strategy is agreed without a set of tactics to implement it. No opportunities are wasted, no enthusiasm allowed to deflate. These are among the lessons of the Sanders campaign.

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