So you want to have a ‘marcha’?

*I’m aching for a really good marcha these days–it’s been awhile! I’m reviving this post in the hopes that there are some plans in the work; certainly we’ll have plenty to bring us to our feet!

photo credit lannadelarosa, via Flickr

Really good political rallies, demonstrations/protests, or marches (they’re a little different, but they all serve the same general purpose as part of an advocacy or organizing campaign, and they have many overlapping considerations) can energize your leadership, bring mass followers in to build a movement, and attract the kind of public, policymaker, and media attention that you can only dream of with more traditional policy activities. Poorly planned or overdone or lackluster events, though, can drain your leadership, antagonize potential sympathizers, and earn you disdain or ridicule in the public. What separates the two?

I have had the experience of planning and executing 6 mass action-type events and of consulting in the planning of about 5 others. I’ve attended countless, as a participant/activist. Certainly other organizers have more demonstration experience, but my memories of these events have given me a few lessons to pass on. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts about what makes a march or rally really impressive and invigorating. Likewise, if you’ve been involved in one (or more!) that were less than what you had hoped, please share those experiences so that we can all learn. Because they are public activities, some of the results of a demonstration are admittedly beyond the organizer’s control, but I think that you can bring a lot more of it within your sphere of influence through good planning and great community organizing. There are several handbooks/textbooks on the market that address at least some of the logistics of organizing mass protests, some of which have inevitably informed my thinking on this, but the following ideas come from having learned (often, the hard way) from the experience of mobilization.

  • Be clear about what it is that you want to accomplish with the mass action, and that a demonstration is, indeed, the best way to accomplish those goals. Nothing attracts the kind of attention that a well-attended mass mobilization will, but it can also alienate some aspects of your target population and distract your core leadership from other work. I’ve seen, often, how rallies can become seen as ‘ends in themselves’ rather than means to your desired end (some kind of policy or social change), and you have to be clear from the beginning about how this mass mobilization is part of a larger strategy, because, otherwise, the details can suck you (and your leadership) in. They might not be as ‘sexy’, but there are many more efficient ways, sometimes, to get from point A to point B.
  • Control your message, as much as possible, while recognizing that it will be impossible to totally control. It’s almost an axiom that the one message that you REALLY don’t want to get out as a part of your demonstration will, in fact, be represented on someone’s t-shirt or poster or chant, and that WILL be what the media and your targets pick up–the youth wrapped in Mexican flags at the comprehensive immigration reform rallies are testament to that. You can’t prevent this, so you have to be ready to neutralize it as much as possible. An important first step is, really, making sure that you have a compelling message and that your participants clearly understand how this message is connected to their own enlightened self-interest. If people are just coming to ‘protest’, you’re more likely to have some highly dissonant messages. Some other suggestions that have helped me with this:
    1. Plan your agenda carefully, and no one gets the microphone/bullhorn who isn’t supposed to have it. Meet with all of your speakers in advance, and get a commitment from them about the general tone and substance of their remarks (recognizing, of course, that there will be fluidity in the actual delivery). Yes, this might mean that you have to tell a politician or the Executive Director of an organization that, no, they can’t have the floor for just a few minutes. Make sure that you’re clear on this in advance, and be prepared to back it up.
    2. “Plant” your message. For every rally I was in charge of, I created dozens of posters with the messages that I wanted to convey and brought them with me to the demonstration. Inevitably, people had forgotten to bring something to carry, and they were happy to grab some that I had made–instant message diffusion. Every year, some of my posters showed up in the media coverage. I used American flags in the same way; we purchased hundreds (sometimes thousands) of them, and I had volunteers hand them out from the back of my car. People wanted something to wave, and now they were waving American flags. Instant “Kodak moment.”
    3. Police your message, to an extent. No, hopefully we are not going to ask people to change their shirts or put down their signs, I guess unless they are inciting violence or something, but we can and should make an effort to connect with the media in advance and funnel them to some of our leaders who are ready with the core messages. Your leaders need to be ready to answer the most common questions: “What are you demanding (and of whom?)? Who do you represent? What is your response to (insert the most common counterargument here)?”

  • Logistics don’t make your event, but they can ruin it. You need to think about where you want to have your event (messaging can tie in here, too, but it also needs to be a feasible location), how people will get there, permissions, parking (if applicable), restrooms, security, sound system, traffic flow (as people leave), weather back-up plans, and countless other details. I found that it was usually best to have a committee of my grassroots leadership oversee this, as they inevitably thought of things that I did not–like making sure that we weren’t in a place that required photo ID, having room for strollers, putting up a barrier between the rally and the street (kids run, I now know!), and, on one particularly hot day, having free water to give out and a nurse on-hand for anyone needing medical attention.
  • Related to the above, think for a moment about the way in which one of the primary goals of any mass action–making powerful targets uncomfortable–is, necessarily, a bit risky for participants. And then have some real conversations with your leadership about how much risk people are willing to take. Marches require getting permission to close down streets or a willingness to risk arrest for being there. Stationary demonstrations are more or less risky depending on the location, the communication in advance with police, and the participants’ adherence to any agreements with officials. Sometimes you need civil disobedience as a part of your strategy; other times, as with the undocumented immigrants with whom I often worked, an arrest would have been devastating. Be strategic about this, and ensure that at least your core leaders give informed consent, and are clear about the risks as they do turnout work.
  • Don’t rely on mass appeals alone for your turnout. Of course you need to use the media to get people to come to your event–before most of our rallies, I did a series of on-air interviews on Spanish radio as well as newspaper announcements. But mass communication for mass mobilization works best if the media coverage serves to remind people of the event and give them the details, not to invite them for the first time; that’s best done by someone with whom they have a relationship. That’s why you need a team of influential leaders in your constituency to work on turnout for you; they each need to be asking their friends, colleagues, family members, and others in their social circles to participate. While it wasn’t the biggest rally I ever organized, one of which I’m particularly proud was when we got more than 400 people to come to Topeka from Kansas City. I had 8 team captains/family leaders each responsible for recruiting and turning out 40 people, and those folks represented the vast majority of those who ended up coming (which required taking a day off work!). Relationships move people.
  • Recognize that, with mass actions, no matter how many people show up, it will never seem like enough. Seriously, I wonder if the organizers of the Million Man March were wondering why they didn’t have 2 million? At least I’ve always felt this way, and I know it’s not just me. An organizer I know in Los Angeles, where they had literally a MILLION people come to their immigrant rights march in March 2006, told me that she couldn’t believe that some of her colleagues didn’t come (she had to ask them, of course, since the line of people marching stretched for blocks!). This is, again, why it’s so important to be clear about your goal. Trust me, the million people got the attention of the policymakers and forced Senate action on the comprehensive immigration reform bill which, while ultimately unsuccessful, was the main goal. We can’t waste energy mourning the 1,000,001st person who didn’t show up.

    I hope that, at least once in your life as an advocate/activist, every one of you has the opportunity to look out over a crowd of faces, known and unknown, who have come together because they’re passionate about the same issue(s) you are. I hope that you have a chance to hear them chanting, in unison, for justice and dignity and safety and equality. I hope that you have a moment of falling in bed, late at night, completely exhausted of body and mind, with those chants still echoing in your ears. It is a beautiful, beautiful thing, and, on many occasions throughout history, it has changed the world.

  • 4 responses to “So you want to have a ‘marcha’?

    1. hey melinda!
      Was this post inspired by the events of yesterday? Honestly, the signs–what the vast majority of people saw, from their TV’s at home–would make a reasonable, more open-minded person kind of sick. But I love this post. I’m going to blast it around to some students!

      • Actually, no! I wrote this one up last week because I’m preparing for the twins’ birthday party this week (baked 76 cupcakes tonight!), so I knew that I wouldn’t get as much blogging time. I’m working on one about race, though, and it has been really discouraging to see the racism that is not, in fact, on an individual level, much different than in our history–another example of the power of public policy, to legislate behavior even when you can’t change hearts.

        I’m glad that you liked it, though–it was actually inspired by a student who saw that I belong to the “I marched in 2006” Facebook group!

    2. Thanks, Melinda for the wonderful advice. Since I have participated in the KC Aids Walk for many years, I found your comments insightful and energizing.

      While the purpose of the Aids Walk at one time may have been obvious to the media and to those who participate, over the years the Walk has become more of a social gathering rather than an advocacy effort. The real message has become “lost” even to the largest community that started and continues to support the march-the Gay community.

      The real purpose remains continued funding for organizations in KC that provide food, shelter, medical care, and other services to the diverse communities dealing with HIV/AIDS, their families and friends, and, which promote public
      education about HIV infection. And I would stress the word “diverse.”

      Organizers have and continue to draw great support from the Gay community, but I have to wonder where is the support from, outreach to and recognition of the fastest growing population effected by HIV/AIDS-African-American women.

      Now that I am out of school, and have had and continue to be enlightened by such a wonderful mentor, maybe it is time for me to “put not just my money” but my actions where my mouth is-organizing.

      Thanks, again, for your insightful and motivating blogs. You go girl.


      • I’m so glad that you offered the example of the AIDS Walk. I hadn’t really been thinking of that kind of fundraising walk, but there are obviously a lot of parallels, and it made me think of how mass gatherings like these, while intended to raise awareness and be broadly inclusive, can become pretty closed systems. That can result in not only losing some of the advocacy ‘oomph’ that they could have but also not be as effective in outreach, either.

        Just last night (making a run for more eggs to finish up the cupcakes for the twins’ first birthday party!), I heard my friend Mario Canedo on KC Currents on KCUR. He was talking about why he started a Latino Gay Pride event–basically, that the existing Gay Pride events were not adequately welcoming to immigrants, limited English speakers, and others within the Latino community. It struck me as particularly sad that an event that started as a refuge for those reviled and excluded within our society has become perceived, at least, as off-limits to others similarly marginalized. We surely must learn how to build broader movements to exert the kind of social pressure needed to force change, and these examples illustrate that even mass tactics are not panaceas for that.

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