On an ordinary Tuesday evening in April 2007, dozens of union janitors gathered outside a downtown office building in Sydney, Australia, to celebrate a victory: After a long fight, another cleaning contractor had agreed to sign up with the janitors’ union. Singing “Don’t Stop the Cleaners” to the tune of “Don’t Stop Believin’” and pounding drums and shaking noisemakers, the assembled janitors listened to union leaders talk about their next target: the cleaning contractor of that very office building in front of them, which was still nonunion. After sending this message, cheering and chanting, the group marched back to the union office for a celebratory barbecue.
As this example shows, marches and rallies can be a great way to celebrate a big campaign victory (and gear up for the next one). They’re accessible, often relatively simple to plan, and can easily incorporate participation from many kinds of people. Good marches and rallies have a few functions. They can be a good place to announce you’ve reached a new stage, or otherwise serve as a movement’s marking point, such as the 1963 March on Washington. They can inspire your grassroots base with new energy. Or, ideally, they can move you past the finish line and into your campaign victory lap.
But too often we use marches and rallies in place of any other public action to put pressure on decision-makers and build support for our campaign. They’re good for partying or as a mass mobilization after grassroots support is built — but there are many more effective ways to create low-risk opportunities for gathering people together. On the heels of the People’s Climate March last weekend, where more than 300,000 people gathered to demand international action on climate change, it’s important to take the time to reflect on what marches can accomplish — and what other tactics can be used instead.
Using a march to shift the movement
First, it’s important to say why the People’s Climate March might fit this framework of using a march to shift a movement, and why it might be different. Some people who participated in the event hoped the event’s large scale plus its timing days before the U.N. Climate Summit would allow the march to become a lever on public consciousness, further pushing public opinion to the left, and indirectly putting pressure on elected leaders. But the organizers more clearly framed it as an organizing and alliance-building opportunity. Perhaps most importantly, the organizers sought to highlight the work of Climate Justice Alliance, or CJA, members representing indigenous communities and other communities of color who are the hardest-hit by climate change. (The CJA also used the action to connect with other international movements at a People’s Climate Justice Summit.) The organizers even tried to embody their principles and vision for change with the march lineup itself, and with innovative components like creating a “climate ribbon” — a participatory art-activist installation that drew out the stories of those present — and by ending the march with a huge block party instead of a rally with a long list of speakers. In fact, the ripple effects from the march may end up being most powerful inside the climate movement itself: embodying a new way of taking leadership from and honoring the struggles of working-class communities of color, while emphasizing grassroots participation and action, rather than individual movement leaders.
Ultimately, this march, as with many large-scale marches, was most valuable as a tactic for its ability to gather hundreds of thousands to a low-barrier, low-risk action. Hopefully, many experienced renewed commitment to the movement or to a specific campaign. They built new relationships and deepened others; and for some, participating in a march may have set them up to take a higher-risk or more confrontational action later.
Why not march or rally?
But aside from examples like the People’s Climate March, rallies and marches often don’t live up to their name. They require more energy to organize than they create, they don’t set us up for other actions and they rarely put significant pressure on our targets.
Rallies and marches may help us gather a lot of people together in one place, but there are many drawbacks to using them to push a campaign forward. First off, rallies and marches aren’t participatory: We get all of our people to show up, our base and the allies we want to inspire, and then at best they are asked to march from one location to another, sign a postcard or tweet a hashtag. They’re also easy to ignore, especially since most take place at the seat of government or another official building designed to insulate public officials and CEOs from mass movements.
Even when we have thousands of people outside City Hall, there’s no guarantee our targets had to move through us to enter, or even noticed us. Similarly, they aren’t newsworthy. The press emphasize how many people showed up, so the media (particularly national outlets) often only cover the issue as a testament to the newsworthiness of the movement, not the tactic itself.
Perhaps the biggest problem with rallies or marches is that they represent business as usual, channeling large amounts of people power into a non-confrontation event that doesn’t interrupt the business of making war, or mountaintop removal, or the backdoor dealings of shady city councilmembers with real estate developers. They don’t demonstrate our power to create the changes we want to see. Unless they are specifically prohibited, they don’t expose repressive governments.
Finally, these events just aren’t that exciting. But what if people looked forward to a rally or a march the way they looked forward to going to a dance performance, a quinceañera, or another participatory event?
There are plenty of options to build momentum for our campaigns and gather people together for a low-risk and fun event, while dramatizing some part of our visions and our power to create change. Here are eight ideas drawn from organizations I know.
1. Hold a public drag show
Philadelphia transgender activists petitioning the SEPTA transit system to remove “M” and “F” gender stickers from passes held a “SEPTA is a Drag” protest at one of the system’s busiest subway stations during evening rush hour. They encouraged allies to show up in fancy attire and with sign-painted slogans like, “What’s in your pants? SEPTA wants to know.”
2. Or perhaps a public walkout
In Washington, D.C., housing and labor activists filled more than 100 seats at a City Council hearing where the mayor testified on his new safety net budget cuts. Since he wouldn’t listen to the people, they walked out on him en masse, with posters left on their empty chairs spelling out “New Taxes Now,” and held their own pep rally in the hallway outside the hearing room to highlight the cuts, recommit to the struggle and launch councilmember delegation visits.
3. Organize a public memorial service
As part of a week of actions, undocumented activists in Austin, Texas, held a “remembrance vigil” at the Travis County Sheriff’s headquarters, complete with large altars filled with pictures and candles, to remember family members who had been deported thanks to the sheriff’s partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. And when the Colombian Embassy erected massive heart sculptures in the District of Columbia to lobby for a free trade agreement, activists turned one of them near the U.S. Capitol into a memorial honoring trade unionists who had been killed by corporate-backed paramilitaries, and invited U.S. labor leaders to gather with wreaths and flowers.
4. Host a “pledge-in”
Also in Austin, undocumented organizers held a “Pledge-In” (“Te Reto y Me Comprometo”) before a City Council vote on the local police-ICE partnership. Led by game show hosts who led “the game that’s sweeping the city,” people who had gathered were encouraged to write giant “pledge cards” of the actions they would take to stop deportations whether or not the City Council voted their way.
5. Or a “sleep-in”
To dramatize housing cuts as part of a larger demonstration, the children of Washington, D.C., tenant leaders invited people to bring their pajamas and blankets — with signs attached representing how they would be impacted — to the front steps of D.C.’s City Hall for a “sleep-in” — though, they didn’t stay the night. New York’s Picture the Homeless has also held overnight sleep-ins to call attention to the city’s housing policies.
6. Throw a “thank you for having a heart” Valentine’s Day flashmob
The same Austin group invited supporters to assemble at the County Commission building on Valentine’s Day afternoon to surprise-visit commissioners, thanking them (“in advance, because we know you’ll do the right thing”) for opposing the sheriff’s deportation program. Dozens dropped-in on the commissioners with personalized valentine’s cards written by the children of undocumented activists, and then performed a “thank you” song and dance routine in the atrium, to the tune of “Thank You for Being a Friend.”
7. Organize a public “caping”
Washington, D.C.’s Save Our Safety Net campaign emphasized the everyday “superheroes” fighting for city childcare subsidies and to hold landlords accountable, and wanted to win a new tax increase on the top 2 percent — which had never been won through a grassroots campaign. To acknowledge councilmembers who had pledged to vote for the tax increase, and put pressure on the others, they invited supporters to attend a “caping” before the beginning of a closed-door budget negotiation, where the four councilmembers continued to wear their “superhero capes.”
8. Publicly fax an ultimatum
Back in Philadelphia, anti-casino organizers invited allies to join them in launching their two-month campaign to force the Pennsylvania governor to release neighborhood planning documents by faxing an ultimatum from the pro-casino mayor’s office to the pro-casino governor’s office, thereby drawing the connection between the two, given that reporters weren’t doing a good job. (The mayor had not yet been implicated publicly as one of the pro-casino culprits.) After a short press conference at City Hall, Casino-Free Philadelphia organizers walked upstairs to the mayor’s office to fax an ultimatum to the governor, giving him six weeks to turn over the documents, with reporters and allies in tow. (And yes, the confused mayoral staffers let them use the fax machine.)
A few principles
These examples share several principles for action design. First off, the action focuses on goals first, and the tactics second. In other words, instead of planning around a catch-all tactic like a rally, the organizers chose a public action that would build pressure on campaign targets while encouraging creative participation.
Secondly, the action itself tells a story without needing to rely on passersby sticking around to hear a speech, and since the tactic is more innovative, it’s more likely to draw coverage from curious reporters. Third, the action incorporates participatory movement: dancing, walking out, holding banners as part of a “game show” backdrop, or calling a decision-maker simultaneously.
Finally, these actions consider consider the needs of the participants and recognize that access — whether it’s translating the materials into all necessary languages or coordinating an action that everyone can participate in, regardless of physical abilities — is justice.
According to People’s Climate March organizers, over 2,800 solidarity actions took place around the world; hundreds of those were in North America. Having demonstrated collective visibility, it’s time to get back to the work of #WalkingTheWalk, as one hashtag put it that weekend. And this time, we would be better off not marching or rallying.
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A prolific writer and speaker, Rev. Deats strengthened grassroots movements by leading nonviolent action trainings in conflict zones around the world.
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