March them up to the top of the hill and then march them down again?

In a few days time there will be a march in London. The TUC have called a March for the Alternative for Saturday 26th. I’m hearing excitement from various quarters and even seen an email speculating it’ll be as big as the million strong 2003 march against the Iraq war. Simultaneously there’s a call to turn Trafalgar Square into Tahrir Square through a 24 hour protest on the same day.

Earlier this week I read Mark Rudd‘s post How to Build a Movement in which he also draws on the millions-strong 2003 marches to stop the war. I was struck by his distinction between activism and organising:

The current anti-war movement’s weakness, however, is very much alive in young people’s experience.  They cite the fact that millions turned out in the streets in the early spring of 2003 to oppose the pending U.S. attack on Iraq, but that these demonstrations had no effect.  ”We demonstrated and they didn’t listen to us.”  Even the activists among them became demoralized as numbers at demonstrations dropped off very quickly, street demonstrations becoming cliches, and, despite a massive shift in public opinion in 2006, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan droned on to today.  The very success of the spontaneous early mobilization seems to have contributed to the anti-war movement’s long-term weakness.

I first got an insight into articulating what it is when I picked up Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out, edited by Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow (Nation Books, 2005).  Andy Cornell, in a letter to the movement that first radicalized him, “Dear Punk Rock Activism,” criticizes the conflation of the terms “activism” and “organizing.”  He writes, “activists are individuals who dedicate their time and energy to various efforts they hope will contribute to social, political, or economic change.  Organizers are activists who, in addition to their own participation, work to move other people to take action and help them develop skills, political analysis and confidence within the context of organizations.  Organizing is a process—creating long-term campaigns that mobilize a certain constituency to press for specific demands from a particular target, using a defined strategy and escalating tactics.”  In other words, it’s not enough for punks to continually express their contempt for mainstream values through their alternate identity; they’ve got to move toward “organizing masses of people.”

Aha!  Activism = self-expression; organizing = movement-building.

Marching can be joyful, full of solidarity, fun, exciting and empowering. But is it powerful? And by that I mean will it make the change advertised on the poster? I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but if we just march time and again we fail*.

There has to be more to it. Even if, as seems likely, the government aren’t listening to us over the cuts, we can still make change if the marches are acts of movement-building and not just self-expression if they’re a springboard to local and national action (and not just more marches but a diverse range of tactics with well thought out strategic impact), to the formation of well-functioning action groups and networks, to newcomers being welcomed into an accessible and growing movement. So if you’re going along on 26th don’t just march, build a movement. Make connections, plan for action, and seek out and welcome newcomers.

Thanks to Dwight Towers for the nudge to Mark Rudd’s post and to other posts on movement building by Cynthia Peters and Michael Albert both of which deserve a post of their own, and who knows, may get one.

*I’m talking UK context here. There are marches, for example Burmese monks marching in the face of a brutal military junta, and all of the recent uprisings in the Middle East that are an altogether different thing. They are powerful acts of civil disobedience and revolution in the face of significant repression. Our marches need to be a tool to peer-educate and empower people to powerful acts of civil disobedience and not an end in themselves.

Studying direct action at the University of Life – in Leeds

Students discuss nonviolence using a 'spectrum line'. As the photo illustrates there was a wide range of opinion

Last night’s workshop went well. Over 20 energetic, thoughtful and committed students came to share their views and experiences of nonviolent direct action, and to build on their knowledge and skills. The workshop was moved to the building currently occupied by students as part of their protest against cuts. A fitting venue.

We explored what people felt made actions effective, stimulated by images of actions of many kinds from the UK and elsewhere. We debated nonviolence – if an action caused anyone any distress was that violent? Was intention the key to our actions being nonviolent? Many seemed to feel that was the case. For some, some actions like damaging property (cutting through a fence, for example) were inherently violent but could still be acceptable if the wider intention was a noble one.

We also looked at some practical aspects of taking action. Using hassle line roleplays we explored interactions with the police which threw up as many questions as they answered. How come many of nonviolent tactics such as linking arms and sitting down left those in the role of police officers feeling more frustrated, even angry and therefore more likely to use force? Was that still nonviolence?

Practicing holding space using a circle of linked bodies. There was much debate over facing in or out...

Two lines, using their legs to form a strong blockade

We then ‘occupied’ an area of the building and looked at techniques that offered the best support, communication, and feeling of strength in the face of the threat of removal.

Finally we spent some time looking at legal rights – what actions could trigger arrest? What might you be arrested for? What might the consequences of that arrest be?

As an aside, one participant commented on how easy they had it – they hadn’t been aware that there was so much the police could find to charge them with if they felt like it. Interesting in the light of today’s power and privilege post. Do university students have more power to protest and take action? If so, let’s hope we see them using it! The group left to head to the pub and talk about their next steps…