There’s been a lot of talk lately about ‘A-B’ marches – do they make any difference? Are they an important tactic or a useless irrelevance that’s easily ignored? Yesterday the People’s Assembly Against Austerity march attracted a quarter of a million people. A few weeks ago, the documentary We Are Many about the record breaking global day of protest against the war in Iraq hit cinemas. This post is going to take a little look at the history of the protest march and bring in some organising theory from the incredible Movement Mastery in the US.
On February 15th 2003, over 15 million people marched against the war in Iraq in 800 cities around the world. Demonstrations were held across Europe, Asia, the Americas, Africa and even a remote research station in Antarctica joined in. I was on the demonstration in London and it was incredible. I’ve done a lot of marching in my time – one of my earliest memories is of attending a CND march with my mum as a toddler. But this march was different, it wasn’t just the usual suspects, and many were marching for the first time. There were banners saying things like ‘Winchester Rugby club against the war’ and ‘Oxford Women’s Institute against the war’. It was more of a shuffle than a march really – there were so many people, my small group only covered about half a mile in hours.
But then, obviously, the decision was made to go to war anyway. Instead of this escalating the protest, and although the Stop The War coalition continued to organise, the momentum was lost, the majority gave up and felt the movement had failed. David Babbs is on record as saying this perceived failure was the impetus to found 38 Degrees. We Are Many puts a much more positive spin on the legacy of Feb 15th, arguing that it helped escalate global protests on a variety of issues, and that it has prevented western countries going to war in similar interventions (citing Syria as an example).
Personally, I think asking whether or not a march is effective on it’s own is a daft question. The perceived failure of the Iraq war demonstration and the rise of clicktivism are partly to blame for this impatient approach to change. One single march for any cause, even if it’s really big, won’t ever achieve long lasting change on its own. It needs to be part of a much bigger movement, sustained over a serious period of time (sometimes we’re talking decades). And its just one of a variety of tactics that can be employed to achieve change – it needs to work with other approaches.
But why didn’t the 2003 march escalate protest? Why were people so easily defeated? I attended some excellent training run by Carlos Saavedra last year which explored these questions. Carlos was a key organiser in the US DREAM movement, and subsequently founded Movement Mastery to reflect on and share his learnings from a decade of organising. Saavedra combines the organising approaches which he refers to as structure and momentum to propose a recipe for social movements to succeed.
The structural organising tradition is epitomised by organisations like Citizens UK (and many NGOs). These institutions are funded, staffed and organised hierarchically. They target decision makers for incremental change, and build the power of the organisation. The momentum approach, on the other hand, is embodied by much looser movements like Occupy. These coordinate horizontally through a shared strategy with only the most basic structure, building people power through active popular support, and seeking to achieve transformation societal change through achieving symbolic victories. Successful social movements need structure and momentum combined. Indian Independence, votes for women, the abolition of slavery and many other historic victories were won when social movements managed to combine structure and momentum, building public support and escalating the cause.
Saavedra talks about ‘moments of the whirlwind’ when suddenly a cause takes off and achieves mass popular support. The 2003 Iraq war march was one of these moments; the Occupy movement another. Occupy has a hugely impactful legacy, with the concept of the 99% vs the 1% commonly used and understood around the world, but it fizzled out as an active thing because it didn’t have an organisational structure to absorb support into. The Stop the War coalition did have a structure, but it was nothing like the scale needed to absorb the huge flood of support in 2003. Even if it had been ready for this truly daunting task, it would probably only have attracted support of a fraction of those who marched as Stop the War’s politics don’t appeal to everyone who opposed the war.
So what about the huge #EndAusterityNow demonstration of June 20th 2015? I think people were right to march. I’ve always found it inspiring to come together with other people en masse who passionately share my politics. Marching is also a show of strength, and the more who attend the harder it is for mainstream media to ignore reporting on the event and the issues. This isn’t the end – it’s just the beginning. The People’s Assembly have been doing an excellent job of combining structure and momentum, organising locally and escalating mass gatherings. It’s a promising start for some serious resistance to this government and its austerity agenda. We’re going to need all the support we can get to escalate and build the movement though – so please do more if you can. Take action online and campaign in your community. Show movement solidarity with all those who share your vision for the future, whatever tactics they’re using. Direct action has an important place too – it doesn’t have to be an either/or. A to B marches for the wins! Eventually…