Demonstrations, marches and rallies
Demonstrations, marches, public meetings (rallies) and sit-ins are classic, and potentially powerful, ways of expressing public opinion on an issue.
When to organize a demonstration or rally?
- If it is highly likely to rally a sufficient number of participants – i.e., public opinion on the issue is so strong one can expect a sufficient number of participants (“turnout”) and some media coverage.
- When an important political decision (e.g. a vote in Parliament on a law pertaining to violence against women) or event is imminent.
Example: Reclaim the Night (“Take Back the Night” in the USA) started in the 1970s as a series of demonstrations in the UK and the USA. Around the world, women’s groups continue to organize marches to claim their right to walk in public without fear of sexual harassment or sexual assault.
Bear in mind:
- Demonstrations and rallies are intended to show public concern for a cause, i.e. the opinion of a wide cross-section of society. In many contexts, violence against women and girls is still widely considered a “women’s issue”, or a problem affecting only socially marginalized people. This stereotype must be challenged by rallying a diverse cross-section of society for the cause, bringing together women and men of different ages and different backgrounds.
- It is not a good idea to organize a march or a rally if one cannot count on a large attendance – it may backfire, suggesting that the cause is not important to the public. Look for ways to have rallies at times of the day that would ensure large attendance, e.g. weekends, public holidays and venues of public interest. Other events likely to attract media coverage, such as vigils or public stunts (described below) may be more effective in such a case.
In many countries, demonstrations, rallies and marches require legal permits, such as permission from the authorities to assemble in large numbers, permission to close certain roads or public venues, etc. Failure to obtain such permits before organizing your rally could have serious consequences including police involvement in dispersing the crowd gathered.
Checklist: planning a demonstration, march or rally
- As with all public events, consider whom you want to reach and what you want to achieve with the demonstration.
- Agree on the main messages you want to broadcast and decide who will be your main spokespersons.
- Who is going to do what? Appoint one person or a team in charge of overall organization of the protest. Divide specific responsibilities to other participants.
- Plan the place or route, and timing – if you organize a march, it should start and end in easily accessible places which are safe for public gatherings. The route should follow animated areas so as to draw maximum public attention. Usually, public speeches take place at the end of the march – verify whether speakers can be heard by the audience (acoustics). To ensure participants remain fresh and interested, do not plan for more than two hours for the entire event. Sit-ins may last longer: in a sit-in, people sit down in a public space linked to the cause, e.g. the site of a crime or a court house. One strategy for sit-ins is to threaten not to leave until a particular problem is solved.
- Time the event for maximum attention, e.g. to coincide with anniversaries and symbolic dates, e.g. International Women’s Day or the 16 Days of Activism. Find out, e.g. from local authorities, whether any other events are planned on that day that might distract your event – or help attract extra attention.
- Find out about legal constraints, and complete necessary formalities – in many countries, demonstrations must be formally announced or permitted by local authorities, usually the police. There may be other restrictions, e.g. in the UK, NGOs may lose tax benefits if they engage in certain types of political activity. Unless there are compelling reasons not to, do complete the formalities so that your campaign cannot be accused of illegal conduct.
- Inform allies – contact supporters and prominent persons who support your cause and ask them to join the event – politicians and celebrities may increase your media coverage.
- Devise slogans, make placards, banners and other colorful displays that convey your cause and catch attention.
- Advertise for your march or rally with fliers, e-mails, posters. Include the date, address of the rally or information on the route your march will take, as well as the starting time. If you want to draw huge crowds, start advertising several months before the event.
- Inform the media (e-mail a press release and digital photographs of eye-catching displays or banners). Consider filming your own footage (e.g. by using digital video) to publicize it via the internet.
- For a march, appoint stewards, i.e. persons who guide participants along the route. Plan for at least one steward for every 50 participants. Brief them on action in case of emergencies, e.g. someone getting hurt or conflicts with troublemakers. Stewards should be easily identifiable, e.g. by wearing bright t-shirts.
- Organize equipment, such as megaphones, public address equipment (loudspeakers, microphones) and digital cameras as needed.
- Organize finances – budget for the event and control expenses.
- Consider integrating other campaign tools into the demonstration, e.g. collecting e-mail messages for participants who wish to stay in touch, or signatures for a petition. Ensure some participants take specific responsibility for these extra tasks and plan plenty of time for them.
During the demonstration…
- Respect your time-plan so that participants stay enthusiastic.
- As a rule, do not be offensive in your slogans – you might alienate supporters. As in all societies, there are people who resist “breaking the silence” on violence against women and girls, you are likely to appear “provocative” to some even if you communicate in a sensitive manner – be prepared for that.
- Be prepared for challenges from bystanders, including “identity-bating”, i.e. comments that try to discredit the campaigners as individuals or as a group. Stay calm and do not get embroiled in a fight; if needed, remind other participants to remain peaceful.