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By discipline is meant here individual self discipline, or collective self discipline where people agree to abide by requests from a steward or organiser of an event. By ‘demo’ we are referring to a wide variety of public events with a political message, ranging in number from a couple of people to many thousands.
Events can happen ‘naturally’ in the best possible way; participants, many or few, are well tempered, participative and looking out for each other and communicating well with the public. But events can also happen which look poorly organised, even shoddy, do not communicate well, and are maybe the wrong thing to have done in the first place. This short paper is an exploration of trying to get it right.
What is the specific aim of the event?
The aim or aims of the proposed event should be considered when planning starts. Are the aims likely to be achieved by organising a particular event? Sometimes ‘a march’ or ‘a rally’ is assumed to be the most effective way of demonstrating a choice and communicating with the public. If there is sufficient support for a cause then this may well be true. If there is insufficient support and the event is small it can actually do the cause harm; support may look so pathetically small that it seems no one is interested, and this is what is communicated to the public at large.
What is necessary at a particular point may be blindingly obvious to everyone – but it still needs checking that ‘everyone’ is agreed. Exploring aims can be done using a flipchart at the start of an organising process, taking time to discuss them (if need be in pairs or small groups) and arriving at sufficient consensus to proceed.
It may not always be true that the bigger the event then the more work needs to go into organising it, but there is some truth in this. Being responsible for a large number of people – any number of people – requires planning and consideration of what can go wrong and making sure that the event is well organised, including with stewards if appropriate. Any event needs consideration of how people will gather together and disburse, and how long that may take. Do people make their own way? Or do some come on transport you provide? Longer events (which are not considered here) or very large ones may require special provision of facilities such as toilets or accommodation.
The risk of unproductive anger being shown publicly depends on the kind of event planned and the kind of issue involved, as well as how open it is to others coming in. In many cases it may not be an issue. In others it may require work beforehand with those participating to have shared and expressed their anger before the event, and looking at how the event can be best managed. This is likely to require stewarding (marshalling) to ensure things go smoothly. Depending on how open an event is, the difficulty may be with groups who believe in the use of violence, or of people opportunistically jumping in to a tense situation. There may not be an easy solution here. An agreed code of conduct backed up by stewards may be one way to ensure an event goes as planned.
Participants also need awareness of how to interact with members of the public, some of whom may be antagonistic to the aims of the event. Calmness and a lack of animosity are key to communicating; and if an antagonistic member of the public chooses to try to engage angrily with participants, the best response may be a short, polite answer and then disengagement. There is the risk of escalation in such a situation, again not necessarily to violence, but certainly in reinforcing previously existing views by someone who is antagonistic, rather than challenging them.
Fear is not as big a possible problem in public demonstrations as anger but it can be a problem, particularly in causing non-participation. People may feel afraid in participating in a particular event either because of perceived risks attached (possibility of violence, vilification or even victimisation – one INNATE monitor working in the town they were originally from in Northern Ireland was directly and personally threatened, and that was a ‘third party’ intervention). Again depending on the situation it is something which may have to be worked on with potential participants, and a subject to be addressed in planning an event which aims for maximum participation. A key point here, once people have got beyond the paralysis of fear, is that fear is a friend and not an enemy; it alerts you to dangers which need taken into account.
The tone of the event
Depending on the action being planned, using role play and drama to explore the action can be vital in having people prepared and confident. This can include exploring interaction with other demonstrators (e.g. over differences of how to respond to a situation arising), with police, and with antagonistic members of the public.
Any activity which might be illegal or considered illegal and lead to arrests needs a higher level of legal support such as having non-involved legal monitors who will record the sequence of events and act in support of participants, plus lawyers on stand by. Participants in an illegal activity should also have considered the law(s) which they may be breaking or be considered to be breaking, and reasons why they consider the action necessary. Damage to, e.g. military, property needs further preparation. Legal cases can drag on for an inordinate length of time and ‘tie up’ campaigning energies, apart altogether from any bail or probation conditions; this is not a reason to refuse to take action but a key concept in nonviolence is, where possible, both accepting responsibility for one’s actions and knowing what is being undertaken.
Geographically this ‘accepting responsibility’ may only be possible in relative democracies and even in these certain activities of low level illegality may be undertaken without proclaiming who has actually taken the action. Examples of the latter could be graffiti or fly-posting (of posters) but even here consideration should be made of where this is done – hoardings and derelict or unused properties are fine but private houses, or offices unless they are deliberately being targeted, will lead to unnecessary antagonism. In more repressive societies, nonviolent action demonstrations are still possible but participants may not hang around to take responsibility – e.g. ‘lightning’ demonstrations or leafleting where people come together, do a quick action, and melt away again (this form of action is obviously possible in more liberal societies too).
In the case of a march, stewards (as well as organisers’ announcements) are key to getting people organised in the appropriate formation. For example, walking five abreast is going to make a march or parade look better and longer than walking a dozen or more abreast (unless the march is so big and impressive that it doesn’t matter). They should also be responsible for any liaison with police, and for explaining to people anything unexpected. Stewarding can be done by anyone, from young adults to older people, but should include trusted and experienced members of any organisations involved in a large event.
Spokespeople should be appointed to relate to the media during the event, and for any necessary interviews before or after. And if the media fail to show up, further press releases (and offer of photos) can be sent to the media and to Indymedia (an important location for events coverage) - just because no one from the media turns up should not mean ‘no coverage’.
Communicating to the public
Using this material