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What is a demonstration?

Last update: May 29, 2022

In this article, you'll learn all about what a demonstration is. We show that there are many possible goals of a public demonstration, and a protest can take many forms. We explain why and when your organization or initiative might want to organize a demonstration

Advocacy has many lanesโ€”donating and fundraising, voting, writing and talking about an issue, researching, reporting, and protesting. You cannot occupy every lane, and the lanes we occupy may change over time. But know this, each and every lane is as important as the next to move your issue forward.

The time may come when you want to organize people to protest around your issue. Protest is an important and effective tool to both bring increased attention to your issue and to give others an advocacy lane. Protest also has the benefit of adding individuals and resources to the other advocacy lanes around your issue.

We recognise that the exercise of your freedom of peaceful assembly is more than a human right fundamental to participatory democracy; itโ€™s an impactful advocacy lane.

Certain images are printed on the brains of most people: labor union pickets in front of a Depression-era factory, with signs demanding living wages and workers--rights; black men, women, and children marching into the teeth of police dogs and the nozzles of fire hoses in their quest for civil rights and human decency; long -haired young people in tie-dye and beads protesting the Vietnam War.

These are all examples of public demonstrations, groups of people organized to come together at a specific place and time to call attention to a specific issue. Although we often think of demonstrations as negative--against "something," they can also be positive, supporting particular politicians and their ideas, specific initiatives, or existing programs. They are usually meant to influence the way things are done, or the way people think. Whether they're aimed at politicians, bureaucrats, corporations, or the general public, they can take many forms. From large, media -covered marches, to small gatherings to buttonhole legislators in the State House, to street theater on the town common, Americans have long used public demonstrations as a way of getting their points across to those in power.

Can--and should--your organization or initiative use a public demonstration to further its cause? If it can, what do you have to do to get all the right people together in the right place at the right time? After the demonstration, what do you do to build on it?

Types of demonstrations

Make sure to check out our tactics chapter for more details.

While many of us are used to thinking of demonstrations in the form of mass marches or gatherings, often with signs, there are actually several ways to shape a demonstration. Some, especially those which address very local issues, such as the use of a neighborhood empty lot, don't require huge numbers of people in order to be effective. Others don't aim directly at issues, but use humor, theater, music, or other methods to make a point. The most common forms of demonstration are...

  • Marches and parades. These are the classic images: numbers of people marching on a route from one significant site to another to highlight their commitment to a particular issue. On a local level, such a demonstration could involve a march from the proposed site of a free clinic to City Hall, where the marchers' concerns are expressed in speeches or other ways. Marches and parades are usually associated with advocacy, support, or protest, and often serve as well for public relations. In some cases, they may also serve as counter-demonstrations.
  • Rallies. Demonstrators gather on their own at a particular place, where they listen to speeches or participate in other activities expressing their concerns (music, skits, and/or remarks by celebrities are common). Rallies, like marches, are usually associated with advocacy, support, protest, and counter-demonstration, in addition to providing opportunities for powerful expressions in the media.

In Massachusetts, a rally to advocate for adult literacy funding was held on the steps of the State House. Several hundred students, staff, and supporters of adult literacy programs came from around the state to watch the organizers roll out a petition with thousands of signatures of adult learners asking for funding so that they could continue their efforts to gain the skills they needed. Afterwards, students and staff broke up into senatorial districts and went inside to visit their state senators. The rally served several purposes: It demonstrated that there was a large and active constituency for adult literacy; it drew media attention; it energized people in the field; it was very effective as an advocacy activity, with many senators who had been lukewarm becoming firm supporters of adult literacy funding; and it gave learners the opportunity to practice democracy. One student of English as a Second Language remarked to a friend as he left his senator's office, "In my country, they shoot you for this."

  • Picketing. More classic images: a group of people carrying signs expressing their concerns and, often, identifying their allies and antagonists, stands or walks in front of a building or facility that is the target of their demonstration. In a labor dispute, the effort may be to convince replacement workers not to enter during a strike; a consumer group may picket a store in an effort to persuade potential customers that they're better off shopping elsewhere. Unlike the previous two forms, picketing always involves direct action, and sometimes carries with it the possibilities of both violence and arrest.
  • Sit-ins. In a sit-in, demonstrators do just that: occupy a space in a government office, a street, a particular building, a park, etc. and sit down. Sometimes, a sit-in is accompanied by speeches or other activities; sometimes it is silent. It may involve trespassing, and thus be illegal, it may simply be a statement of people's right to be in a particular place, or it may be meant as a moral statement.

When demonstrators act in a way they know is illegal in order either to make their point extremely strongly or to point out immorality or error in the law itself, they are engaged in civil disobedience. This strategy was used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King and their followers, for instance, to give notice that they would not tolerate laws or conditions that were so clearly morally wrong that they had to be resisted. Civil disobedience is in the best American tradition--Henry David Thoreau wrote the essay "Civil Disobedience" in the mid-19th century while in jail for refusal to pay a poll tax which he felt was unfair to the poor. But it carries with it the obligation to face the consequences of one's actions, i.e. arrest, trial, and possible punishment. Otherwise, it's simply breaking the law, and carries no moral force.

  • A vigil is similar to a sit-in, but seldom challenges the law, and is often silent. Demonstrators generally gather to call attention or bear witness to an event or situation, to remember or honor an individual and her ideas, and/or to gain strength and moral force from one another. They may engage in some activity--lighting and /or marching with candles, holding portraits of people jailed for political crimes. Vigils are most frequently employed when the issue is seen as a moral one. (Silent vigils by Right-to-Life activists at abortion clinics are an illustration of this.)
  • Street theater. The use of actors or puppets, often in fantastic costumes, to make fun of or otherwise discredit politicians and others in power goes back at least to ancient Greece. Street theater can be effective because it draws a crowd, often makes points in a humorous way that people can easily understand, and appeals both to people's mistrust of authority and their sense of fun.

Another aspect of a demonstration that has to be considered is its tone, the character of the emotions that it is meant to produce in its participants and in those who witness or hear about it. Demonstrations can be positive or negative in tone, regardless of whether they are positive or negative in content. For instance, protest can have a positive tone if it invites the opposition to work with the demonstrators to solve a problem, for instance; on the other hand, a supportive demonstration can be negative, if it attacks the opposition for their apparently unfeeling and evil nature. An organization can try to occupy a high moral position, or it can try to look tough and combative. If it's really good, it might accomplish both, but that's difficult.

Organizers can set up a structure to maintain the tone they want. Food and entertainment can keep a crowd happy, even in nasty weather, while incendiary speeches can make it angry and potentially violent. The presence of marshals (people who don't look threatening, rather than Hell's Angels) and non-violence buttons tells demonstrators what organizers are expecting of them; so do signs referring to the opposition as less than human. Whatever their decisions, demonstration organizers must be aware of the tone they're fostering, of the effect it will have on demonstrators, and of the way the demonstration--and therefore their issue--will be viewed in the long run.

Why organise a protest?

There are many different ways to accomplish the goals that can be addressed by a public demonstration. Why use that method instead of another? The answer depends upon the history of your efforts, the timing of particular events, who you want to reach, and what, specifically, you hope to accomplish. Why might your organization want to employ a public demonstration?

  • Other methods haven't succeeded. You may have tried a number of different methods to bring your message to the public or to convince lawmakers to change or institute a policy, and gotten nowhere. A public demonstration may be necessary to gain the kind of attention you need to push your initiative.
  • Timing. The time is a particularly crucial one: the Legislature or Town Council is about to vote; welfare benefits are about to be cut for some of your organization's participants; budget decisions are being made. You have to get your message out in a powerful way at this particular time.
  • Public impact. You want to make the biggest impression possible on the public consciousness. A well-planned and well-executed demonstration can provide that impression.
  • You want to energize your constituency. Sometimes the public effect of a demonstration may be less important than its effect on those who already support and are working for your cause. The emotional impact of a demonstration on those who take part in it can energize an initiative for the long haul, and keep people working and hopeful even through those periods--and every cause or initiative has them--when nothing seems to be happening.
  • To draw public and media attention to a neglected issue or to your organization or initiative. An effective public demonstration can wake people up to the existence of an issue or problem, the need to do something about it, and the existence of support for that position. It can also raise the profile of your organization, and identify it as a power to be reckoned with when it comes to your issue.

Example: AIDS, even after it was detected and diagnosed in the early 1980's, wasn't considered a research priority by either the government or the general public. Many people saw it as affecting "only" homosexual males and intravenous drug users. The public and lawmakers felt it didn't affect them, and felt that those it did affect were not worth worrying about. AIDS activists, through marches, demonstrations by ACT UP, the Washington exhibit of the AIDS quilt (also a kind of public demonstration), etc., changed the country's attitude toward the disease and research.

By putting a human face on the disease, these demonstrations effected a turnaround in attitudes not only toward AIDS sufferers, but toward the gay community in general. Although they took the chance that they might alienate people, AIDS activists, through demonstrations, were able to profoundly affect the course of public health policy.

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