|Learn about what a public demonstration can accomplish, and why, when, and how you could organize one to promote your cause and help achieve your goals.
What is a public demonstration?
About public demonstrations
Why might you want to organize a public demonstration?
When might you want to organize a public demonstration?
How to organize a public demonstration
What is a public demonstration?
Certain images are printed on the brains of most Americans: 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.
- The many possible goals of a public demonstration
- What forms a demonstration can take
- Why and when your organization or initiative might want to organize a demonstration
- How to organize a public demonstration
- What kind of follow-up needs to take place when the demonstration is over
About public demonstrations
Possible goals of a demonstration
- Advocacy: To urge legislators or the public to look favorably on a bill, adopt a particular idea or policy or service, or pay attention to the needs of a particular group of people (welfare recipients or people with disabilities, for instance).
- Support: To express agreement or solidarity with a person or group, with an idea or policy, or with a particular issue. For example, a group of organizations offering different services might hold a community demonstration to support the proposed establishment of more and better services for the homeless in the community.
- Protest: To speak against some injustice, event, public figure, potential occurrence, etc. A group might demonstrate against the possible establishment of a hazardous waste treatment plant in their community, or to protest the treatment of community residents by police.
- Counter-demonstration: To respond to a demonstration or other public event already scheduled by another, antagonistic organization. A civil rights group might organize a demonstration to balance one by the Ku Klux Klan, for instance; or a group of demonstrators might organize to counter a rally for a politician whose views they disagree with.
- Public Relations: To advertise or put in a good light an event, issue, organization, segment of the population, etc.
- Action: To actually accomplish a specific substantive purpose, prevent or change a particular event, or to influence the course of events. Such actions might include workers on a picket line blocking replacement workers' access to a factory, or peace activists chaining themselves to the gates of a military base; it can also include demonstration participants breaking up into constituent groups to visit their legislators.
- A combination of any or all of the above.
In reality, most demonstrations serve more than one purpose. Regardless of their other goals, most organizers seek media coverage for the demonstration, for instance, in order to draw attention to their cause. Most demonstrations either advocate for and support, or protest against, something. The difference is in the emphasis, which may have a great effect on the form and timing of the demonstration.
Some forms a demonstration might take
- 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 might you want to organize 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.
When might you want to organize a public demonstration?
- Just before or during a major event that the demonstration can influence. A local, state, or national vote on a bill affecting your issue, an election, or a campaign for the establishment of a local service might all provide appropriate times to stage a public demonstration.
- The local visit of a political or controversial figure or group. The visitor might be seen as an ally, an antagonist, or as someone who could be influenced by a demonstration. The character of the demonstration itself would of course depend on how you view the person or group.
- A demonstration by another group opposed to your cause or point of view. In this circumstance, you might plan your counter-demonstration to begin before the other group's, thus drawing media attention away from their message and to yours. Scheduling your major speaker or event toward the middle of your demonstration may also serve to hold the media there during the start of the other demonstration.
- A national day honoring or commemorating your issue. May 1st, Labor Day in every country but the United States, has traditionally been the occasion for marches of workers and speeches by labor advocates in much of the world. National Literacy Day, in September, often sees upbeat public demonstrations by literacy programs and advocates.
- As part of a funding drive for your organization or issue. In the late 1980's, when public human service budgets were being cut and money was scarce, a county human service coalition kicked off a local fundraising effort with a well-staged piece of street theater about some of the things that were actually being funded instead of human services. The cleverness and timeliness of the performance attracted statewide attention, and enhanced local fundraising efforts.
- As part of a publicity campaign for your organization or issue. A group trying to immunize all toddlers in the area might hold a public demonstration emphasizing the importance of immunization, and trying to make the whole process look like non -threatening fun for kids. Such an event could include clowns, facepainting, people in hypodermic costumes, etc., as well as information for parents on where, when, and how to get shots for their children.
How to organize a public demonstration
- Planning, planning, planning
- Lead time
Planning, planning, planning: Thinking it through
Decide what you want to accomplish. What is (are) the exact goal(s) of the demonstration? It's important to decide whether you're advocating for or supporting a position, protesting something, or planning a specific action. Your purpose will help to determine the tone and shape of the demonstration. If advocacy is your goal, the demonstration might be upbeat, singing the praises of whatever you're advocating for. If your purpose is protest, or righting a wrong, then its tone will be different. Tone is important, because what you accomplish might depend on how the demonstration is viewed. If your demonstration leans too much toward entertainment and feel-good sentiment, it may not be taken seriously. If it's frightening, people may not listen to its message.
Decide on what specific things you'd like to actually happen -- and not happen -- at the demonstration. How do people get to the space where the demonstration will be held? How easily can they leave? How do you want them to behave while they're there? Will there be some sort of action, and will it possibly lead to arrest or other confrontation with the authorities? How will you handle that? A crowd can be kept happy with food and entertainment, or angered by aggressive speechmaking: it's up to the organizers to think through what they want.
It's important to confer with the authorities beforehand about use of space, to obtain the proper permits, and to work out with police and other officials how things will be handled, so that there are no misunderstandings. Make sure that those who are likely to attend the demonstration know what to expect and what you expect of them. If people understand that violence is unacceptable, or that it's important that everyone follow a certain route, they're more likely to behave accordingly.
Decide who you're trying to reach with the demonstration's message, and who you want to attend. Contact other organizations, coalitions, etc. long before and get them to endorse (and attend) the demonstration. The time, place, and program should be geared to the desired audience.
- Legislators or other elected officials: The demonstration should be where they are -- City Hall, the State House--on a day when they're in session. Elected officials pay attention to voters. This is a great situation for members of the target population, especially those from key legislators' districts, to tell their stories, and for advocates to use their knowledge of statistics to underline the magnitude of the issue and the size of the constituency affected by it.
- General public: If you're aiming your message at the general public, then you might want a very large demonstration, or one that's particularly unusual or interesting, staged in a public place at a busy time, so that it will attract both onlookers and media attention. It's even better if there's a draw, in the form of entertainment and/or celebrities. And the demonstration should be advertised publicly, through flyers and posters in neighborhoods, public service announcements on radio and TV, clubs and churches, etc.
- Target population: If you're trying to publicize an initiative with those you hope will take advantage of it, it should be in their neighborhood, and in their language as well. It might help if children and families are encouraged to come, and if familiar figures from the target group itself are part of the program. Presentations should be aimed at providing practical information and helping people understand the issue and how it relates to them.
Plan your program. What you're actually going to do at the demonstration also depends upon what you want to accomplish and who your audience is. There needs to be a clear structure for what will happen, and everything in the program should be geared directly to the desired results of the demonstration. Block out the schedule to the minute, and let participants know well beforehand how long they have in the program.
- Speeches may convince some people and bore others, although some speakers and speeches (Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" comes immediately to mind) are so powerful that they electrify anyone hearing them. Celebrity speakers may draw people and attention to the demonstration and to your issue. Speeches may be meant to convey information, convert the unconvinced, or simply fire up the crowd and supporters. Members of a target population (people who've learned to read as adults, AIDS sufferers, etc.) may be the most eloquent spokespersons for their issue.
- Marches or other movement of demonstrators can serve to show the extent of support for your issue, and can dramatize--by the route chosen--where a problem is located, and who should be involved in a solution. They can also help to build group spirit, to expose large numbers of people to the existence of the issue, and to attract media attention.
- Entertainment. Music may energize people, address their emotions, and help to develop group spirit. It's usually geared to the subject of the rally, with songs written for the occasion, for instance. Theater can be used to ridicule ideas being protested, as was done very effectively for years by such groups as the San Francisco Mime Troupe. If the entertainment is particularly good or includes celebrity performers, it's almost sure to attract media and bystanders.
- A symbolic activity, such as each person lighting a candle, group song or chanting of slogans, the display of a picture or document, prayer, etc. can be a powerful way to communicate a message, solidify a group, and gain public attention. It can also be seen as nothing more than an attention-grabbing device. This kind of activity has to make sense for your particular issue and demonstration.
- Picketing may be used simply to make a point, or to discourage people from entering or patronizing a particular building or space because of their sympathy with the picketers' issue. In either case, it requires a high degree of organization, but it creates a vivid picture in people's minds, and makes a strong point. It can also make your organization seem more militant than it is, or than you want it to be perceived.
- Civil actions or civil disobedience can range from legal actions designed to accomplish a specific purpose (large numbers of people witnessing an event that the perpetrators would have preferred to keep quiet, such as the destruction of a neighborhood landmark) to a few people engaging in a symbolic action designed to get them arrested or otherwise challenged (chaining themselves to the gate of a government building, refusing publicly to pay taxes, etc.) to mass actions like civil rights marches or the blocking of troop movements in Tien An Men Square. Demonstrators taking part in civil disobedience must be willing to be arrested and face punishment, and organizers must train them beforehand to respond appropriately to the police and to the whole arrest procedure. Organizers must also be aware of the impact of these actions on how their issue is perceived by the public.
- The availability of the people you want to reach (A rally at the State House on Saturday won't attract many legislators, nor will the 'solidarity with Working Mothers' demonstration attract many working mothers if it's on Tuesday at 2:00 PM... when most of them are working.)
- The weather (You might not want to hold an outdoor demonstration in Minnesota in January... or in Florida in July). Do you need a rain or snow date?
- Conflicts with other events (You don't want to compete with the free Rolling Stones concert in Central Park).
Decide on how you'll get people to come. To some extent, this depends on how much time and money you have to publicize the event, and how many people you want to attract. You have to reach people through methods they'll pay attention to, in language they're comfortable with. If possible, it's best to get the message out many times in different ways, and to reach as many people as possible personally. Methods might include flyers, posters, phone calls, mailings, ads in newspapers and local church and organizational newsletters, public service announcements on local radio and TV, announcements in churches, clubs, and agencies, etc.
- Do you need, how will you pay for, who will be in charge of, and where will you get... A sound system that works? Toilets? Medical facilities and personnel in case of emergency? Parking? Trash disposal? Signs or banners? A way of getting speakers or performers to and from the demonstration and the platform?
- How do people in general get to and from the demonstration, and in and out of the space?
- How do they get home?
- Is there a need for crowd control (i.e. a potential for violence, or for horrendous traffic problems), before during, and/or after the demonstration?
- Is clean-up needed? Who cleans up, and how?
- What are the plans for meeting with the media before, during and after the event?
- Are there plans for post-demonstration activities (constituent meetings with legislators, on-site vaccination of young children, registration for literacy classes, etc.)? If so, how will all this be handled?
Systems like this prove their worth when there is a need to quickly sway the opinion of legislators. One person, emailing or calling a number of organizations, can, in a matter of hours, generate hundreds, or even thousands, of phone calls and letters to government offices. Fifty letters or calls on an issue is generally considered a large number by legislative staffs. If they get hundreds, that's a groundswell; a thousand or more is a landslide.
If you haven't already done so, you should begin to cultivate a long-term relationship with the media, so that when you need them--as you do now--they'll respond. Be generous with your time and information when they ask for it, and volunteer information when you can. Position yourself as the "expert" on your particular issue, so that you're the person they'll turn to when they want information about it. Try to establish personal relationships with reporters from different media; they're more likely to be sympathetic to your cause if they know your organization and have some direct contact with the issue.
- Was the demonstration successful (i.e. did it come off the way you intended, and did it accomplish what you wanted it to)?
- What went well, and what didn't? How could you do things better in the future?
- Who did their jobs well, or particularly well? (You might want to give them more responsibility next time.)
- Was a demonstration the right way to get your point across? Should you have used some other method instead?
- Would you do it again, and what would you change?
The next step in long-term follow-up is to build on the success and momentum of the demonstration. There are a number of possible ways to do this:
- Follow up with the intended audience of the demonstration (legislators, for example) by continuing to bring up the issue, and referring to the demonstration as evidence of support for it.
- Follow up with your own constituents (target population, supporters, etc.), using the energy generated by the demonstration to get them involved in keeping the issue before the public.
- Publicize your success. Use your contacts with the media to publicize how big and powerful your demonstration was.
- Try to get the media to do a series of stories on the issue. If there are celebrities who are willing, they might also be involved in this effort.
- Organize other events to address the issue.
- Institutionalize the demonstration. Many cities have walks to raise money for hunger, AIDS, or other causes that started out as demonstrations. Now they happen every year, attract thousands of walkers and tens of thousands of sponsors, raise huge amounts of money, and bring the issue to the public in an unavoidable way.
Activists' Center for Training in Organizing and Networking (ACTION) (1998). Environmental Background Information Center.
Swearingen, Terry and Lipsett, Brian (1997). Generic Strategy Guide. Environmental Background Information Center.
How to Organize a Demonstration is a website put together by Global Exchange, and there are ideas and steps for a successful demonstration.
How to Organize a Protest is a blog post on the Occupy Wall Street website, and it offers six steps to organizing a protest.
Environmental Policy Task Force (1999). How-to Guide #2: How to Organize Effective Demonstrations. National Center for Public Policy Research.
National Center for Public Policy Research provides a list of tips and benefits of organizing a demonstration.
Organize a Rally for your Cause offers tips and information on successfully organizing a rally for a cause.
Floegel, Mark (1993). Speaking Truth to Power--No. 362. Rachel's Environmental and Health Weekly.
Tools for Organizers, Activists, Educators, and Other Hell-Raisers (1999). Progressive Politics Webring.
Rogers, S. (1998, Winter). Organize a Demonstration to Make Your Voice Heard. The Key, 4, 5-9.
Sen, R. (2003). Stir it up: Lessons in community organizing and advocacy. Jossey-Bass; 1st Edition. In this book, Sen goes step-by-step through the process of building and mobilizing a community and implementing key strategies to affect social change. Using case studies to illustrate advocacy practices, Sen provides tools to help groups tailor his model for their own organizational needs.
Shragge, E. (2013). Activism and Social Change: Lessons for Community Organizing. University of Toronto Press, Higher Education Division; 2nd Edition. This book discusses community organizing in a post-9/11 context, and includes a discussion of national and transnational organizing efforts.
Milkman, R., Bloom, J., Narro, V. (2010). Working for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy. ILR Press. Working for Justice provides eleven case studies of recent low-wage worker organizing campaigns in Los Angeles. This information was acquired through interviews, access to documents, and participant observation.
Thoreau, H. (1998). Civil Disobedience, Solitude and Life Without Principle. New York, NY: Prometheus Books.