Phil Gyford


Friday 21 November 2003

PreviousIndexNext Marching

Big Ben and bannersI took a day off work yesterday to join the Anti-Bush march which was fun. I can’t really add anything new to the arguments, and besides, after spending an afternoon surrounded by (generally) like-minded people, I’m left speechless by shit like this, that couldn’t be more backwards if it tried.

I was aware, though, that marches are a very enclosed and contained space. For anyone who’s not part of the march, the stream of people only has any kind of effect if it happens to pass them en route. On TV it’s just another spectacle, the usual suspects — students, lefties, crusties, CND, unions, blah, blah, blah — saying the usual things. I guess marches are only really about counting heads, showing strength of numbers. But I couldn’t help thinking that protests really need to have more of an impact outside their own environments.

One way to do this might be to have a “distributed” march. No set route. In fact, no location at all. Instead, anyone who wants to take part carries on with their normal day, but carries a placard or banner while out and about. Seeing a sprinkling of placards on every shopping street and around every office block might have a very different impact to hordes of people in one place, usually far away. There are disadvantages of course. First, it would be impossible (instead of just very hard) to count the number of people involved, and numbers are what make the news. Second, many people are happy to hold placards while in a crowd, but doing so while going to Tesco — out of context — would be too embarrassing for most.

Another way to increase the impact of a protest might be, instead of diffusing it into the outside world, to bring the outside world in. While a march is about numbers, in terms of impact some people count as more than just one person. Looking at a march, whether as part of it or a spectator, those who look most out of place, who don’t look like the usual suspects, have a much greater impact. Anyone dressed smartly stands out from the casually dressed crowd and makes you think this issue might be bigger, affecting people who don’t usually protest.

All along yesterday’s route we could see people in offices looking out of windows on the march. If they, or, more to the point, people who looked like them, were participating rather than watching it would make a big difference. So perhaps a smart-dress protest would make people look twice. Tens of thousands of people in suits and office clothes marching on Westminster would create a very different image.


My friend and I agreed that a silent march would be very powerful. Think of all those people walking without making any noise.

Posted by ed on 22 November 2003, 2:04 pm | Link

You are right: dressing up for a demo is good. For the famous Greenham Common demo a group of us borrowed Jaeger clothes and had temporary blue rinses done to look older and thatcherite. We looked 'smart'. To prevent us being typecast and written off as only (?) layabout hippies. Sky news this time were guilty of calling the Bush demo a bunch of the great unwashed. Shocking.
How about these 'flash meetings' we had earlier in the year? 10 minutes in places like hotel lobbies, Harrods, train platforms? That might be effective.

Posted by jo on 3 December 2003, 4:24 am | Link

Well done, Phil. I would have been on the march myself, but ironically, my husband and I left for America the day before. All through Thanksgiving week, my very conservative grandparents, aunts and uncles kept telling us how lucky we were to have left London before the crazy hippies took it over. Apparently Fox news (the American equivalent of Sky) was claiming that people had been paid to take part in the protests.

It was before my time, but I think both the tactics you suggest were used strikingly in America during the Vietnam war. Many Americans took part in a "distributed" protest by wearing black armbands as they went about their daily business. The early protests also attracted attention because they involved people who clearly weren't the "usual suspects" -- housewives, priests in full clerical garb, etc.

All this was so effective that America's involvement in the war didn't last more than, oh, a decade or so ...


Posted by Laura Brown on 8 December 2003, 9:34 pm | Link

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