How to Organize an Effective March

The Fourth festivities have left me thinking of protest. And this leads me to think of last week’s Keep Families Together march—and this, dearies, leaves me thinking of things we activists have started to do well. I don’t know about you, but in my (admittedly narrow) neck of the woods, our protest marches started off a bit… limpy. We had tons of folks for the Women’s March and the Science March; critical mass was never a problem. But the programs themselves were somewhat lacking. I think this was because, in part, if we had a sound system at all, it functioned about as well as the Barbie karaoke machine that someone could fish from their tweenage daughter’s closet. Beyond that, the speakers themselves—while erudite—didn’t always know how to fire up a crowd, in terms of either immediate call and response or post-march action. Don’t get me wrong; I thank the activists who have gone out of their way to stage a march. You’ll notice that I’m not up there with the Barbie Bullhorn. But I’m especially grateful for the people who led last week’s march, because honestly, they organized a great one. Here’s how:

1. THEY DIRECTED THE CROWD. We started at Iowa City’s Old Capital building, and we walked about half a mile, through the downtown, to College Green Park, where we gathered for a rally. As we assembled for the march, one of the organizers told us where we would go. Then, as we walked, we met organizers who had posted themselves at specific corners to feed us chants that we could holler until we got to the next waypoint. Our queue of demonstrators was almost as long as the route itself; there was no way that we could hear ourselves well enough to maintain a homogenous chorus. The waypoints kept us shouting, while also plugging what we would chant into a kind of iMarch playlist.

2. THEY SET UP CROSSING GUARDS. It surprised me to see one of our pre-eminent computer scientists wearing an orange vest, while he commanded us to stop at a streetlight. I thought a march was supposed to disrupt traffic. But this arrangement was actually a shrewd move. First of all, we marched through a town that was friendly to our cause. We had nothing to gain by keeping like-minded folks from, say, their dentist appointments. Secondly, while we stopped, passing cars honked their support. I don’t know if they’d have done such a thing if we’d gotten in their way. But I do know that by letting them pass, more of them got to see us than if we’d just cut off the head of the line. Now I do believe that some causes—and some locations—require marchers to disrupt traffic, say, outside the ICE building’s parking lot. But let’s be discerning here. Choose the tactic that fits the audience.

3. THEY PREPARED THE POST-MARCH, DEMONSTRATION VENUE. God love them, the organizers chose a park with a gazebo. Better yet, they chose a park with lots of trees. Both features granted the courtesy of shade. Better yet, they positioned us next to a playground, so that the children had something to do. Better still, they chose a park with an electrical service that supported a concert-grade sound system. While we leaned against the oak trees, we could hear the rally’s every word.

4. THEY FOUND GOOD SPEAKERS. Not only could we hear the speakers, but we wanted to listen. This wasn’t open-mic day. This demonstration featured a program lineup that consisted of: preachers who could use rhythm and litany to engage the crowd; experts who could use statistics and other details to inform the crowd; and volunteer coordinators who could present engagement opportunities to direct the crowd. The gazebo posted a community-action sign-up sheet. It also had a table that accepted financial donations. In short, the demonstration generated energy and then released it toward the good. The march, that is, became a dynamo.

5. THEY GAVE US POPSICLES. I know I sound as if I’m just a little too happy to be unfettered from my diet—but really. Have you endured a midwestern summer? The heat index was over a hundred. The shade helped, but after a walk in that kind of heat, we also needed hydration. Churches (I think) brought the popsicles. And they set out pallets of water. And this not only made us very well disposed toward the organizations that set up the march, but it also allowed us to stay at the demonstration. If people get too hot (or too cold) they’ll go home. Regardless of what kind of weather you’ve got, it might be worth the few hundred bucks to give refreshment to a few hundred folks.

These are my observations, at any rate. Feel free to add what you’ve gathered yourself. One thing that heartens me is that, in his own horrible way, Trump is teaching us how to become better activists. I watch the news, and I can despair over how his agenda is making progress. But when I consider our work—our education, our efforts, and our expertise—I think we’re evolving too.

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