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Billy King


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Each month we bring you a nonviolence training workshop based on the experience of the Nonviolent Action Training project and INNATE.

Demo discipline
Notes for organisers and participants of public, political events

[Click here to view print version]

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?
What is the aim or what are the aims? Even those involved may not know or be clear. Is it to impact on people involved in an unjust/violent and unsustainable activity? Is it to point to a different way of doing something? Is it to urge one choice over another by the government or another body? Or solidarity with another group or associated group (workers, activists, residents, local community, immigrants etc)? Being clear about the aim(s) is helpful because from that a variety of other things may flow. If it is to win over members of the public, what will do this? And what will antagonise them? If it is to influence the public through media coverage, how can positive media coverage be engendered (not always an easy one to work out). If it is a controversial topic, how can it be ensured that members of the public are won over rather than further antagonised?

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.

Referred to in the previous section, the expected number of people is a key element in planning. A perfectly valid and useful event can be organised with just a couple of people – running a stall, leafleting, doing street theatre, or whatever. You do not need many people to be effective in putting your viewpoint across – but you do, as mentioned above, need to choose an appropriate action for the expected number of participants.

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.

Fear, anger
It is natural to be emotional on emotive issues such as war, global poverty, denial of civil liberties, local campaigning issues, and so on. But public demonstrations are opportunities for showing controlled emotions – if this is handled well it can be effective in communicating with the public that these people are well organised and feel justified anger (or fear of something happening). Allowing unbridled anger in a public demonstration is a recipe for disaster, either in things getting out of hand (not necessarily with violence) or in communicating the wrong message to the public (‘these people are angry nihilists who are out of control’).

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
Is it a serious event? A serious event with comic or satirical parts? Or is it a carnival type event which is aiming to show a positive alternative? Or a mixture of these? The intended tone should be a determinant in what is planned as part of the event. Street theatre can be serious but may work better if it is satirical – is it the kind of thing which will add to the event and inform the public? Or, if it is to be a ‘sad’ event, e.g. a silent vigil, do all participants know what is intended and how long the silence will go on? ‘Silent’ vigils where people chat away are not satisfactory either for participants or how they communicate to the public. Even during a silent vigil there should be people who, quietly, inform the public or media what is happening though talking to them and provision of leaflets or press releases.

General preparation
There are many questions which may need addressed in relation to a public political event. Ones not given their own heading here including production of banners, posters, and leaflets, setting up a rostrum and PA (public address) system for speakers (if needed – and being sure the volume level of the PA system will be sufficient), notification to police, and the possibility of public liability insurance. If banners and posters are hand made (rather than printed) they can be produced in a collective session some days or weeks before the event, allowing variations on the collective theme to be used.

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.

Legal preparation
‘Legal support’ of an appropriate kind is wise at any public manifestation. The minimum required is someone not heavily involved in the action to be free to arrange support if people are arrested, and the availability of appropriate phone numbers of lawyers. Organisers also need an awareness of what is required concerning any notice to the police and, if not fulfilling any legal obligation, an active decision to desist from so doing (and explanation to potential participants of why). Relating to police, or other authorities, should be a designated task, i.e. given to trusted participants in advance.

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).

Stewarding (‘marshalling’ in US English, both terms are used in European English though ‘stewarding’ is more common) is a key factor in ensuring a well-ordered and peaceful event in large demonstrations. Stewards should have separate training both in doing the job (kinds of intervention permissible, trigger points to avoid in antagonising participants or public and avoiding escalation etc, knowledge of the sequence of events taking place, directions if it is a march etc).

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.

Relating to the media should be a designated task and can be shared by people who are experienced and less experienced but wanting to learn. As well as any prior press release(s), if necessary with an embargo on news of a planned action where prior media attention is not desired, the media should be contacted relatively early on the morning of an event to check that press releases have been noted and to ask if they will be covering the event. E-mail and fax lists for press releases need updated and checked periodically remembering to include local and independent media. Writing press releases requires a certain amount of skill at both getting across essential information and making it exciting, newsworthy and relevant.

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
Communicating with the public requires consideration. What kind of themes will best get the message across? Should there be ‘specialists’ at an event whose job it is to communicate to the public (i.e. apart from any spokespeople to relate to the media) through handing out leaflets and talking to people? If you have the numbers then this may be a good idea – sometimes passers by may have no clue as to what is happening or why. At a rally-type event or public meeting outside it is wise to arrange that some banners and placards face outwards to the passing public as well as others facing the front. On smaller demonstrations it is even more important to ensure banners and placards are held so that the public can see them and know what is happening.

Using this material
Organisers may want to copy this paper and read it before considering the event in question. When working with a group, the various subject areas above can be listed on a chart, and those needing most work have time spent in information and exploration. It is wise to break any preparation meetings down into pairs and/or small groups to allow people to express fears, anxieties and concerns which they might feel reluctant to express in a larger group; such issues should be listed in writing on a board or chart so they are dealt with and not ignored. Building public support for our causes is key; public events are a wonderful opportunity to influence the public and strengthen the resolve of those already committed. But leaving an event to chance in its organisation is something which can easily be exploited by the powers that be, including antagonistic or sensationalist media.

Copyright INNATE 2016