We’re joined by L.A. Kauffman, author of How to Read a Protest: the Art of Organizing and Resistance. L.A. Kauffman was the mobilizing coordinator for some of the largest demonstrations in U.S. history — the massive Iraq antiwar protests of 2003 and 2004 — and has played key roles in many other movements and campaigns. Her book is about the role of marches and rallies in social movements, particularly large-scale mass demonstrations.
Today we talk tactics, and in particular, do rallies and marches work? This is a timely topic as we start to re-enter society after over a year of pandemic lockdown, and we’re finally starting to plan in-person collective actions again. We’re joined by L.A. Kauffman, the mobilizing coordinator for some of the largest demonstrations in U.S. history — the massive Iraq antiwar protests of 2003 and 2004 — and a key player in many other movements and campaigns.
L.A. is the author of a 2018 book that we love here at Healthcare-NOW, called How to Read a Protest: the Art of Organizing and Resistance, which is specifically about the role of marches and rallies in social movements, particularly large-scale mass demonstrations.
L.A. tells us she wrote How to Read a Protest after her experience of the single largest day of protest in world history, against the rush to war in Iraq, on February 15, 2003. Despite the record-breaking numbers of people on the streets in countries on every continent, the protest failed, resulting in little more than a shrug from the White House. L.A. tells us she wrote the book to try to figure out why. Why do we march? Where do protests come from? What do they accomplish, and are they even worth doing?
Spoiler alert: we don’t typically achieve policy objectives from mass mobilizations. Most of us think of the legendary 1963 March on Washington as a success: “MLK had a dream, people marched, and civil rights legislation passed,” but it was much more complicated than that. Mass mobilization just doesn’t work as a short-term pressure tactic.
L.A. shares that the 2003 global anti-war protests failed because, in the wake of America’s defeat in the Vietnam war, it was imperative for the U.S. government to prove that an empire can wage war at will. The administration shrugged off the massive public opposition, daring the mass mobilizations to continue. They did not.
Ben fondly recalls meeting with former Congressman Barney Frank, who once told activists calling for a million-person protest to win Medicare for All, “the only thing that Marches on Washington apply pressure to is the grass in Washington, DC.” If marches aren’t accompanied by calls from and meetings with constituents, they won’t have the desired impact on lawmakers.
The 1963 March on Washington was the first major march in DC. Since then, it’s become almost routine for movements to hold marches on Washington, many of which have been very forgettable. But at the time it was very novel, and — motivated in large part by racism — feared by the powers that be. The predictions that hundreds of thousands of Black people marching in DC would cause riots and violence never came to be, though.
We contrast the stately 1963 March which was centrally planned from the top down (entirely by men), and very tightly policed — all the way down to prohibiting all but pre-printed protest signs — with the 2017 Women’s March, which mobilized 4.2 million people across the country with improvisational and decentralized leadership and a diverse spectrum of messages. They were very different mobilizations with very different outcomes.
The book reveals that the 1963 March actually drew energy away from smaller, local civil rights actions, while the 2017 Women’s March resulted in countless local organizing efforts around progressive issues. All of the time, money, and energy spent on the 1963 March left the movement depleted afterward, limiting the amount of follow up organizing. Due to the decentralized organization of the 2017 Women’s Marches (650 communities held marches in 2017), people continued working together, forming lasting groups like Indivisible and establishing the single largest era of protest in American history – in both numbers and geographical locations.
L.A. reminds us that pressure works best when it’s targeted, and tactics depend on the target; protests won’t work in every instance.
Protests work better at changing popular opinion and building the movement, especially if the mobilizations are repeated (such as LGBTQ+ rights marches in DC.) Often the biggest impact of mass mobilizations is not how they affect decision makers, but how they affect participants. When people feel energized, they’ll continue the work. This is intangible, hard to measure and hard to plan for.
Protests are crucial to building social change, but we don’t usually sit down and plan for morale building. Our time and energy would be well spent on our greatest asset, our participants; this is how we create sustained engagement that it will take to win.
Our big takeaway from our conversation with L.A. is that we’ll never win a big fight with one single tactic; it will take a variety of tactics on multiple fronts, repeated over time. But there’s so much more in her book that we didn’t get to cover. If you’re an organizing nerd like we are, seriously, go read How to Read a Protest: the Art of Organizing and Resistance!
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