Thousands of people march in London against the invasion of Gaza. Credit: Demotix/Guy Corbishley.Is tens of thousands marching through the streets newsworthy?
When the recent assault on Gaza started, the response from many Western solidarity groups was formulaic: vigils and big marches. Even when Palestinians call for “rage”, even when those marching are brimming with it, what you get is more marches from A to B, with a rally at the end.
This isn’t because marches are the most effective tactic. It’s nothing to do with creating change. Marches are the symptom of a movement that focuses on the battle over ‘mass awareness’, replacing creativity with 'standard protest repertoires'.
It’s not just Palestine solidarity groups that do this; swathes of other Western social movements fall back on the same tactics again and again. They are repeated because of a fundamental belief that this is how change happens – even when evidence of their success isn’t really there.
So are are marches effective?
Mass marches perform valid functions for social movements: they’re more accessible to interested new people, and there’s space to inspire and focus people with rallies and speeches.
But UK marches are often organised with the aim of generating substantial mainstream media coverage, which will then 'pressure' the government into listening to us.
Sadly, marches just aren’t that notable in the eyes of news-makers. On TV or in a paper, there’s nothing to differentiate one march from any other: formulaic visuals of a sea of placards, a rally with the usual suspect, minor-league politicians speaking.
Even when marches do occasionally generate coverage in the media, the piece rarely goes substantially into what the march is about. If our aim to increase public support, then this lack of crucial information causes problems.
Marches are cathartic, but that’s not necessarily a blessing. On one hand, a shared experience of solidarity is valuable for movement building. On another, many find releasing emotions onto the streets with no concrete results disempowering. There are few worse ways to give people confidence that they can act to stop injustice than making them stand and passively listen to speeches.
So the real question becomes: are marches a sufficient tactic for the change we want?
In recent history, all I need to say is 'Iraq' to highlight how little most Western governments are persuaded by mass marches, media coverage or not. In the UK a million people took to the streets in 2003 to protest the Iraq war, but the government showed little interest and went ahead with the invasion anyway.
On top of that, there’s the question of finite movement resources. Is it worth the time and energy of 100 people to organise a mass march, and the time and energy of thousands of participants to attend? Could the energy be better served channeled into other tactics? What support can big organisations give to help people prepare for and understand different tactics?
When instead the focus is, ‘did we get more people on our march than last time?’ or ‘did we get more media coverage?’, there’s a problem. The strategic step to convert people and energy on the streets into material gains for Palestinians is never taken, replaced with the easier 'raise even more awareness'. 'Awareness' is not the same as 'political action'.
It’s also worth unpacking the idea of awareness raising. In theory, it sounds great. More people knowing more about the conflict means more people to take action in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. More people taking action could mean more concrete gains for Palestinians living under apartheid laws.
In practice though, it normally just means lowering the bar of success. Practically any work to 'make people more aware of the issues' can be counted as a success. When you combine that with a modern need to keep social media followers and email list supporters 'warm' with a constant stream of successes, this can be particularly damaging.
Our government knows what’s happening to Palestinians. MPs know about the occupation and the settler colonialism. They know that the UK sells Israel the weapons it needs to bomb the prison camp of Gaza.
But meaningful change in our society doesn’t trickle down from the top. It rises up like a tidal wave when we act together. In the words of Amnesty, government inaction should be countered with “direct campaign action”.
Even if you think pressuring the government to improve our world is a good allocation of movement resources (I don’t) then history makes it clear that you need the back-up of direct action. Governments profiting from a problem rarely listen to their people unless there’s an economic threat.
Crucially, we need to follow the strategy set out by Palestinians. On top of the call for boycotts divestment and sanctions (BDS), Palestinians on the ground recently called for more direct action across the world. This is taking the lead from some inspirational protests in Palestine, including dismantling apartheid infrastructure like settler-only railways and army checkpoints, and returning to rebuild ethnically-cleansed Palestinian villages.
And solidarity activists across the world are heeding the call. Recent marches in London have ended with small groups breaking off to target local shops that sell Israeli goods. Boycott actions have multiplied across the world, with successes in Irish shops and across the EU. An Israeli arms factory near Birmingham was shut down after protesters occupied its roof, an action copied in Australia against the same company. Community activists and trade unionists in Oakland successfully stopped a boat of Israeli goods from docking at the port, recalling similar actions against apartheid South Africa. Israeli embassy buildings have been blockaded and damaged from the Netherlands to Turkey.
There is a time and a place for big media-friendly stunts. But now we need more.
An important step is being taken now by existing Palestine solidarity networks in the UK to build momentum for direct action, through trainings and practical support to people that are angry but don’t have the tools to act.
We can’t politely play the long game of awareness-raising, hoping that our government notices and sanctions Israel. There simply isn’t the time to wait for MPs to find their mythical consciences. We need to take BDS into our hands.
Only by directly confronting those organisations that profit from and support Israel will they change. They’re supporting apartheid because it’s lucrative. Cause them economic damage, and the support starts to crumble.
Because if we don’t act now, who will?