Do Big Marches Still Matter?

Before the big National Equality Rights March last Sunday, Barney Frank flashed his trademark exasperation at the idea that the demonstration would push lawmakers on gay rights. “The only thing they’ll be putting pressure on is the grass,” he said.

Pam Spaulding reciprocated with some annoyance of her own. “I’m scratching my head on this. OK, so the march isn’t his bag, why not simply say nothing rather than to continue tossing out the barbs?”

While it certainly sucks to have the country’s most prominent openly gay politician call the National Equality March  a big waste of time,  isn’t Frank essentially correct in saying that big rallies like the NEM have little influence on policymakers? To the extent that the  mass demonstrations of the 1960s were effective in spurring policy changes  — and  there’s an argument we could probably have  about how true that may be — those rallies took place when big events monopolized the coverage of a handful of news outlets. That’s a markedly different media landscape than our current one.  There’s also the issue of march fatigue: according to Wikipedia, there have been nine big rallies in D.C. just this year. How much attention are lawmakers paying to any of these events?

There are undoubtedly tons of ancillary organizational benefits that come with big demonstrations. They allow advocacy groups with similar objectives to coordinate and network, to say nothing of the catharsis and goodwill that comes with rubbing shoulders with like-minded people. But to say they have a direct affect on policy seems like a stretch.

18 thoughts on “Do Big Marches Still Matter?

  1. Leigh October 13, 2009 at 10:37 am Reply

    Maybe the internet is the equivalent of the 1960s march – i.e., an enormous gathering of like-minded people. Problem is virtual nature of it makes it seem less powerful than it is (or actually reduces power of the masses).

    W/communications and transportation technologies what they are today, the emphasis of people making the trip to DC to gather together in protest just isn’t as compelling.

    I think protest works, but these big marches should probably be the kick off or final rally of long, sustained small/local protests and consistent, widespread organizing and repeated Congressional visiting. I’ve only done one Capitol Hill day with an advocacy group but I was impressed how many organized groups were up there, often women and in matching t-shirts, pressing the flesh of their politicians for their issues.

  2. shani-o October 13, 2009 at 11:30 am Reply

    Short answer: no.

    Longer answer: most marches are one step above slacktivism.

    I think Leigh makes a really good point about visiting Congressional reps, though.

    • Molly October 13, 2009 at 11:53 am Reply

      I had family who took time off of work to go to that rally, and it was a huge sacrifice for many people who had to bus into DC…I am sorry if a few trustafarians ruined your concept of protest, and I understand where you are coming from with that viewpoint, but one of the most important aspects of all LGBT equality events is to show the country and the lawmakers real people. Louie Gohmert did not come to that conclusion about LGBTs through frequent interaction with LGBT people. The reason why some regions of the country are more prone to support of marriage equality and pro-LGBT legislation is because of exposure and dialogue, IMO, and there is a ton of data to support this, though it is fairly intuitive (I read an article a few months ago that said evangelical teens are far more likely to support LGBT rights than previous generations of the same demographic due to media exposure–of course, now I cant find the link, but it is google-able I am sure). The Louie Gohmert of the world need to see faces attached to a set of politics, as frequently as possible, as a constant reminder that this is a discussion about real people and families, and not anything more highfalutin than that.

      • shani-o October 13, 2009 at 4:33 pm Reply

        Oh, I agree about the face-to-face contact, but I’m not sure that large rallies are the way to achieve that goal. Personal stories and showing the individual humanity attached to cause are hugely important. I just think calling/talking/meeting reps, using social media, etc, does more to change minds than a sea of people on the Mall.

        Hmm. I guess the question is not do rallies matter, but do they matter as much as other modes of organization.

      • Leigh October 13, 2009 at 9:25 pm Reply

        “I am sorry if a few trustafarians ruined your concept of protest”

        What’s the reason for this?

        • Molly October 14, 2009 at 11:08 am Reply

          it was a response to “slactivism”

          • Molly October 14, 2009 at 11:24 am Reply

            btw, in all sincerity, I think all acts of protest are very important and I like social involvement by all people–I think that everyone deserves credit for engaging in social justice efforts, and I have seen a lot of examples of ways that people can horde their assets and empathize with and advocate for no one. I hate the way that liberals throw around “entitlement” like an insult (it was discussed at length on this blog, but I have always observed that the worst thing one progressive can do to another is accuse her of being rich), when there are huge segments of the population who are so wealthy that they do not have to address the rest of the country on any real level, and therefore do nothing in the name of progress, and yet they move through live unscathed by criticism, while justice-seeking progressives are subjected to constant feedback. I did not mean to contribute to factionalism among progressives–I dont see teabaggers fighting amongst themselves–I just wanted to identify with her annoyance, plus I had too much coffee yesterday.

            • Leigh October 14, 2009 at 1:22 pm Reply


              I’ve no doubt teabaggers are subdivided into angry factions – the green teas think the earl greys are elitists, the breakfast blends think the chamomiles are slackers, the Liptons exoticize the green teas, it’s chaos! 🙂

              • Molly October 14, 2009 at 2:33 pm Reply

                Haha, and they all have to make concessions to the alcoholic sweet tea, which embarrasses even the most populist herbal blend…

  3. pprscribe October 13, 2009 at 12:49 pm Reply

    I think we can look at the image that you posted along with this for part of an answer. Big marches are still hugely important. As symbols that can give shape and form to more sustained and more “direct” activities. As proof that there are large masses of like-minded people. As visibility for people may be presumed to be nonexistent and invisible.

    I think Frank’s comments, though, were also important as they were a reminder not to stop there…a kick in the butt for anyone who may feel like marching is enough. Though his quip was quite clever, missing in a lot of the retelling of it was that he offered concrete, constructive ideas about how he thinks the movement(s) should go forward.

  4. Aaron Petcoff October 13, 2009 at 2:17 pm Reply

    I started writing a reply, but I’m gonna post a reply on my blog instead if you don’t mind. 🙂

  5. […] Still Matter?” 2009 October 13 by Aaron Petcoff I read an interesting post on PostBourgie called “Do Big Marches Still Matter” responding to some of the interesting conversation […]

  6. cindylu October 13, 2009 at 4:55 pm Reply

    I used to think marches mattered more. These days I feel jaded as I saw the largest marches in recent years calling for immigration reform. It’s almost 2010, we have a democratic president and both houses of Congress and yet we still have not seen a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Was it our [organizers’] faults that the only thing that happened after the huge 2006 May 1st/Day Without an Immigrant marches was enforcement legislation focusing on employers and the stupid border wall? In fact, after the ’06 marches, we started seeing an increase in raids culminating with the largest raid ever in Postville, Iowa in May 2008. Obama is supportive, but hasn’t done much aside rfom halting the ICE raids.

    I know the march/rally is just one aspect in a social movement. I’ve done the letter writing, the lobbying, the teach-ins, registering voters and voting. The marches are good for those who don’t have the time to be involved, it allows you to show marginal support even if you can’t register to vote (as in the case of many immigrants). There were a million people out in the LA streets on May 1, 2006. I doubt few are still directly involved in organizing, unless they were part of some group or union. That’s bad organizing and a wasted opportunity.

  7. Jeremy R. Levine October 13, 2009 at 10:59 pm Reply

    This is interesting. A lot of political scientists think that, beyond the idea of public marches/spectacles, public opinion doesn’t matter either, at least in the formation of social policy. The idea is the policies emerge from political concessions, the structure of which politicians face threat of losing their position, etc etc and basically operates above (and irrespective) of the realm of public opinion. So, 80% of Americans can approve of a public option, for example, but healthcare reform rests on the shoulders of Blue Dogs or certain politicians with elderly electorates worried about re-election in the midterm elections. This is a crude example, but the basic idea is that the State (big “S”) is often only marginally affected by public opinion or discourse.

    There’s some truth to this, but as G.D. notes, public events like marches and protests can also be a valuable tool for information dissemination and other forms of networking or coalition building.

    • Leigh October 14, 2009 at 1:24 pm Reply

      true-ish. I feel like this explanation erases interest group theories.

      People, Jeremy and I had lunch today – it was a PB meet-up!

      • Jeremy October 14, 2009 at 9:08 pm Reply

        Yeah I was just throwing out some theories. I have some serious problems with them, no doubt about it, but they are definitely close to hegemonic among a lot of the big shot political scientists in this country.

        And yes, there was in fact a real life PB meet-up, which makes two for me! (including meeting Alyssa last week)

  8. Ron October 14, 2009 at 11:20 am Reply

    I think people have rally fatigue. While I was in college, Angela Davis came to speak on campus and people were asking her about marches this and rallies that in the context of today’s problems and she said something very smart. She said something along the lines of, “That’s why generation did. You all have to figure out in an age where communications is different how to stage your own protests and change the game in ways that are fundamental to your times.”

    I think using the tactics are yore can be instructive, but, it defies the idea that what people did in those days was earthshattering. They wrecked their world and effectively say, “Enough of this. We’ve had enough.”

    We haven’t seen any protests of that magnitude today, because people haven’t quite figured out how to keep up with the shifting trends in a way to really capture the attention of everyone. And the most successful people doing that today are committing massive atrocities in the name of religion or whatever else they can come up with. But that’s not really new.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: