So you want to organize a very large protest march? There's no one better to ask than Leslie Cagan. Leslie has helped organize some of the biggest marches in recent history. To name just a few:
I interviewed Leslie in November 2015. Both Leslie and I have lightly edited the text below for clarity.
John Emerson: You’ve been doing this since the sixties.
Leslie Cagan: Yeah. By accident of birth, I graduated from college in ’68 and the first big demonstration that I worked on was in 1967. The March on the Pentagon in October 1967. I was a student at NYU and we organized the single largest contingent of buses: 20 buses from NYU.
JE: Was that the one where they tried to levitate the Pentagon?
LC: Yeah. Sad but true, it did not levitate. But we levitated! [laughs]
It was an amazing action. And through that I got involved with the larger coalitions, the National Student Mobilizing Committee to End the War in Vietnam, and then the grownup National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. And here in New York, the Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee and other groups . But that was the first really big demonstration that I was a part of. I have done a lot since then.
JE: How do you get started? How do you go about getting a permit—especially if you don’t know if there’s going to be ten thousand or half a million people?
LC: One of the first questions you need to ask yourself, for almost any action, even really big ones, is this: “Do you want to try and get a permit or not?” For big demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people, you usually get a permit. There are plenty of large demonstrations that haven’t gotten a permit… they just take to the streets. But that’s one of the first things you need to decide.
How you actually get the permit varies from city to city. The rules in Washington, DC are quite different than in New York. In New York if you want to be in the streets you have to go to the police department. If you want to use an amplified sound system in a public place, you have to go to the police department. There’s a marching permit, there’s a permit to be in the streets, and there’s a separate sound permit. If you want to be in the parks or on parks department property, you need a parks department permit.
In Washington, it’s more complicated because there’s the DC Police, there’s the National Park Service for the Mall and Lincoln Monument and places like that, there’s the Capitol Police if you’re going to be on Capitol grounds, there’s the White House security if you’re going to be anywhere near and around the White House, and there’s two or three others that I’m forgetting. So it depends exactly what you want.
Usually what would happen, if you’re going to do a big event that involves parks and police, you start with one of them. For instance if you’re in Washington, you might start with the National Park Service, partially because they’re often easier to deal with than the police—you just learn by doing it—and you tell them what your plan is. You usually have to fill out some paperwork and then they’ll convene a meeting with all the appropriate agencies and players. There may be a need for one on one meetings about some details. The Parks Department in New York City think they own every blade of grass, in fact the police always outrank the Parks Department. There have been times when I’ve seen this happen where the Parks Department doesn’t want something to happen and the police say “no it has to happen that way” and they give.
In each city it varies. Sometimes you are on Federal property, not only in Washington but in other places too. The other thing that has happened since 9/11 which further complicates things is that you may protest some events and activities, like in 2004 when the Republican National Convention was in town, that are designated by the Secret Service as a “special security zone” or a “high security event,” so they also have a voice. It’s very rare that you directly deal with the Secret Service or Homeland Security. That will be done through the police department but they, those federal agencies, can have a big hand in that stuff.
JE: How long does it take? How do you design the route?
LC: Again a lot depends on the circumstances. There is no one formula. In New York for instance, they have rules that you are supposed apply at least 21 days in advance, but things happens in the world and sometimes you have to move quickly, like when everything was happening in Ferguson and Baltimore people just took to the street, people didn’t apply for permits. But had they wanted a permit, they could have applied for one. I have never been in an experience were the police said you didn’t apply early enough and rejected it on that ground. They are usually more flexible and understand we are responding to events in the world. Again the rules and regulations will vary from city to city.
It’s almost always best to first put together what you want to do and then go to police. You can always say to the police this is the date, we want to do a demonstration and we want to be visible some place, where should we go? But I don’t think that’s a wise approach. It’s much better to say, “This is the route we want, or this is where we want to rally.”
And it is always good to have a plan B and to be prepared to tell the police you are not going to accept their idea or what they want to see happen. It’s fine to say to the police that you need to go back to talk more with the organizing committee. Often, like with People’s Climate March, there is a significant back and forward with the police. It took a long time to settle on a route because we wanted to go through Times Square and they refused to give us a permit for that. We went around and around for a few months and finally got a route we could live with because it took us along the southern end of Times Square. Went across 42nd Street after coming down 6th Avenue, a nice big road. In any negotiation you are on strong ground if you go in with a plan and say this is what we want. The people who are designated to negotiate with the police need to be trusted by the group, and the negotiating team need to know when to tell the police we can’t accept that and we have to go back and we will call back tomorrow or a week.
JE: Are the police collaborative or more antagonistic?
LC: It varies. The dynamic with the police on the People’s Climate March, which was the first big march after Mayor de Blasio took office, was much easier than it had been for the previous 20 years. We didn’t get exactly what we wanted, although once we got the route settled we got virtually everything we wanted and needed. A lot of details go into a march, like the placement of the barricades or were porta-johns go.
JE: Do you decide that or the police?
LC: The police decide barricades. If it was up to me or others there would be no barricades. If you look at pictures of marches in cities around the world, there are no barricades. Even in Washington there are a lot less barricades. New York is over the top with barricades. But even on that we had to negotiate with them. We went back and forth, but at the end they’re going to put up what they want to put up, but at least we laid down a foundation of why we think it’s a bad idea, so we fight them all the time on the barricades. Things like the placement porta-johns and Jumbotrons, if you’re going to have that as we did on the route, they are often more willing to negotiate those details.
Sometimes we have a perspective on why it’s good to place things based on the information we have and how we want our demonstration to play out. Sometimes they, the police, have information about where there’s construction going on and you don’t want march there, near stuff like that. At least here in New York, once the police have agreed to let you march, then they seem to know that they’ve got to be somewhat open to negotiating the details of it to make it work, because otherwise they are effectively not letting you march.
JE: So porta-johns, Jumbotrons, barricades—what other things do you need for a big march?
LC: Well, there’s a few big things, especially if you’re organizing a really big march with buses coming in. Where do buses come in, where do they drop off people, where do they pick people, where do they park during the day? Is that all the same place? Do they drop off people, park right there and pick up people there or not?
For instance with the People’s Climate March buses dropped people off at 86th street, on the Upper West Side, and then went downtown and parked near 34th Street in the West side.
JE: Did you have to arrange that with police or with the businesses or lot owners?
LC: It’s all with the police because it’s out on the street, and it’s impacted by city bus routes and things like that. It can be a big thing if you’re having buses come in. Even in a city like New York, you might have a local demonstration but buses will be coming in from Queens or Brooklyn or from nearby places out of town.
So buses, barricades, porta-johns—we also had water. We had water stations because it was late September and we didn’t know what the weather would be. There’s also Jumbotrons, any kind of big equipment, a press area.
JE: Are there additional security concerns?
LC: Yeah, we even had further complications because Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary General of the UN and some other dignitaries and people like Al Gore and the Mayor wanted to join the march but they weren’t going to join at the beginning. They wanted to join halfway down and then just march for a few blocks. None of these people march the whole route, so we had to negotiate where they would arrive, where they would gather, where they would enter the march, and where they would leave.
We had our own security concerns, they had their security concerns, and the police have their security concerns but it all got put together and it went okay.
We never made public where they were going to gather or come in or exactly what time it would be, details like that. Of course, we can’t provide security for the Secretary General or Al Gore, so they have their own security teams and, at the end of the day, that’s the police department’s responsibility, you know.
At the assembly area and halfway down the march route, we had two locations where we rented some wheelchairs so if people couldn’t march the whole route, they could use a wheelchair for the day, or if they wanted to, they could just stand at the halfway point and watch the march go by. We had to negotiate that with the police so those would be secure areas. We would control them but that’s all that would be happening there. And then things like security teams and our lawyers, you know interfacing with the police, etc. That part is pretty easy.
I’m trying to think of what else. I mean any detail that you can think of that might come into play needs to be negotiated. For instance, another example from the People’s Climate March: we had decided to not do a rally and so the idea came up that as people were assembling there were going to be some mini-rallies along Central Park West. We needed to negotiate those, because those needed sound permits. We got all of those-I think it was 5 or 6 sites-as one permit, and we had to negotiate the details. This march was on a Sunday and you can’t have a sound system in front of a church because they might be having a service. It’d have to be X number of feet away. The police had the list of where all the churches are along Central Park West and where it was necessary we just moved a block up or down.
Anything that’s not a person walking, or pushing a stroller or something like that you need to negotiate. If you want to have a float, or any kind of trucks, vehicles, things like that, you have to negotiate about where exactly it will enter, where it will park before they enter, and where it leaves. Because you don’t want them just in the middle of things as people are gathering. It could actually cause problems. And you want them to negotiate that too, to make sure everything is clear.
On the Friday afternoon before the People’s Climate March we had our last meeting with the police. Three of us went. There were some sixty people in the room, because it wasn’t just police. Even though we were not on parks property, we were on Central Park West, near the park, they were all concerned. So, the Parks Department was there, and Sanitation because they clean up afterwards, and the Department of Transportation, and all the various agencies that were going to be impacted one way or another. At one point, in the middle of meeting one of the cops asked the main cop that we were negotiating with and who was giving the run-down of how the day would go, “Are there going to be any animals there?” So I said, “Some people might bring their dogs, but no, no big animals,” and the main officer looked at me and said, “no, no big animals right?” and I said, “nah, no big animals.” Well later that day I got back to the office and I got a call from the guy who was our labor coordinator. He told me that the Teamsters Union, the union that the horse-drawn carriage drivers belong to, wanted to have one of the horses and carriages in the march!
It was Friday afternoon. I said “It’s too late, we’ve already negotiated this. Is it really important for the labor movement?” And he said, “Yes, it’s very important that you at least try.” So, I tried and we actually got it. I called the cop and said, “Listen I just found this out, they want to have one.” We negotiated where it would come in, and how many blocks they would be in the march, where it would leave. On my own, I would not have wanted a horse in the middle of a big crowd of people.
JE: A lot of these things are done in coalition.
LC: They almost all are—though there are some exceptions: for instance, in 2004 there was a big women’s march in Washington that NOW coordinated, and they got a whole lot of other women’s groups to sign up, but they really ran that show. The Million Man March was mainly run by The Nation of Islam. A million groups signed on to that, but that was theirs.
A lot of the events that I’ve been involved in, though, have been run by coalitions. Sometimes it’s coalitions that already exist, like for instance, when the Republican National Convention came to NYC, United for Peace and Justice already existed and we made a decision to do this. Other times, a coalition comes together, like with the Climate March. The groups came together in order to do that. There’s no one template that works and the nature of these coalitions are all different. Some are relatively small, maybe a dozen groups. Some can have many, many groups—50, 60, 80 groups.
JE: So how do you make decisions?
LC: The larger the coalition gets, the more you need clarity about who is making which decisions, and creating some kind of decision making body-a steering committee, a coordinating committee-makes sense.
People don’t like those words these days, but whatever they call it there has to be a smaller group that’s trusted to make decisions and move the effort forward. Sometimes there’s an even smaller kind of administrative committee that’s much more hands on. There are day-to-day decisions that need to be made. I can’t think of any big demonstration, a really big one, I’ve worked on where there hasn’t been staff hired, because there are just so many details to attend to. It’s a full time job!
JE: How big of a team usually?
LC: It varies. For the People’s Climate March, well that’s a little hard to even calculate because there were people like myself hired specifically to work on the march, but then there were people “donated” from a few organizations. 350.org, Avaaz, the Sierra Club and a few others assigned staff to work full time. This was actually a very tricky thing that took a few months to work out. After the organizing office was opened. It was my understanding that organizations were assigning staff to work in that office and there would be coordination amongst all of the staff. But several of those organizations thought that just that their staff people would be concentrating on their organization’s mobilizing efforts and not necessarily working as part of a larger team. Well what’s the point then? We finally broke through that and said there had to be a greater level of coordination. I don’t know what the numbers were, but I my guess is that by the end there probably were 40-50 people working there full time.
JE: Wow, for months?
LC: No, no, no. I would say, probably for the last month.
I came on about six months ahead of time. I was one of the early people hired, and there were a few others hired around the same time. The staff grew, and kept growing as the time went on.
When we did the February 2003 demonstration against the upcoming Iraq war, I was hired to anchor that and I was able to get space donated from 1199 [a local union of the Service Employees International Union.] They had a big space available, so it worked out.
I wish I had a camera. I started the first week in January. I went into that office, it was just a big room and there were several tables around, not even desks, some tables and a few phones and overhead lights. That was it. I had my computer and my things, and I sat down at the phone and I started working. The first people I called were some lawyers that were going to have to negotiate with the city for permits, and I got them going and, you know, this, that, and the other thing. By the next week, I had already hired a few people. Anyway, by the end of six weeks you couldn’t move. We were out of that space and into the hallway. We were just commandeering other offices around us. Luckily, most of that floor was being renovated so it was open space [laughter]. We had people making puppets there, and I mean it was just, you know, quite wild, but each week it looked different and it kept growing and growing and growing. We got more phones put in. We got some real desks. We got one or two dividers so I could have a little space to have more sensitive conversations, quietly. By the end of that period I would say there were a good twenty-five people working on that full time.
LC: What I learned a long time ago about big marches, or actually any event, is to put myself for a minute in the mindset of somebody who is coming to that event. You want that person to have the best experience they can. For me, the best logistics at a demonstration are ones that after someone goes home, they don’t remember anything about where the porta-johns were. Because they were convenient and could get to them, they could find them. But they’ll remember if they couldn’t find the porta-johns. And if they couldn’t figure out where to get to their buses at the end of the day, they remember that! But, all of the logistical details should be seamless, and so that the focus is on the issues, and why you’re there and then the crowd.
I’ve been to demonstrations and it was great that all these people were there, and they had all these wonderful speakers, but nobody could hear. You know, if you were a block away from the stage, you couldn’t hear. What does that mean about our sound system? To me a simple platform is best-put a chair that somebody could jump on-that’s fine as long as the sound system is good. If the rally component of what you’re doing is important, you should want people to hear the message. A good sound system can serve as a way to bring people into the moment, instead of having people just wandering off. If it’s a choice between having a fancy stage and having good sound system, I would always go with the good sound system.
JE: Where do things usually go wrong?
LC: When don’t they! [laughter] I mean, it depends. I think sometimes people mis-call it. Sometimes people think this is a time to be out in the streets, and the people they are trying to reach just aren’t responding. You know, the issue isn’t quite ready for people to be on the streets on. It’s a judgment call.
This is not necessarily the case with really big demonstrations. Sometimes you get to that point where you’re movement is on a roll and you can sense that the time is right.
JE: So you go through all the motions and no one turns out?
LC: It’s not the kind of turn out you wanted, or whatever. One thing, of course, that can go very wrong is the weather, which you can’t control at all [laughter]. I’ve been in marches with serious weather. But, with February fifteenth  we were really lucky because the day after that there was a snow storm… sixteen inches of snow in New York. Had that happened on the day of the demonstration we would have been wiped out.
Weather can seriously impact things. The other big place where things go wrong or challenge you to think about how you’re going to handle it is in the negotiations with the police or whatever agency. In 1982 the big nuclear disarmament march (which I still think was the biggest march in US history [laughter]) our plan was to assemble by the UN, march past the UN, and go to Central Park and have a rally on the Great Lawn. We proposed that, negotiated it, and Parks said OK. They weren’t happy about it but they said ok. The police said ok. And the demonstration grew and grew and grew and everybody knew it was growing. There were many signals that it was growing. Nobody knew how big it was going to be, but it was growing, and so then the Parks department got nervous and said we don’t want all those people in the park. It turned out, I didn’t even realize that our demonstration was being held on what is historically the busiest weekend of the year in Central Park-the second weekend in June.
So they didn’t want a zillion people in the park because they though it would disrupt everybody else, and they went to the police and convinced the police that we should assemble around Central Park, like on Central Park West or on Fifth Avenue or whatever, and then go over to the UN and have a rally on the street in front of the UN. Ok, so we said ok, we don’t like this plan, we don’t think this is good, but we’ll go with it if that’s what we have to do. Two weeks before the demonstration we got a call from the police department. They realized that this was even bigger and we can’t have that many people in front of the UN so we’re going to go back the other way. We’re going to assemble near the UN, march past it and end up in Central Park. (Remember: this was all happening before we used the Internet and social media so we had a massive job to get the new details out to folks!)
JE: How do they have a sense of the size? How do they know?
LC: Oh well, sometimes they know more than we know. At some point about several weeks before the demonstration, we were in a negotiation with the police and one of the top ranking officers said his daughter and all her friends were coming. So they knew, they knew. They monitor everything. And this was 1982 we’re talking about. We didn’t use the Internet at all. We had one computer in the office and that was only for the money, you know for keeping track of the money and that.
JE: Speaking of money, you’ve mentioned porta-johns, Jumbotrons, big sound systems, where do the funds come from?
LC: Yeah, Jumbotrons are the most expensive.
JE: Does the coalition kick in?
LC: Well it depends again. As we were organizing the February 15, 2003 anti-war rally we quickly realized that was going to be massive. We decided to have Jumbotrons and 1199 decided that it would be their contribution. For the People’s Climate March, the money for Jumbotrons came through Avaaz.
That’s often what happens. Technically it’s the coalition expense but some organization will pick it up. But usually, and again it varies a little bit, the expenses for big demonstration are covered by the coalition and that involves some combination of donations from the member groups of the coalition and, depending on how much time there is for fundraising, funds come from rich individuals, from foundations, from every source you can contact. Not so much as the really big demonstrations because it’s a bit of a logistical challenge but even at some big marches I’ve organized, you also can raise funds when you’re right out there on the streets—just collect from people as they’re marching by.
JE: How do you get the word out and turn out people to a really big march?
LC: We’d have several hundred people in the room in New York City getting updates and leaflets and posters and assignments and getting encouraged to go out and do the work and I’d say, “I don’t know about you all, but I don’t want to be in the situation when the day after our march I’d run into an old friend who says ‘Wow that was quite a march. If I’d only known about it I’d have been there.’”
You have to believe this effort is important and project that to people—that this is the right issue and the right vehicle for expressing themselves on this issue and the right timing, and that it’s important enough to make a plan to be there be there—change a plan even, if you have something else that you were thinking of doing that day, and reach out to friends and people you know and networks and organizations that you’re involved with to be there because this is one you’re not going to want to miss. And some of it is a little bit of smoke and mirrors, you create an image and you start talking it up. “This is it! This is the event, and you’re going to be sorry if you miss this one.” And you create that buzz. You use every tool you have available. Now of course there are more tools than we used to have.
Although when we did the ‘82 march, which I honestly believe there were a million people there, without some of the tools we now have, like the Internet.
JE: So you start with word of mouth and leaflets…
LC: Phone calls and mailings and actually putting things in envelopes and mailing them out and just, you know, being out on the streets handing leaflets to people. Now, people hardly leaflet. I pushed real hard that we do that for the People’s Climate March, I think it helped make a difference. It’s no one thing. A lot of people will come through an organization. Their organization is on board and they organize their members and they come.
But other people, more random people are the difference between a large demonstration and a humongous demonstration, the non-affiliated people. They’re going to come because they get a leaflet, they hear something on the radio, a friend of their’s calls them up. They’re on 18 email lists and 13 of them are sending out notices about it. It’s a hodgepodge of things that they’re interfacing with. That begins to say, yes, this is real, this is really happening.
I think the street visibility sometimes has been given short shrift, because people think that if they’re online they’re reaching everybody, and I don’t think it’s enough.
JE: I remember all the blue stickers around town from February 2003, and the little flyers in the bodegas.
LC: That’s right. Just, out there, all over the place. And, I think that we don’t do that enough these days. For the People’s Climate March I pushed really hard to do that. We needed to get posters up in the bodegas; to have that kind of street visibility.
I don’t know if it actually came off, but the plan was to do two days of leafletting at subways. Either in the morning or the afternoon rush hour, when people were getting off to go to work or getting back on the subway to go home, to be at as many subway stops as possible on the same day, handing out leaflets.
It all that helps. And then of course, now there is the social media, too. Facebook and Twitter and all of that stuff. And that all helps, but also the mainstream media.
This has happened several times, but definitely for the February 2003 and for the RNC demonstration in 2004. We managed to take what would have been a negative, as a fight with the City over permits. and use it to our advantage.
We got so much free media because of those fights. There was a period in the run-up to the RNC when, I’m telling you, I became like a little star in New York City. I would walk down the street and people would come up to me and say, “Did I see you on TV?” We were in the media for almost two months straight.
JE: So, did you do press releases? How did this happen?
LC: Yeah, we did press releases, and for both demonstrations we had some in-house people doing media work, and we also worked with some PR firms to get the word out. We held press conferences. And then it picked up steam once it got going. No, we worked the media. All of that “earned media.” I call it free media!
But there was a real story there. The City was behaving stupidly. If they had given us the permits we wanted, we never would have gotten all that free coverage. Who knows if the demonstrations would have been as big [LAUGHS].
JE: I know in some places they like to mix up the rules, to prevent big demos.
LC: Well, the rules change. The Parks Department rules have changed. I don’t remember when but, sometime about maybe ten or twelve years ago, the Parks Department put in a rule that, in any New York City park, any gathering of 20 or more people requires a permit. If you are having a press conference, you’re having a family picnic, or if you are having a major rally, whatever. Any kind of activity on Parks Department property.
JE: Is that still on the books? People are having birthday parties in Prospect Park every weekend!
LC: Right. I don’t know if the police bother to enforce it, or, some of those people probably got permits. I mean it’s fairly easy to get a permit, actually.
JE: But you mentioned going to a lawyer…
LC: Well, because when you want to put a few hundred thousand people on the street, that’s a little more complicated than 20 people at a family picnic.
JE: So for the parks department, you said you go online, there’s a website, presumably they email you approval.
LC: Yeah, but again if you’re planning on doing something big in the parks it gets more complicated. By the way, mean we’re very lucky here in New York, and this may vary from city to city, but the Civil Liberties Union in New York has a great team of people that specifically work on this, especially Chris Dunn who works on the right to protest. They provide this legal service for free, they don’t charge you.
JE: So you just call them?
LC: With the People’s Climate March, one of the first calls I made was to Chris. I said, “We don’t exactly know yet what we want to do, but giving you a heads up, we’re gonna need you.” He comes to the negotiations with us, we do the negotiating but he’s there, and they usually have a lawyer from the police department there, too, because sometimes things do end up in court.
JE: Even with the date of the event fast approaching?
LC: Yeah. Again, for February 2003, we went to court, we lost and we appealed and we lost again.
JE: To rally in Central Park?
LC: To march! They said you can either march or rally, you can’t do both, because they didn’t have the police officers to do both. They estimated they were going to need 7,000 police officers to monitor a march, so we said “There’s a very simple solution, we don’t need all these police officers!” They said no you can’t do both. And we lost. This was the first big demonstration in New York City after 9/11 so the courts, they said for security reasons, you know, you need security. And that was it. When we were in court, there were lawyers from the federal government, I forget now if it was the Justice Department, sitting with the legal council of the City, so the Feds were in the mix and that was a strange time.
JE: Do you use a checklist? Is there a guide or a manual for running a big protest march?
LC: No, I do not know of a manual for organizing major protests. I put together a check list for each mobilization I work on, and there are items that always show up on that list. Several people said to me, “You should really write a manual.” My hesitation in terms of writing is that each situation is different, and I think sometimes in trainings of people, of organizers, they end up being somewhat cookie cutter, formulaic. Organizing in general, not just for demonstrations or big marches, but in general, the core of it is about working with people and that always means there will be differences in how each situation plays out. That means there cannot really be one formula, right? Who the players are, what resources the groups bring to the table, how pressing the issue is, what kind of response you get from the government agencies that you’re dealing with will all vary from event to event. There are some threads that run through it all and some considerations, so it’s a balance between what always needs to be dealt with and the particulars of each situation.
JE: Even just the practicalities, like, oh, you know, someone’s gotta get the garbage bags…
LC: Right. I think that that’s right and that’s the part I should do, and I guess I could write it in a way that reminds people the key to any successful planning is flexibility. Be prepared to scrap the plan and start again, you know. That’s my experience, anyway.
JE: Or the T-shirts and the posters.
LC: Right. No, it’s true. There are things, little things that make a big difference. For instance, if you’re going to order posters and then distribute them to different groups and different cities, then you have to leave a space on the poster that each group can put in their own local contact information. This is true regardless of the event you are organizing.
JE: When you start something you have no idea how many people will show up—or maybe you have a sense of it.
LC: Well, I don’t know how I got it, but I think that’s part of what I have.
LC: A feel for what is a moment. You know, in the law there is the concept of an issue being ripe before it can go to the courts, and there is something about a moment, a movement moment, and an issue being ripe in terms of organizing a major mobilization.
For instance, last year, I think it was in late January or February, a friend called and said was involved in discussions about what became the People’s Climate March, I knew right then that this was… obviously I didn’t know for sure, but my gut feeling was that this could be a moment where there could be a large demonstration on this issue.
I sensed this because of what I saw as the combination of many years of organizing on environmental issues, and in more recent years there being a movement on the climate crisis: more in the news, more awareness, more consciousness about the climate crisis. And the fact that this march was being organized because the Secretary General of the UN was inviting leaders of the world to come to New York for a special meeting on the climate crisis.
That meant there would be a kind of energy around that as well as a media interest, and a real reason to march. Having the right issue is not enough. There are a million issues every day. I’m amazed that people aren’t just running wild in the streets all the time. There are a million issues that would be legitimate reasons to have mass mobilizations. But, that doesn’t mean it’s the right opportunity. You need some kind of hook, something that kind of resonates, “Yes, this is a good moment to be on the street.”
With the People’s Climate March, it was a good moment because the heads of state were going to be convened by the head of the UN. Whatever your analysis of the strengths or weaknesses of the UN, it’s the international body.
There needs to be a compelling reason: this is a good day to come out in the streets because it’s a day before they are going to start meeting, and they need to hear from people.
And, since people can’t come from all around the world, we have a kind of responsibility to represent the rest of the world. So not only do you need to come, you need to bring five of your friends with you.
Anything over 100,000 is large scale. But in some situations, 10,000 people would be a large-scale demonstration. So it’s all relative to the moment, the issue and the context, the players and the possibilities and the resources available.
JE: So why march before the event rather than during the event when there’s more chance of disrupting things?
LC: Right, you could do that. But the first question you need to ask is this: Do you want to disrupt the event or do you want to put pressure on it? And how much is the event your main focus versus it being the excuse for expanding awareness of the issue and building greater participation in the movement?
There are several reasons why you would choose the tactic of a large march. One is you want to give many, many people the opportunity to be with many, many other people, so they don’t feel alone in this struggle. It’s especially important for people from small towns or rural communities to come and say “This really is a movement I’m a part of.” And hopefully that reenergizes them and keeps them going after the march. But also, sometimes large numbers of people are a tool to get even greater attention, including media attention. In New York City, five thousand people, ten thousand people even can sometimes be lost by the media. But you put a hundred thousand people in the street, or a half a million people in the street it’s a little bit harder for the media to totally ignore you. And the truth is that these world leaders do, (or their staff, anyway) read the papers. They watch the news. It’s a way they send a message to policy makers. It’s not the only way to send a message, but if part of what you are trying to do is also nurture a movement at the same time then you can’t limit yourself to activities that require people to already have a certain level of commitment. There have to be entry points, an onramp if you will, for people to enter a movement. It’s got a permit, it’s allowed, there’s not going to be trouble with the police, we’re not all gonna be rounded up, and yet we could still have some impact… ok I’ll go.
So it’s all of issues that need to be considered. Is the most important thing to have the direct impact on some activity, like a big meeting? You want to break it up? Or is the most important thing to get more people engaged in this movement by offering something that’s easy for them to do? Big marches are a tactic like any other tactic. It’s the same set of questions that you should be asking yourself. It’s not enough to say “well it feels like it might be good”…there really should be a little more thought to it.
Marches should not be an end in themselves. A march does not in itself create change. Marches are a way to help build a movement and momentum.