Freedom News

When Marches Work

By Graham of East London Radical Assembly and London Anarchist Federation

The left loves marching. At their best, marches can be invigorating, unifying, and help to bring new people into active struggle. They can also be a massive waste of time and resources, make next to no impact, and serve largely to demoralise and demobilise. So what distinguishes a good march from a rubbish one? Here’s a quick look back at some of the best London marches of the past 12 months, and what made them stand out.

Within communities

Focus E15 Mothers have rightfully been one of the most talked about activist groups in London of the past year. Their strengths haven’t just been in grabbing headlines with explosive direct action (like their occupation of a block of flats on the Carpenters Estate), but also through a long term and slow building engagement within the local community in Stratford. This culminated in a recent March Against Evictions to mark their 2nd anniversary, which brought together a number of housing campaigns from across the city. Beyond the usual collection of activists and trade unionists, there were also many local people who had never previously been involved with political activity, who had become galvanised by the housing conditions in the city and by Focus E15’s campaigning. The march was both a celebration of two years success, an act of defiance against the intimidation of the local authorities, and a moment of politicisation for those new to the struggle.

Visual impact

In a very short space of time Sisters Uncut have built a reputation for being the most creative and militant group in the London activist network. From their pounce onto the red carpet at the Suffragette premiere to occupying Kensington High Street and burning the Daily Mail, they have a knack for choosing the right targets and creating arresting images for grabbing media and onlookers’ attention. The climax of their sombre and powerful Funeral March was no exception, with the Trafalgar Square fountains ending up stained an appropriately sickening blood red. The march itself was brilliantly orchestrated, with most in attendance veiled and in black, memorial flower arrangements spelling out ‘Domestic Violence Services’, and coloured smoke bombs, all in their trademark green and purple. The visual element isn’t just a matter of catching attention, but also plays a part in creating Sisters Uncut’s sense of unity and solidarity, which sets them apart as one of the most supportive organising groups in the city.

Bringing together disparate groups

The first ever Peckham Pride march was recently organised by the groups Movement for Justice and Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants. It was a sorely needed alternative to the official Pride marches, which have come under increasing criticism for their tepid liberalism and disconnect from Pride’s formative political roots. The Peckham event in contrast both celebrated freedom and diversity whilst also speaking out against the treatment of LGBT asylum seekers in immigration detention. It was an event built by grassroots groups, which was careful to engage the community beforehand and make sure there was local support. On the day was a beautiful display of unity between campaigners and locals on two issues that have not typically been closely tied: former detainees chanting for LGBT rights, marchers draped in rainbow flags thrusting Shut Down Yarls Wood placards into the air, and the destruction of an immigration enforcement piñata at the finale, all balancing fun and anger throughout.

Challenging liberal narratives

Of course when disparate groups come together, it’s not always so harmonious. At the recent People’s Climate March for Justice and Jobs, the front of the march was initially promised to Wretched of the Earth, a grassroots collective representing indigenous people and diaspora communities from the global south. But when it became clear that WotE’s message was far more radical than the organisers had anticipated, this offer seemingly expired. The NGOs refused to let the march begin until WotE moved back, sanitising the message by bringing their own corporate-friendly banners to the front for the media. Banners challenging imperialism and capitalism were pulled from people’s hands. A standoff ensued, from which WotE emerged victorious and took the front of the march. This spectacle of a struggle playing out within the march itself exposed the inadequacies at the heart of the liberal NGO-led environmental movement. It created a platform to speak to the activist community about how their actions can reflect and reproduce racist global power structures. And it has helped to galvanise Wretched of the Earth as a regularly meeting network of groups taking collective action.

Whilst we can never know in advance how an action will play out, whether it’s a march or otherwise, there are still lessons to be learned from past successes. As well as the elements outlined above of community engagement, visual impact, fostering concrete solidarity between groups and creating a platform for radical messages, there is another crucial point that connects each of these examples: they were led by those most affected. Not by self-appointed leaders from large NGOs, political parties or trade unions, but by former immigration detainees, people displaced by gentrification, indigenous activists and survivors of domestic violence. Others were there showing solidarity, but on terms set by those who needed to be heard the most. If marching is to work to bring about revolutionary change, it can’t simply be a utilitarian act of bland ‘unity’ to bring about a specific future aim (e.g. changing government policy). It has to be in itself an aim, an empowering moment, where those who are least heard in politics and the media are given the biggest voice.

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