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A crowd of people moving in orderly fashion from A to B to express a political opinion.

A protest march looks a lot like an army, albeit a rather disorganised one. People move in rank, carrying banners like military standards.

In the past, when long distance communication was difficult, marches enabled people from remote areas to express their opinions to their rulers.

It was also, I suspect, a veiled threat of violence or even revolution. The size of the crowd would give an indication of the popularity of the cause, both to the rulers and to bystanders who might or might not be sympathetic. A show of strength, rather like the displays of ritualised aggression common in the animal kingdom.

Sometimes the rulers sent the army to attack the crowd. Sometimes they gave in to the demands of the protesters out of fear. Rulers do not like to be seen as weak. Fair, democratic, benign, paternal, ruthless, yes. But not weak. Many protesters don't like to admit that they would ever use threats and intimidation to get their way. The result: a myth, propagated by rulers and protesters that simply walking peacefully through the streets of a major city can achieve political change. Marches are more likely to pass peacefully, if the protesters achieve their aims. Not vice versa.

Ghandi showed that it is possible to be a pain in the ass to those in power, without using violence. This is progress. He was a pain in the ass though. This is also known as civil disobedience. Being a pain in the ass without using violence was the original aim of reclaim the streets.

Protest marches are likely to be physically attacked by the authorities if:

1) The rulers have successfully suppressed free speech to such an extent that the protesters are introducing an ignorant public to a subversive but attractive idea. In extremely repressive societies, the majority of ideas are subversive and attractive.

2) The rulers suspect (rightly or wrongly) that some of the protesters are intent on violence. rulers sometimes suffer from paranoia.

3) The protesters are a non-violent pain in the ass. e.g they may be deliberately obstructing a road. The best method is to provoke the protesters to violence, attack them, and then blame them for everything.

Nowadays, most protest marches in Britain are pre-arranged months in advance, and their organisers consult with the police over routes, timings etc. so as to minimise disruption. Opinion polls make it possible for democratic rulers to estimate the strength of opinion for or against a particular policy, and the likelihood of it swinging an election. They do not need to see a large crowd of people voicing that opinion.

The modern day protest march is often a way for protesters to let off steam. It often suits the rulers, because their political opponents are engaged in something time consuming and largely pointless. The protesters may be able to get their opinions to a wider audience, but there are easier and better ways to do this. Often they end up talking to themselves, also known as preaching to the converted. This is known as civic action.

I once went on a CND march to RAF Fylingdales, a remote military base on the North York Moors, involved in the star wars program. Several hundred CND members turned up, listened to speeches and sang "We shall overcome". Two women chained themselves together in front of the gates. This was opposed by many in the crowd, who felt that this behaviour would damage the cause. Afterwards, they all went home. The outside world knew nothing about it.

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