'A to B' marches are vital if we want to bolster the Left, bring people in and give strength to other tactics argues Shelly Asquith
It’s recently become a trope to dismiss what is termed the ‘A to B march’ as ‘boring’ or ‘ineffective’. In this context it is counterposed against what are viewed as more militant actions. This is a valid opinion, but one I believe has the potential to isolate a huge inﬂux of new activists.
We do, as the Left, need to diversify what we do and who we involve. I don’t think anyone who advocates marches would disagree with that. We must also recognise that a march is, for many, the ﬁrst step in politicisation, and an opportunity therefore for us to radicalise them.
The ﬁrst big action I took part in was the January 2009 march against the Gaza massacre. I spent the entirety of my EMA on a two hour train journey to attend, and there weren’t many other actions I’d have done that for. Since then, I’ve used many forms of direct action – legal and otherwise. But I wouldn’t have naturally picked up a brick, a bike lock or a balaclava before I’d picked up that placard.
Something happened this week that reafﬁrmed by belief in the necessity of the classic march. I watched We Are Many; a fantastic ﬁlm about the global movement against the Iraq war. 1.5 million people in London marched, millions more across the world, to show their opposition to military action. The ﬁlm shows brilliantly how, though they didn’t halt the invasion in 2003, Stop The War built a lasting campaign that has made an impact on foreign policy and built a generation of activists.
When I see thousands of people on a march – families, children, the elderly – I don’t think it is ‘boring’ but rather inspiring how so many people, despite their differences, can come together for a common cause. And it is these marches that, for many, will be their ﬁrst point of contact with the movement.
Like it or not, June 20th will be big. Huge. The backing of national organisations and the groundwork of activists means that people have heard of it. The march will allow involvement from workers who do not have the privilege to take a Wednesday off to protest; to book in advance and travel up or down the country. It’s an opportunity for migrants who so often fear arrest and deportation for being part of smaller actions where they are more easily picked out by police. People will bring their children, who couldn’t necessarily engage with something more militant – and we should celebrate that young people will be set an example that opposing the Tories is a normal (and dare I say it, even fun) thing to do.
It’s important we don’t use the rhetoric of the right. The more people continue to call marches boring and ineffective, the more we appease the arguments of our opponents in the student movement who do not believe a national demonstration for free education is worthwhile, for instance. Personally, I ﬁnd getting up at 5AM to stand in the rain on a strike picket more boring – but of course I do it anyway because it’s bloody important. The point is – many forms of direct action are more or less personally appealing to different people, and we need to appreciate that and offer a variety; rather than isolate people because their preference is not what you enjoy.
There is a will and a need for many tactics – and the classic march can act as a catalyst for more. Either as a base for ﬁnding thousands of new activists to invite to the next step, or as an event in itself to escalate from. Few people see ‘A to B’ as our be all and end all; I am in favour of A to B to C to D (or even Z if you have the energy!). A march with an occupation here, a roadblock there; a series of strikes and social media blocades. None of these are mutually exclusive – let’s do it all!
It’s integral we build demonstrations if we want to bolster the Left, bring people in and give strength to other tactics. That’s why I will be calling for us to build for the End Austerity Now demonstration on June 20th. I will also advocate for NUS to call a march in the Autumn – and if they don’t, we will do it anyway. One comrade’s boredom is another’s radicalisation.
Shelly Asquith is the president of the students' union at the University of the Arts London.