Working Paper 93-10, October 26, 1993(1)

By Homer Page

County Commissioner

(1)This paper is an edited transcript of a talk given by Homer Page for the Intractable Conflict/Constructive Confrontation Project on April 10, 1993. Funding for this Project was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the University of Colorado. All ideas presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Consortium, the University, or Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e-mail:

Copyright 1993. Conflict Resolution Consortium. Do not reprint without permission.

Most of what I know about demonstration strategies comes not so much from my current role as a county commissioner, but as a result of my experience in the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the disabilities rights movement. This background comes from conducting and participating in demonstrations. Also, I am a publisher of a small paper in Colorado called the Handicapped Coloradan. Some of my experience in this area does fall on the side of being a community policymaker, both as a city council member and as a county commissioner.

The first demonstration I participated in was in November of 1962 involving a segregated bowling alley in Columbia, Missouri. The last demonstration that I actively participated in was in front of the ABC news outlet in Colorado Springs, which was carrying a television program called, "Good and Evil." The program portrayed a blind man in a way that was quite inappropriate. So, I have approximately 30 years of history in working in the area of public demonstrations.

Demonstrations only set the tone for negotiations that take place behind the scenes. You really can't craft a consent decree on the picket line, nor can you increase the consumer membership on a governing board of an organization in a demonstration. Demonstrations are only a tool, a method for accomplishing other things. They are not an end, but rather a means. Demonstrations are a method for trying to accomplish something. But, sometimes that something is not clearly understood. Thus, there is the need to begin by looking at goals. In demonstrations there is a continuum of goals and goals are always mixed. Individuals within a group may have different goals from the group's stated goals. This dynamic of multiplicity is always present in demonstrations.

Demonstration objectives have three dimensions. First, there is the dimension of wanting to bring a message to the public (of course, the media plays a role in this dimension). This goal usually grows out of a sense that, "If only everyone knew, then what I want to happen would happen." "If people only knew how rotten these other guys are and how misguided the policy is, they would change their minds about this issue." So, at this point there is the ambition of taking to the street to gain an access that is perceived to not be available anywhere else. In the streets one has the goal of gaining access to the public and helping in the formation of public opinion.

Secondly, there is the desire for confrontation. This level grows from thoughts such as: "I just want to get in their face." "I just want to express to the other side how angry I am at what they are doing, how unjust they are, or how what they are doing is so awful." This kind of demonstration goal is seen in some of the anti-choice demonstrations where the rhetoric often contains such thoughts as: "You are baby killers." "Do you want to kill your child?" These are just that kind of confrontation--an "in your face" demonstration.

A third dimension of demonstration goals, is what I call the "primal scream" level. At this level, the demonstration echoes such thoughts as, "I am angry." "I'm frustrated." "I need some way to vent my anger." At this level, just acting is most important. Sometimes there exists, a sense of depression, a lack of empowerment on the part of demonstrators. Demonstrations then seem at least one way to do something.

As we look at these three dimensions of demonstration goals, there is a certain validity and a certain danger in all of them. Demonstrations really represent people's efforts to exercise their First Amendment rights of assembly and their right of free speech. At that level, they must be protected. From a point of view of public policy, protecting those First Amendment rights are absolutely crucial. But, as a demonstrator, you have to say, "Is this going to be a useful tool in accomplishing my goals?" Also, one must ask, "Is this what I want to do?" "Are my goals at this point helpful to my long-range goal of changing policy?"

So, demonstration strategies must include an assessment of goals and methods. If the first goal is information-based--to make people understand your point of view--then you do not want a lot of confrontation, at least not initially. You want a well-ordered demonstration. Good signs and people who are well-dressed and clean help make a positive presentation. This will appear on television in the living rooms of the American public. Thus, this appearance can create a sympathetic reaction to demonstrators and their cause. You do not want the general public to say, "What a bunch of nuts!" If this happens, then you have lost at that level.

The demonstrations during the Persian Gulf War lost the battle of the living room. It seemed the demonstrators forgot that demonstrations are a tool and not an end. At that stage of demonstrating it was most important to focus on the strategy of winning the battle of the living room. That sometimes requires a lot of discipline, a lot of control, and a willingness to keep the need for the primal scream in check.

At the confrontative level, the goal of the demonstration is to get in your opponent's face. You want to show people that you are madder than hell and you are not going to take it anymore. At this level there is the need to escalate the level of confrontation.

At the "primal scream" level everything changes. You may chain yourself to a door, you may want to do street theater. At this level you don't necessarily expect to win. You are just looking for an outlet.

A good deal of responsibility falls on people who lead demonstrations. It is hard to maintain demonstration strategies that do not involve escalation. This seems to happen because after awhile the press loses interest, other people lose interest, so there is a desire to "up the ante." This may or may not be useful. But, one of the things that happens when you up the ante is often you lose control of the least-controllable group. I don't know whether or not the Right-to-Life demonstrators in Florida wanted their members to shoot a doctor or not, but certainly what they were doing encouraged that kind of behavior. It seemed inevitable. One extremely important question in demonstration strategies involves sacrifice. At what level are you prepared to sacrifice your people for goals that are transcendent, perhaps, of any individual or any situation? One of the more difficult ethical issues during the Civil Rights Movement was the question of whether or not to take children into demonstrations where they had the sometimes sizable chance of being either beaten or attacked by dogs. In Alabama dogs did attack children. Of course, there was a good deal of criticism of this tactic. This issue and issues like this one are morally ambiguous. On the one hand, do the authorities have the right to use dogs on children? On the other hand, do the demonstrators, knowing this may happen, have the right to put children in that kind of situation? This was a very divisive issue. Ultimately, in this case, it seemed to be a net gain. When the general public, sitting in their living rooms watching television, saw dogs attacking children, they became a vocal majority. They said this should not happen, and that it had to stop. And it did. Demonstrations can be perceived as a religious experience. This is not discussed very often, but it is like going to church. There are chants; there are songs. One of the songs that we have written with the National Federation of the Blind for demonstrations is to the tune of "I've Been Working on the Railroad." It is "I've Been Working in the Workshop." We sang it when we demonstrated against sheltered workshops because they didn't pay minimum wage to the blind workers. When people sing the song it is a source of solidarity on the picket line.

After demonstrating for about fifteen years at the annual board meeting of a group called The National Accreditation Council for agencies serving the blind and visually impaired, we won. They are out of business. Now everyone says they miss the camerarderie of the demonstrations. The fact is that demonstrations can inspire a kind of religious commitment, history, and tradition.

Another aspect that compels people to demonstrate are stories of other demonstrations. An effective leader and organizer of demonstrations realizes these stories can be like liturgy. To work constructively, a demonstration need songs and chants; it needs stories; and it needs heroic deeds. Those things make a demonstration an effective tool for organizations. For example, I tell the story of a time in Jackson, Mississippi when I was leading a demonstration. We had gone to a football game there and we were passing out literature telling how crummy this other group was. The police came around and told us that we couldn't pass out literature at the game, that it was illegal. So I said, "Well, I appreciate that; let me go over here and talk to this other guy who is really in control here and see if he thinks we should just leave." So I went over and ostensively looked for him, after awhile "finding" him, and told him of the situation. He said, "I need to talk to someone else about that." We played with the police like this for about 30 minutes. During that time we had distributed all the literature, so then we left. That became a story that everybody told about how we kind of joshed with the Mississippi State Police.

What can be learned from the past is that the police, other enforcement people, and policy makers should not become the enemy during a demonstration. It is important that these groups learn how to regulate demonstrations in such a way so they don't become perceived as the antagonist. I say this because one of the things that has made demonstrations work best for achieving long-range goals has been to change the "enemy" target. This usually involves changing the original target "enemy" to the police as the "enemy." Making the police the bad guys is effective because there seems to be a lot of antagonism toward law enforcement in our society. In 1968 at the Democratic National Convention, the demonstrators were able to change the enemy to the police and the ensuing riot was subsequently called "the police riot." In the Civil Rights Movement often the police were perceived to be the enemy. This position seems to strengthen coalitions.

"Humanizing" is very important when demonstrating and dealing with enemy images. Demonstrations are all too often built on the idea that one side is absolutely right and the other is absolutely wrong. With this type of dichotomy it is very easy to move from peaceful, nonviolent action to violence when frustration occurs. Escalation can result in things like someone throwing a firebomb at a clinic or shooting a doctor. A bit more escalation results in things like bombing the World Trade Center in New York. Therefore, public protests and disputes need to be put in the context of goals, methods, and strategies, not in terms of abstract and absolute right and wrong. Perhaps one of the more scary things in our world today, is that we find ourselves all too often in that abstract, absolute right or wrong mode.