Political Marching: What's at risk?

Image caption Students want to make sure their voice is heard

The police motorcycles came out of nowhere and blocked the intersection of Kingsway and Theobald's Road in central London. The bus came to a sudden stop and remained motionless.

What the heck? I walked forward to ask the driver what was going on and then I heard whistles and drums and indistinct chanting. I no longer needed to ask. The kids from the University of London were marching to protest tuition fee rises.

The driver let us off and I hurried to my meeting at Bush House, home of the BBC World Service. By the time I came out, the University of London students had been joined by others from LSE and King's College some bearing signs that read: "Tory Scum/Here we Come."

Image caption Only those trained in the principles of non-violence were allowed to march with Gandhi

Traffic was disrupted, the rest of normal life was not. A young man, not much older than the students, was busy handing out leaflets to join an expensive gym. The queues at the sandwich shops in the area were their usual length.

Where it all began

At the end of the day the marchers were kettled in by police in Whitehall, the street that runs through the heart of Britain's government buildings. The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government's policy of more than doubling tuition fees was still in place.

This was the second demonstration against the rise in tuition in the past three weeks and it was just as ineffective as the first.

Political marching, protest marching, call it what you will, has become in the new millennium a way of exercising one's ego. When making a programme recently on the history of protest marching I asked folks over and over again why they went on marches?

"To make my voice heard," was the usual reply. Really? Even if the government isn't listening?

Making one's voice heard wasn't the reason people went on marches at the beginning.

The first successful political march in England took place in 1834. Six agricultural workers from Tolpuddle in Dorset had been transported to Australia in chains. Their crime? Organising a society to prevent a cut in their wages.

For the Tolpuddle Martyrs, as they were called, transportation to Australia was a sentence of living death and tens of thousands of workers marched from King's Cross to Parliament to present a petition signed by 800,000 people demanding the six be allowed to return to Britain.

Image caption The march to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg ended in violence

Parliament gave in to the pressure, and the men were allowed to come home.

Over the next century and a half, the political march became an important tool all over the world for those seeking political change and redress of injustice.

Marching did not always work and often ended in violence whether in Chicago's Haymarket Square in 1886 or outside the Winter Palace in St Petersburg in 1905.

But the rallies frequently produced pressure that led to dramatic change. Successful marching campaigns have certain things in common. They need to have a very specific goal and it should be focused on gaining a positive - independence, civil rights a decent wage - rather than repealing a negative.

All in the planning

Most importantly, the cause has to be one for which the marchers are willing to go to jail.

The next thing that is necessary is detailed tactical planning. The paradigm is the famous Salt March in India in 1930. The march was organised by Mahatma Gandhi to protest a tax on salt made in India. This tax meant it was cheaper for Indians to buy salt imported from Britain. How better to keep a colony tied to its ruler?

Gandhi spent months planning how to protest this tax. He decided to march from his ashram in Ahmedabad to the sea at Dandi, where he would make salt. The plan was to walk 10 miles a day for 24 days, along a route that went through Hindu and Muslim villages. This would demonstrate India's unity and allow international press interest to build.

Image caption In the US, marching was a key tactic in the civil rights movement

But the march was not open to just anyone. Anticipating the British authorities might use violence to turn him back, Gandhi trained 70 plus people in principles of non-violence and only they were allowed to march with him.

Hundreds of thousands turned out to watch along the way but only this handful of people actually walked the distance. There was no violence. The march did not accomplish its specific goal: the salt tax remained in place.

But it did something more important: it laid the foundation for a cohesive independence movement and it opened British eyes to the fact that India, the colossally complex jewel in its imperial crown, was a nation capable of speaking for itself and ruling itself.

Twenty-five years later, a young African-American preacher in the American south studied Gandhi's tactics and used marching as the key tactic is the drive for "Civil Rights".

In the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King and other leaders of the civil rights movement staged the March on Washington to bring pressure on then President John F Kennedy for legislation guaranteeing African-Americans' constitutional rights in the South, where segregation had disenfranchised them for more than eight decades.

Act of political nostalgia

Despite the Kennedy administration's concerns about the potential for violence, the march went off without a hitch. King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech which guaranteed that the march would become one of the most famous in history.

It also made marching the template for the full range of political protest associated with the 1960s. Martin Luther King would later march in Alabama from Selma to the state capital Montgomery. The violence from local authorities that greeted the marchers led to an international outcry and hastened the passage of civil rights legislation in Washington DC.

Marches against the Vietnam War filled out the decade. Sometimes there was violence, as in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Party convention and in 1970 at Kent State University in Ohio. But often the marches, with their hundreds of thousands of participants, went off without a hitch, their main purpose being to remind politicians of the war's deep unpopularity.

It wasn't just in the English speaking world that the 60s marked a high-water mark for political marching. French students marching through Paris in May 1968 provoked disproportionate violence from the government of Charles De Gaulle. This in turn cost the government its support in France at large, and the government fell.

Today, marching seems to be a retro activity, an act of political nostalgia more than a tactic to bring about specific change. Very few of those who walk the streets "making their voices heard" would be willing to go much further to change politics.

Image caption Protests in the 1960s cost De Gaulle's government its support

Marching is a right in free societies. Political leaders tolerate marching but don't fear it. When more than a million and half people marched through London in February 2003 to protest the impending war with Iraq, it changed absolutely nothing.

In America, there have been million man and million women marches that echo Dr King's March on Washington, but they seem to want nothing more than television camera time.

This has culminated in television personalities taking over the march on Washington business.

The two big rallies held this past election season were organised by TV stars Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart. I wonder what the future of political marching is. Clearly, it has become a fun day out and chance to be among like-minded people who wanted to make "their voices heard," or "show politicians I disagree."

Yes, well, thank you for sharing.

If protest marching is ever going to be a useful political tactic again, those who put one foot in front of another are going to have be willing to take a bit more risk.

Civil disobedience would be the next step, with jail time a possible consequence of one's actions. How many students protesting tuition rises would risk that?

You can listen again to Marching into History from the BBC World Service here.