Editor’s note: On September 16, a 22 year-old woman (Mahsa Amini) was brutally tortured and killed by the Iranian state for improper wearing of hijab. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, has made a public statement that the protests happening in the country are being backed by the Western countries, and that Mahsa Amini was not tortured in their prison. Given the history of US-backed regime changes across the world from Central and South Americas to the Middle East, including Iran itself, concerns among anti-imperialists about the recent protests are not an indication of paranoia.
Whether or not the protests are backed by imperialist tendencies of the West, the plight of the women of Iran should not be discarded either. For the past forty decades of theocratic rule in Iran, women’s human rights have been violated in more than one occasion. They have faced many injustices, the death of Mahsa Amini and of the hundreds of people (especially young women) who protested her death is just the latest of which. Regardless of the West’s imperialist tendencies, these injustices should be addressed first and foremost.
The following statement was released by Democratic Organisation of Iranian Women (DOIW) on September 23. Since then, many protestors have been killed, arrested and persecuted.
Victory to the united struggle of the brave women and men of Iran; For liberty, and freedom from theocratic tyranny and the repeal of all laws that undermine women’s human rights!
Democratic Organisation of Iranian Women(DOIW) emphatically condemns the killing of Mahsa (Gina) Amini, by the security forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran. We convey our condolences to Mahsa’s grieving family and to all freedom-loving women and men of Iran. The regime’s Guidance Patrol arrested this young woman of 22 as she travelled on Tehran’s Metro with her brother under the pretext of having “bad hijab”. As a result of the brutality of the regime’s guidance patrol and beatings while in custody, Mahsa Amini died in hospital on 16th September. This new crime of the Islamic Republic has provoked the anger of the long-suffering people of Iran. The name and memory of Mahsa Amini has turned into a rallying cry for the people who have come out to the streets to rise up against oppression, dictatorship and social injustice. On Mahsa’s temporary gravestone, is written: “Darling Gina, you won’t die, your name will become a code”. Today, Mahsa Amini’s name has indeed become the rallying cry for the people rising for freedom.
In the past forty years, the reactionary Islamic regime of Iran has used systematic violence to secure its self-interest, and to trample shamelessly on the social and human rights of the people of Iran, particularly the women of Iran. The Islamic Republic of Iran has presided over deepening poverty, economic and social insecurity, promoted the practice of embezzlement and hypocrisy in the state, has plundered the national wealth for the personal interest of the ruling elite and their associates, and has been directly responsible for violence and crimes against countless women and men. These have ranged from the forced hejab and medieval laws against women, to the torture, rape and execution of hundreds of girls and women supporters of left-wing organisations or mojaheds during the 1980s, or the mass killings of political prisoners in the summer of 1988, the execution of Fatemeh Modaresi, the consultant member of the Central Committee of the Tudeh Party of Iran in 1989, the brutal murder of other dissidents such as Parvaneh Forouhar in the 1990s, and Zahra Kazemi, Zahra Bani Yaqub, among others, in the torture chambers of the regime, and the murder of Neda Agha Soltan in street demonstrations. These atrocities continue to this day and the people have had enough.
The regime’s denial of responsibility over the death of Mahsa Amini has fuelled people’s anger. At first the regime claimed that Mahsa had died due to ill health, something that her family have denied vehemently. The regime’s contradictory position on this tragedy, mimics their denials and lies immediately after the Revolutionary Guards’ downing of the Ukrainian plane over Iran in December 2019.
The people of Iran have been living with the fallout of the regime’s neoliberal policies, with its resultant poverty, deepening class divide and prevalent corruption, with the poor, women and the young bearing the brunt, and they have little to lose in this unequal fight.
Street clashes continue to rage in more than 80 cities and towns in Iran, despite access to the internet having been curtailed to stop communications. The women and men of our country have shown indescribable courage to stand against the brutal security forces of the regime and despite the heavy cost in this unequal struggle – fists against bullets – they are holding fast. The echo of people’s slogans conveys their demands: “Death to Dictatorship”, “Down with Theocracy”, and latterly “Woman, Life, Freedom” – a slogan that has emerged in these protests to reflect women’s particular aspirations – is a reminder of Marx’s position that a society is only free when its women are free. Today, the women of Iran are fighting courageously for their freedom and for the freedom of the society from theocracy.
“Woman, life, freedom” by TheGfarce is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
Since Thursday 22nd September, different organisations, including Iran Human Rights have announced that at least 31 have been killed in the protests. Some reports put this figure at 50. There are reports of the arrest of a large number of protesters, including reporters, civic and political activists, women, students and former political prisoners. At present the prisons of Iran are full of workers’ rights activists, teachers, national minorities, religious minorities such as the Baha’is, dissenters, artists, and students.
At present, the Islamic Republican regime continues its brutal suppression, cutting off the internet and access to social networks. In 2019 during the people’s uprising, more than 600 innocent people were killed among them 23 children and youngsters under the age of 18. The regime cut off the internet then too (killing with the lights out), and shamelessly lowered the official number killed to 224 people instead. Then the regime accepted no responsibility for its atrocities, and in September 2022, the regime is repeating its brutal suppression of the people as before.
Today, too, the regime’s guns are aiming at the hearts of the women and youth of Iran. Ra’isi, the President of the regime, was one of the main perpetrators of the murder of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. Just as he spoke of human rights at the UN General Assembly, on the 21st of September, the 15 year old Abdollah Mohammadpur, and the 16 year old Amin Ma’refat were shot dead by the regime’s armed police. The mass arrests continue all over Iran.
DOIW condemns the brutal suppression of the people and believes that victory in the fierce struggle that is ahead of us, for democratic rights and freedoms, social justice, and an end to discrimination, in other words, the realisation of the protesters’ demand “Woman, Life, Liberty”, can be secured only through the united struggle of all progressive social and political forces and the dismantling of the religious dictatorship that rules Iran. Our victory depends on the separation of religion from the state, and the establishment of a national and democratic republic in Iran.
Finally, the Democratic Organisation of Iranian Women, appeals to all progressive forces the world over, especially progressive women’s organisations, to condemn this latest atrocity perpetrated by the Islamicists in Iran- the arrest and killing of Mahsa (Gina) Amini under the pretext of carrying out “religious laws and decrees”- and condemning the killings in Iran especially of our young people, and to condemn the detention of freedom fighters in our country. With your solidarity you can extend the reach of these protests and let our brave people’s call for justice be heard worldwide.
“Solidarity with Iranian Protests (52383249139)” by Matt Hrkac from Geelong / Melbourne, Australia is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Statement by the Democratic Organisation of Iranian Women
23rd September 2022
Banner Photo by Artin Bakhan on Unsplash
Editor’s Note: When many people think of political engagement, they think of protests. However, protests are merely one tactic among thousands. Like all tactics, protests can be very effective in contributing to a broader strategy, or they can backfire. Context matters. Protest must play a role in a larger strategic plan if it is to help effect change.
At Deep Green Resistance, we endorse raising political awareness of the destructive nature of civilization and organizing to stop the destruction of our planet. We also believe that aboveground activists need to push for acceptance and normalization of more militant and radical tactics, where appropriate.
This article presents one view on protest, which is not necessarily ours. Nonetheless, this is useful material. For more information on strategy and tactics, we highly recommend reading Chapters 12, 13, and 14 in the book Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet (buy the book or read a free online version here).
By Activist Handbook
Protest marches are a common and accessible way of getting your voice heard and bringing attention to your cause.
In this guide, you will learn how to organise a protest or demonstration. This article for activists explains step by step how to organise an action to draw attention to your cause. Following are 10 suggested steps to organizing an effective protest and some suggestions for taking it to the next level. There are plenty of opinions about how to host a successful and inclusive protest so feel free to read critically and adapt these ideas freely to suit your goals.
If you are new to protesting, we recommend you to read the following articles first:
This guide originally appeared on the Activist Handbook website, a Wikipedia-style collaborative manual created by activists, for activists. The Activist handbook have combined various resources into their wiki. The formatting of the guide has been slightly tweaked by The Commons such as adding images and quotes.
A successful demonstration – one that accomplishes its goals either immediately or over the long term, and that runs the way organizers envisioned – depends upon clarity of purpose, getting people there, getting the message to those who need to hear it, and leaving a sense of success and support for the issue with your target audience, your constituents, the public, and the media.
If you consider beforehand whether a demonstration is the right vehicle for you to get your point across, plan it carefully, carry it out well, and follow up diligently, then you should be able to stage a successful public demonstration.
If your demonstration is to go smoothly and to accomplish its purpose, you’ll need to organize it carefully. There are really four major bases to cover in putting together a public demonstration:
- Planning, planning, planning
- Lead time
If there is a single most important piece to organizing a demonstration, it’s planning it completely beforehand. The demonstration must have a coordinator and a group of organizers who work together before, during, and after the event to plan and carry it out. They need to decide what the demonstration will be like, and to anticipate potential problems and plan for them as well.
As you begin to organize your protest, the more like-minded friends and community members you have at your side, the better! Reach out and ask if they want to help you organize. If your protest issue does not directly impact you, be sure that you are intentionally building relationships with those in your community who are, centring their voices and experiences, and listening to their guidance. It is best if you can co-create your team and action together. Lastly, seek out local or regional organizations that work on your issue and invite them to organize with you. (You may also learn a thing or two from them!)
In this section, we briefly discuss how to define your strategy. But we also have a full chapter about how to define your strategy.
Answer these questions:
- Goals: What do you want to achieve?
- Target: Who has the power to make that happen?
- Action: What kind of action would make them listen to you (tactic)? When and where should you organise this action to make the most impact?
What is (are) the exact goal(s) of the demonstration? It’s important to decide whether you’re advocating for or supporting a position, protesting something, or planning a specific action. Your purpose will help to determine the tone and shape of the demonstration. If advocacy is your goal, the demonstration might be upbeat, singing the praises of whatever you’re advocating for. If your purpose is protest, or righting a wrong, then its tone will be different. Tone is important, because what you accomplish might depend on how the demonstration is viewed. If your demonstration leans too much toward entertainment and feel-good sentiment, it may not be taken seriously. If it’s frightening, people may not listen to its message.
Ask yourselves what you are trying to achieve through this advocacy lane. Are you trying to build awareness? Do you aim to build a larger coalition to continue work on your issue? Are you trying to be seen and heard by an elected official or influential figure? Be clear with yourself and others about the objectives behind your actions. This will help you develop the best strategy, and later reflect on elements that can be improved.
With your goals in mind, try to imagine the most effective protest to achieve those goals and focus on making that protest happen. Ask yourselves: when and where will you hold the protest and why? What type of protest is required to achieve your goal? The most common modes of protest are marches and rallies. But protests can take many forms: sit-ins, walk-outs, vigils, and more sophisticated efforts like encampments and choreographed or theatrical expressions.
Demonstrations may be meant to serve one or more different goals, depending upon the timing of the demonstration, the issues involved, who’s doing the organizing, and what else has gone before. Setting out your goal clearly is important, because it will often dictate what form the demonstration should take, at whom it should be directed, and other crucial elements. Common goals for demonstrations include…
- Advocacy: To urge legislators or the public to look favorably on a bill, adopt a particular idea or policy or service, or pay attention to the needs of a particular group of people (welfare recipients or people with disabilities, for instance).
- Support: To express agreement or solidarity with a person or group, with an idea or policy, or with a particular issue. For example, a group of organizations offering different services might hold a community demonstration to support the proposed establishment of more and better services for the homeless in the community.
- Protest: To speak against some injustice, event, public figure, potential occurrence, etc. A group might demonstrate against the possible establishment of a hazardous waste treatment plant in their community, or to protest the treatment of community residents by police.
- Counter-demonstration: To respond to a demonstration or other public event already scheduled by another, antagonistic organization. A civil rights group might organize a demonstration to balance one by the Ku Klux Klan, for instance; or a group of demonstrators might organize to counter a rally for a politician whose views they disagree with.
- Public Relations: To advertise or put in a good light an event, issue, organization, segment of the population, etc.
- Action: To actually accomplish a specific substantive purpose, prevent or change a particular event, or to influence the course of events. Such actions might include workers on a picket line blocking replacement workers’ access to a factory, or peace activists chaining themselves to the gates of a military base; it can also include demonstration participants breaking up into constituent groups to visit their legislators.
- A combination of any or all of the above.
In reality, most demonstrations serve more than one purpose. Regardless of their other goals, most organizers seek media coverage for the demonstration, for instance, in order to draw attention to their cause. Most demonstrations either advocate for and support, or protest against, something. The difference is in the emphasis, which may have a great effect on the form and timing of the demonstration.
Decide who you’re trying to reach with the demonstration’s message, and who you want to attend. Contact other organizations, coalitions, etc. long before and get them to endorse (and attend) the demonstration. The time, place, and program should be geared to the desired audience.
- Legislators or other elected officials: The demonstration should be where they are — City Hall, the State House–on a day when they’re in session. Elected officials pay attention to voters. This is a great situation for members of the target population, especially those from key legislators’ districts, to tell their stories, and for advocates to use their knowledge of statistics to underline the magnitude of the issue and the size of the constituency affected by it.
- General public: If you’re aiming your message at the general public, then you might want a very large demonstration, or one that’s particularly unusual or interesting, staged in a public place at a busy time, so that it will attract both onlookers and media attention. It’s even better if there’s a draw, in the form of entertainment and/or celebrities. And the demonstration should be advertised publicly, through flyers and posters in neighborhoods, public service announcements on radio and TV, clubs and churches, etc.
- Target population: If you’re trying to publicize an initiative with those you hope will take advantage of it, it should be in their neighborhood, and in their language as well. It might help if children and families are encouraged to come, and if familiar figures from the target group itself are part of the program. Presentations should be aimed at providing practical information and helping people understand the issue and how it relates to them.
Decide where the demonstration will be. Your decision will depend on timing, on how large a space you need (How many people do you expect or hope for?), on whether your demonstration is a reaction to something specific in a specific place, and on who you want to reach with your message. However, there are some important general questions you need to answer in choosing a place. Is it available for the time you need it? Do you need, and can you get, a permit to use it? Will it cost you anything, and can you afford it? Is it accessible to those with disabilities? The answers to these questions will help you determine where to hold the demonstration.
Decide on a specific day, date and time. Sometimes, the day, date, and time are determined for you: a counter-demonstration, for example, will happen at the same time as the demonstration it is meant to counter; a particular vote in the legislature will take place on a particular day. But in general, these elements are determined by three things:
- The availability of the people you want to reach (A rally at the State House on Saturday won’t attract many legislators, nor will the ‘solidarity with Working Mothers’ demonstration attract many working mothers if it’s on Tuesday at 2:00 PM… when most of them are working.)
- The weather (You might not want to hold an outdoor demonstration in Minnesota in January… or in Florida in July). Do you need a rain or snow date?
- Conflicts with other events (You don’t want to compete with the free Rolling Stones concert in Central Park).
Learn more about this in our strategies chapter.
In this section, we briefly discuss different tactics you can use. Make sure to also read our chapter with a list of tactics for protests.
Plan your program
What you’re actually going to do at the demonstration also depends upon what you want to accomplish and who your audience is. There needs to be a clear structure for what will happen, and everything in the program should be geared directly to the desired results of the demonstration. Block out the schedule to the minute, and let participants know well beforehand how long they have in the program.
Some possibilities for programs or program elements:
- Speeches may convince some people and bore others, although some speakers and speeches (Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” comes immediately to mind) are so powerful that they electrify anyone hearing them. Celebrity speakers may draw people and attention to the demonstration and to your issue. Speeches may be meant to convey information, convert the unconvinced, or simply fire up the crowd and supporters. Members of a target population (people who’ve learned to read as adults, AIDS sufferers, etc.) may be the most eloquent spokespersons for their issue.
- Marches or other movement of demonstrators can serve to show the extent of support for your issue, and can dramatize–by the route chosen–where a problem is located, and who should be involved in a solution. They can also help to build group spirit, to expose large numbers of people to the existence of the issue, and to attract media attention.
- Entertainment. Music may energize people, address their emotions, and help to develop group spirit. It’s usually geared to the subject of the rally, with songs written for the occasion, for instance. Theater can be used to ridicule ideas being protested, as was done very effectively for years by such groups as the San Francisco Mime Troupe. If the entertainment is particularly good or includes celebrity performers, it’s almost sure to attract media and bystanders.
- A symbolic activity, such as each person lighting a candle, group song or chanting of slogans, the display of a picture or document, prayer, etc. can be a powerful way to communicate a message, solidify a group, and gain public attention. It can also be seen as nothing more than an attention-grabbing device. This kind of activity has to make sense for your particular issue and demonstration.
- Picketing may be used simply to make a point, or to discourage people from entering or patronizing a particular building or space because of their sympathy with the picketers’ issue. In either case, it requires a high degree of organization, but it creates a vivid picture in people’s minds, and makes a strong point. It can also make your organization seem more militant than it is, or than you want it to be perceived.
- Civil actions or civil disobedience can range from legal actions designed to accomplish a specific purpose (large numbers of people witnessing an event that the perpetrators would have preferred to keep quiet, such as the destruction of a neighborhood landmark) to a few people engaging in a symbolic action designed to get them arrested or otherwise challenged (chaining themselves to the gate of a government building, refusing publicly to pay taxes, etc.) to mass actions like civil rights marches or the blocking of troop movements in Tien An Men Square. Demonstrators taking part in civil disobedience must be willing to be arrested and face punishment, and organizers must train them beforehand to respond appropriately to the police and to the whole arrest procedure. Organizers must also be aware of the impact of these actions on how their issue is perceived by the public.
Read more in our tactics chapter.
Work out the logistics. Logistics are the nuts and bolts of any event, the who and how and when of what gets done. Each demonstration presents its own logistical questions, but some important ones are:
- Do you need, how will you pay for, who will be in charge of, and where will you get… A sound system that works? Toilets? Medical facilities and personnel in case of emergency? Parking? Trash disposal? Signs or banners? A way of getting speakers or performers to and from the demonstration and the platform?
- How do people in general get to and from the demonstration, and in and out of the space?
- How do they get home?
- Is there a need for crowd control (i.e. a potential for violence, or for horrendous traffic problems), before during, and/or after the demonstration?
- Is clean-up needed? Who cleans up, and how?
- What are the plans for meeting with the media before, during and after the event?
- Are there plans for post-demonstration activities (constituent meetings with legislators, on-site vaccination of young children, registration for literacy classes, etc.)? If so, how will all this be handled?
Try to think of every possible thing that can go wrong that you haven’t already addressed, and figure out what to do about it. Where are you going to get toilets if the ones you ordered aren’t delivered? What if there’s a counter-demonstration? What if only a few people show up? What if the media doesn’t show, or leaves too soon?
Anything you can anticipate and plan for is another crisis you don’t have to worry about: you’ll know what to do.
Be ready and have a contingency plan. If your local police tend toward clearing protests quickly or even violence, you will want to share tips about self-protection against, for example, tear gas or pepper spray. If you are expecting extreme hot or cold weather, provide suggestions for staying safe. During the protest, everyone’s safety should be your number one priority. Ask folks how they’re feeling.
Decide on what specific things you’d like to actually happen — and not happen — at the demonstration. How do people get to the space where the demonstration will be held? How easily can they leave? How do you want them to behave while they’re there? Will there be some sort of action, and will it possibly lead to arrest or other confrontation with the authorities? How will you handle that? A crowd can be kept happy with food and entertainment, or angered by aggressive speechmaking: it’s up to the organizers to think through what they want.
It’s important to confer with the authorities beforehand about use of space, to obtain the proper permits, and to work out with police and other officials how things will be handled, so that there are no misunderstandings. Make sure that those who are likely to attend the demonstration know what to expect and what you expect of them. If people understand that violence is unacceptable, or that it’s important that everyone follow a certain route, they’re more likely to behave accordingly.
So, you’ve decided that you have some good reasons for using a public demonstration as part of your initiative. We’ve already seen that timing is important. Later, we’ll discuss how much time you might need to plan your demonstration: that’s a major concern. But assuming that that’s taken care of, when will a demonstration be most effective? If you can, it makes the most sense to schedule it to coincide with an event or time that will help draw attention to your cause, or that needs to be brought to public attention. Some possibilities include…
- Just before or during a major event that the demonstration can influence. A local, state, or national vote on a bill affecting your issue, an election, or a campaign for the establishment of a local service might all provide appropriate times to stage a public demonstration.
- The local visit of a political or controversial figure or group. The visitor might be seen as an ally, an antagonist, or as someone who could be influenced by a demonstration. The character of the demonstration itself would of course depend on how you view the person or group.
- A demonstration by another group opposed to your cause or point of view. In this circumstance, you might plan your counter-demonstration to begin before the other group’s, thus drawing media attention away from their message and to yours. Scheduling your major speaker or event toward the middle of your demonstration may also serve to hold the media there during the start of the other demonstration.
- A national day honoring or commemorating your issue. May 1st, Labor Day in every country but the United States, has traditionally been the occasion for marches of workers and speeches by labor advocates in much of the world. National Literacy Day, in September, often sees upbeat public demonstrations by literacy programs and advocates.
- As part of a funding drive for your organization or issue. In the late 1980’s, when public human service budgets were being cut and money was scarce, a county human service coalition kicked off a local fundraising effort with a well-staged piece of street theater about some of the things that were actually being funded instead of human services. The cleverness and timeliness of the performance attracted statewide attention, and enhanced local fundraising efforts.
- As part of a publicity campaign for your organization or issue. A group trying to immunize all toddlers in the area might hold a public demonstration emphasizing the importance of immunization, and trying to make the whole process look like non -threatening fun for kids. Such an event could include clowns, facepainting, people in hypodermic costumes, etc., as well as information for parents on where, when, and how to get shots for their children.
Learn what local authorities require for public demonstrations in your community. You can often find specific permit requirements and guidelines on your local government’s website or by calling your town hall. Do you need a permit and what are its requirements? Are there restrictions such as amplified sound restrictions or fines for littering? When talking to the authorities, don’t shy from being clear about your needs, for example, to clear a road of traffic or provide a portable toilet.
You be the judge if you should adhere to the terms of the local requirements; violating those terms could invite confrontation, which your invitees may not be interested in or prepared for at all. Make it clear to the authorities, and your supporters, that safety is a priority. Ask the authorities to maintain contact with your group during the protest, and tell them how to do so.
Learn more in our legal rights chapter.
Decide on how you’ll get people to come. To some extent, this depends on how much time and money you have to publicize the event, and how many people you want to attract. You have to reach people through methods they’ll pay attention to, in language they’re comfortable with. If possible, it’s best to get the message out many times in different ways, and to reach as many people as possible personally. Methods might include flyers, posters, phone calls, mailings, ads in newspapers and local church and organizational newsletters, public service announcements on local radio and TV, announcements in churches, clubs, and agencies, etc.
Assuming your objective is to have the largest turnout possible, you will reach more people by diversifying your outreach. You may want a versatile graphic to draw people’s eyes to your invitations. Get the word out through every social media channel that will reach your intended audience. (One of the benefits of working with an established group is they can broaden your social media reach.) Put up posters where people can see them like public bulletin boards and lamp posts. Ask shops if you can put posters up in their windows. But nothing beats face-to-face outreach. Time permitting, visiting neighbors and personally inviting them with fliers in hand is a highly effective way of growing a protest.
Invite local television stations, newspapers, radio stations, and bloggers to your protest. Tell them what’s special about your protest and give them the most precise information about the protest you can. Encourage your invitees to post videos and photos to social media and give them a hashtag.
Learn more in our communication chapter.
Every stage of protest planning is an opportunity to build solidarity and community. Keep an intentional lens on inclusion and intersection. Invite a wider circle of friends over for planning meetings. Sign-making parties are a great way to build relationships in advance of your protest.
You don’t want your invitees or spoilers to ruin your plans by damaging property or starting fights. Designate peace marshals within your team. A peace marshal’s job is to keep an eye out for anyone who is creating risks for your protests such as provoking police, vandalizing, etc. If tension rises, your peace marshals will step in and deescalate. You may also want to invite your local Lawyers Guild or other independent observers if you are concerned about keeping the peace or the police response.
Leaving a mess is not a good look for your team or your cause. Make sure people know your expectations up front about discarding signs and literature. Set an example by picking up litter from your group. When you see someone littering, point them to the nearest garbage can. You want to learn from your experiences so you do an even better job organizing your next protest. After your team has had some time to reflect (but not too long after your protest) get your organizing team together to discuss how the protest went. Review how you did with each of the ten steps. Document the conversation for the next time you plan a protest. And finally, be proud of what you have accomplished; you organized your first protest.
Protest is, in its own way, storytelling. We use our bodies, our words, our art, and our sounds both to tell the truth about the pain that we endure and to demand the justice that we know is possible. It is meant to build and to force a response. – DeRay Mckesson, Civil rights activist
If possible, it is best to allow more than enough time in planning a demonstration to handle all the details and pull everything together. Celebrities or public figures of any kind generally are booked far ahead, and unless (or even if) this is their pet project, they’re not going to show up without adequate advance knowledge (at least several months, not several weeks). Sometimes acquiring, or even finding, a space to use can take longer than you’d think possible. Planning how to handle large numbers of people is difficult, and carrying out your planning is even more so (the sound system you need may not be available from the first or second company you talk to; and what do you do when it doesn’t appear on the agreed-upon day?)
It’s vital to build extra time into your planning if you can. More than enough lead time is usually measured in months, and there’s no such thing as too much.
Sometimes, however, a demonstration has to be planned in days, or even hours. The key to planning something successful under any circumstances is to be honest with yourself. What can you really do effectively in the time you have? Don’t overreach, and there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a demonstration that may be modest, but accomplishes your goals. Aim for the moon without adequate time to get there, and you’re likely to miss entirely.
Also make sure to check out our chapter on communication for more details.
Design an effective general communication system. The most important thing you can do when you begin planning a demonstration is, if you don’t already have one, to set up an efficient and usable communication system. This system should be available not only for demonstrations and emergencies, but for general use as well among people directly involved in and connected to your issue.
Systems like this prove their worth when there is a need to quickly sway the opinion of legislators. One person, emailing or calling a number of organizations, can, in a matter of hours, generate hundreds, or even thousands, of phone calls and letters to government offices. Fifty letters or calls on an issue is generally considered a large number by legislative staffs. If they get hundreds, that’s a groundswell; a thousand or more is a landslide.
The ideal communication system has an individual or small committee as a central coordinator. In the best of all possible worlds, the coordinator would use email, which can reach large numbers of people with a single transmission, for fast and efficient communication. If email isn’t available to everyone in the loop, the next best possibility is a phone tree that the coordinator can activate by calling a small number of reliable individuals who then call a number of others who then call others, until everyone on the list has gotten the message. These systems aren’t perfect, but they greatly increase the chances that you’ll be able to quickly reach everyone you need to. The coordinator should also maintain an up-to-date, computer -based if possible, mailing list from which to do mailings of general interest or importance.
Develop a plan for publicizing the demonstration
The coordinator would be the point person in informing supporters, the desired audience, and the public about the demonstration. Depending upon whom you were trying to reach, the coordinator could make up and assign the distribution of flyers; send out one or more large mailings from the computer list of supporters and relevant organizations; prepare and distribute press releases, news stories, and/or print, radio, and TV ads; post to an email list; activate the phone tree; and facilitate anything else necessary to get the word out. The coordinator doesn’t have to do everything himself; but it’s important that there be one place where the publicity and communication buck stops.
Orchestrate media coverage of the event
Again, one person–probably either the communications coordinator or an organizer of the demonstration–should oversee media coverage. One good way to guarantee accurate coverage before the event is to write your own stories about it, either as press releases, or, if you have a good relationship with media representatives, in some other form.
If you haven’t already done so, you should begin to cultivate a long-term relationship with the media, so that when you need them–as you do now–they’ll respond. Be generous with your time and information when they ask for it, and volunteer information when you can. Position yourself as the “expert” on your particular issue, so that you’re the person they’ll turn to when they want information about it. Try to establish personal relationships with reporters from different media; they’re more likely to be sympathetic to your cause if they know your organization and have some direct contact with the issue.
Make sure that reporters and media outlets know exactly when and where the demonstration will be, and what they’re likely to find there. Make organizers, speakers, celebrities, members of the target population, etc. available for comment before, during, and after the event. Think about photo and TV opportunities: if you want pictures or TV coverage, the demonstration has to provide the visual images. Try to make it as easy as possible for media representatives to do their jobs: find them places from which they can see, hear, film, etc. easily; assign a person (perhaps the same person who has coordinated media coverage) to take care of their needs; introduce them to the appropriate people; help them get around. If you want good coverage, then it’s up to you to make the event as media-friendly as possible.
Ensure good communication before, during, and after the demonstration
It is vital that organizers be able to communicate with one another, with program participants, and with the crowd while the event is forming, going on, and winding down, especially if it’s being held in a large outdoor area. Explaining changes in program, relaying instructions about traffic flow or trash pickup, and contacting individuals in emergencies are only some of the reasons why good communication is essential. Organizers and other key individuals should have cell phones, pagers, or some other means of quick communication with them. It might also make sense, depending on the situation, to appoint a group of “runners,” people who can carry messages and run errands while the event is going on. Good communication could mean the difference between a successful demonstration and a disaster.
Your job isn’t done when the demonstration is over.
There’s making sure the demonstration breaks up in an orderly way, that everything’s cleaned up, that people are able to get home. There may be other events scheduled right after the demonstration (visiting legislators, signing up for immunizations, etc.) It might be important to make sure that media representatives get to talk to celebrity participants, members of the target population, and/or demonstration organizers. And there may be organizational or legal issues — paying suppliers or government permit offices, for instance — that have to be taken care of before you can call it a day.
The demonstration itself is only a first step toward something. If you don’t continue the work you’ve started, you might as well not have bothered. First, it’s important to go over the demonstration with organizers and others who were involved, to assess how things went, and to evaluate the event as a whole. Questions that need to be answered include…
- Was the demonstration successful (i.e. did it come off the way you intended, and did it accomplish what you wanted it to)?
It’s important to remember that a demonstration is usually only one piece of a larger effort to publicize and/or affect policy on your issue. The law might not change right away; the service might not become available instantly. A successful demonstration may not immediately show obvious results, but it may help to build a foundation for what will happen later.
If it runs smoothly and seems to have strong public support, then your organization might be seen as a force that the powers that be need to deal with. You might find yourself invited to meetings you couldn’t get into before, and asked for advice by policy makers who formerly ignored you. That’s success, too. You may need to wait a while before you can determine exactly how successful your demonstration was.
- What went well, and what didn’t? How could you do things better in the future?
- Who did their jobs well, or particularly well? (You might want to give them more responsibility next time.)
- Was a demonstration the right way to get your point across? Should you have used some other method instead?
- Would you do it again, and what would you change?
The next step in long-term follow-up is to build on the success and momentum of the demonstration. There are a number of possible ways to do this:
- Follow up with the intended audience of the demonstration (legislators, for example) by continuing to bring up the issue, and referring to the demonstration as evidence of support for it.
- Follow up with your own constituents (target population, supporters, etc.), using the energy generated by the demonstration to get them involved in keeping the issue before the public.
- Publicize your success. Use your contacts with the media to publicize how big and powerful your demonstration was.
- Try to get the media to do a series of stories on the issue. If there are celebrities who are willing, they might also be involved in this effort.
- Organize other events to address the issue.
- Institutionalize the demonstration. Many cities have walks to raise money for hunger, AIDS, or other causes that started out as demonstrations. Now they happen every year, attract thousands of walkers and tens of thousands of sponsors, raise huge amounts of money, and bring the issue to the public in an unavoidable way.
- Keep up the Momentum
Your protest is likely to draw many new folks who want to get further involved in the cause. Use the protest to make sure they know what the next action is. Hand out flyers for your next general meeting or for another protest. If you don’t have an immediate next step for them, get your clipboards out and collect email addresses with the promise of further action.
- Get Creative
Find a time or location that helps bolster your message. For example, a marijuana decriminalization march could be held at 4:20pm or a rally against police militarization could be held with armored vehicles behind the speakers. Be theatrical if you want; great photos spread faster and help get your message out. Puppets, themed costumes, or other artistic expressions help draw attention. Some organizations, like PETA, are known for their powerful protest theater, soaking themselves in fake animal blood. Even with a small attendance, their protests garner international attention.
- Go Deep on Your Strategy
You may be trying to influence a politician or other influential figure. If this figure has not responded to protest in the past, consider another approach. Everyone with power draws that power from someone else (donors, for example). You may want to consider protesting the origin of their power, for example, protesting a politician’s top donor or a university president’s allies on the board of directors.
- Don’t Be Afraid of Disruption
While many people equate disruption with violence or beyond the scope of constitutionality, disrupting the daily rhythms of life—especially for corporate or government officials—is precisely what the founding fathers had in mind: colonial-era riots, the burning of effigies, and dumping crates of tea in the bay. Disruption gets people talking about your protest and draws more media attention. Disruptive protest is more likely to lead to arrests. Be sure all of your invitees know what they are signing up for and that you research best practices incivil disobedience and disseminate that information to all participants.
- Be Spontaneous
If a protest is not pre-planned or expected by authorities, it can draw urgency to your cause and, as it grows, can give a feeling of momentum. Of course, to draw a crowd and the press to a spontaneous protest, more work will have to be done in a shorter amount of time. An inspirational (and effective) example of spontaneous protests were the large, widespread airport protests after President Trump announced his “muslim ban”. Many municipalities waive permit requirements if a protest forms in response to a recent or ongoing event but it’s worth checking with your local officials so you don’t put your invitees at risk of arrest.
Whether or not your protest march will be covered in local/national/international news media depends on the number of people participating and the novelty of the cause that you are advocating. If it is something for which there already have been a lot of protests, you will need to step up your game to make the march interesting enough to cover.
Photograph by Peter Cahill
Since a march is a moving protest, a lot of bystanders may see your action, but it is harder to start one-on-one conversations with them. Take pictures, record videos and livestream during the march, so you can reach additional people via social media.
A protest march is a relatively accessible action format, so it is a good way to get people who have never protested before involved. Make sure you have clear follow up actions though, so that participants of the march will take up more active roles within your movement after the march.
People who see your action as bystanders or hear about in in news media might also get involved. Note this is a very small percentage of the total number of people reached. You can improve this by handing out leaflets during the march and making it easy for people to find your website and get involved.
A protest march is usually not very disruptive. You are usually only taking up some space for a few hours. And because it is a moving protest, traffic will be able to continue their travels as you move away, though with a large number of participants this may take a while.
You are temporarily taking up a certain physical space, depending on the number of people participating and duration of the march and you are creating disturbance with noise. These are some ways to make it more disruptive: march on a frequent basis, march a longer distance, make more noise (for example, by asking people to bring pots and pans), or engage in cultural disruption (for example, march naked).
Because a protest march is not very disruptive generally speaking, it is unlikely that decision makers will feel forced to respond to your demands based on the disruption alone (though they may feel forced through public pressure as the result of your reach in news media). Being a relatively undisruptive tactic, this also means that the authorities are less likely to try to stop you by means of police force.
The tactic of marching to draw attention to a certain cause is very commonly used. Unless you add something special, a protest march is not very creative. This means that news media will be less interested, because it misses the aspect of novelty. These are some ways to use creativity to make a march more interesting: wear special clothing, bring art objects (for example a brightly painted boat or paper mâché skeletons) or have a group of people play theatre.
About the Author
Activist Handbook is a Wikipedia-like site for everyone to exchange knowledge and experiences about activism. It’s written by activists for activists. Visit the website to contribute to their wiki and learn more about other fundraising means and other topics including:
- ⏳Theory of change: Here we explain what activism is. We argue anyone can be an activist. Even though you might not refer to yourself as an ‘activist’, we believe this handbook can be useful for anyone who would like to achieve societal change.
- ⚡️ Organising: We believe that change-makers are more successful together. Learn how to set up an inclusive movement, how to make decisions democratically and how to mobilise people and keep them engaged.
- 💡 Campaign strategy: Social change can be achieved in various ways. Here we showcase different types of strategies depending on local political and social contexts.
- 📣 Action tactics: Guides on how to: protests, creative actions, digital activism, storytelling and more
Featured image via Unsplash.
Editor’s note: In Nepal, as in many parts of the world, male violence against women is relatively common, yet often goes unreported and unpunished. Today we bring you an interview with Ruby Khan, a working-class Nepali woman who marched 520km (320 miles) and helped launch a grassroots uprising for concrete policy and cultural change in response to two incidents of violence against Nepali women.
As an eco-feminist organization, Deep Green Resistance recognizes the links between the destruction of the planet and the oppression of women. Not least importantly, when women have greater autonomy and control over their lives, they chose to have fewer children, on average. Therefore, the liberation of women is not only the right path to justice, it is a necessity for reversing population growth and defending the living planet.
More broadly, the same philosophical roots underpin both patriarchy and the destruction of the planet, which creates the potential for synergistic positive effects when addressing these issues.
This interview, conducted by DGR organizer Salonika in Nepal, gives us a fascinating glimpse into the discipline, sacrifice, and hard work that goes into grassroots organizing.
It took 16 people 20 days to cover the ~520 km from Nepalgunj (a city in south-west Nepal) to Kathmandu (the capital city) on foot. With feet swollen with blisters from the mostly uphill march but determined to ensure justice for two women (Nirmala Kurmi and Nankunni Dhobi), the group started their first round of demonstrations in the capital, including a 12-day “fast unto death”, demanding proper investigation into the cases of the two victims of male violence. Finally, the government agreed to form an investigative committee and requested time to fulfill any ensuing recommendations.
This committee was formed under consisting of six members – five from the government and one from the protesters. The committee completed their work within seven days with a report that included recommending a Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) investigation for one of the cases.
Two months after the committee had submitted their report, the group was forced to travel to the capital again because the government had failed to follow through on the committee’s recommendations. After 41 days, the government developed a four-point agreement to address their demands. Following the successful second demonstration, DGR organizer Salonika interviewed the leader of the group, Ruby Khan, about her journey, her work, her movement and the cases that inspired it. The following blog post is based on that interview.
Resting in the shade during the march
“During our journey, we became so involved with Nirmala and Nankunni’s lives that we felt like the two of them were walking beside us. That feeling of being close to them inspired a hunger for justice. We knew that it would not come easily and that it required courage.”
— RUBY KHAN
Who is Ruby Khan? What does she do for women and girls?
I am Ruby Khan. My hometown is Nepalgunj. I work with women in Nepal who have been victimised. My goal is to help them get out of the violent situation and to help create a safe and secure environment for them. This is what I have been working for in the last decade.
The group marched for 20 days to reach the capital and returned after agreement was reached. Why did they need to make that journey?
I work with women in Nepalgunj who endure violence. They do so in silence most of the time. When they muster enough courage to finally speak up, no action is taken. It is not that the state is unaware of the injustice women are forced into. When we talked to the Chief Minister of Lumbini state and the Minister of Home Affairs (separately), they both admitted that they knew about our case beforehand. The media started covering us from the first day of our march. By the second day, even the bus drivers on the highway recognised us.
The state is feigning ignorance. Our march was a symbolic action. There were times in the feudal era where people had to walk to the capital to meet the kings to report any injustice. Our march symbolises the same hardship. We travelled to the capital to let the state know about the injustice women and girls are facing in the peripheries of Nepal. It is to let the state know that, in terms of justice, the peripheries of Nepal are still in a feudal state.
Why did the group travel to Kathmandu again, merely months after their return home?
We had reached an agreement with the government after our first round of protests. But the government did not fulfil their words. That’s why we had to return. This time, we demonstrated in Maitighar Mandala for 41 days before we reached another agreement.<
Although your fight is for all women and girls who have been victims of violence, the focus of the current movement was on two specific women: Nirmala Kurmi and Nankunni Dhobi. Who were these two women and what happened to them?
Nankunni Dhobi was a victim of domestic violence. She felt unsafe in her own house. Her husband and brother-in-law had repeatedly encouraged her to commit suicide. They brought ropes and pesticides to her so that she would kill herself. She had repeatedly complained about her situation to the Women’s Rights Forum and to the police. Succumbing to the regular torture she felt from her in-laws, Nankunni finally took her life. But it was her husband’s instigation, the indifference of the police and the unaccountability of the state that killed her.
Nirmala was a wealthy but uneducated widow with immense property – enough for two or three generations. Ultimately, her wealth became the reason for her torture. Her two sons died under mysterious circumstances. No proper investigation was conducted in that regard. She herself was abducted, raped by multiple men and killed. Her property has been stolen.
What has the state’s response been to the two cases?
Both women had contacted our organisation when they were alive. We worked with them then and after Nirmala Kurmi’s disappearance and Nankunni Dhobi’s death. The state’s response has been dire in both cases.
In Nankunni’s case, when we – women’s rights activists and her family – tried to file a complaint in the District Police Office, the police refused to report the incident. Furthermore, the Superintendent of Police (SP) and Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) of Banke Police threatened to file a false case against us and take us into custody.
In both these cases, the state has acted irresponsibly. Its mechanisms are not women-centred or women-friendly: women’s issues are never at the forefront. The state is supposed to look after its citizens and uplift them for a better life, but it has failed women in that regard.
With respect to women subjected to violence, the state is supposed to remove victims from their situation and give them security. Instead, the state turns its back on women. If a woman tries to speak up, she is silenced. They feign ignorance about women’s plight, and that is used to excuse the inaction of the state.
After the first phase of our movement, the government promised us in writing to form an investigative committee for these cases, which they did. The committee submitted a proposal within seven days. However, their recommendations were not fulfilled. They recommended delegating the investigation of Nirmala’s case to the CIB. Because we don’t trust the SP and DSP of Banke, we believe the CIB would carry out a better investigation. But the state is yet to send a CIB team to Nepalgunj.
This is common practice by the state: under pressure, they will promise action. Then they will take token action but not do anything substantial. Particularly in terms of human rights violations, we need a justice-centred approach. We need an investigative approach. Unless we question the state’s inaction and unaccountability, we cannot have a justice-centred approach.
Does the state respond in a similar manner in other cases?
The state’s response is determined by a number of different factors. First is the position of the perpetrator. If the perpetrator does not have access to wealth or to political power, the investigation and the judicial process happens in a timely way. But if the perpetrator has access to power and wealth, the entire process changes. The state’s behaviour in such cases is one of inaction. The state administration is driven by greed on such matters: how can the person in charge personally benefit from the case? It may be via money or by taking advantage of the political influence of the perpetrator.
In this way, our institutions are more perpetrator-centred than victim-centred. When the perpetrator has access to financial and political power, they are prioritised over the victim. Their statements are treated as truth without verification. Even when the case is sensitive and serious, the administration treats the incident as standard, undermining the gravity of the crime and focusing on resolving the case through a settlement instead of through the judicial process.
The reason that Nirmala Kurmi’s case has not reached the court is precisely that. The primary accused in her case is a man called Badshah Kurmi, who is a distant relative of the victim. He is also a member of the current ruling party and has served as a parliamentarian. He is an immensely powerful person. On the other hand, Nankunni Dhobi’s accused are not as powerful. They are not immensely rich. We still had to fight on her behalf, but eventually her case was filed and her accused are now in custody awaiting the court’s verdict.
Nirmala and Nankunni are very different from each other and so are their cases. Apart from both being women and powerless, there is little similarity between the two. Nirmala was wealthy, but Nankunni was not. The violence that Nirmala had to face was drastically more severe than that faced by Nankunni. Multiple different heinous crimes were committed against Nirmala.
It makes more sense for the state to be more serious about Nirmala’s case, but that has not happened. Nirmala’s perpetrators are powerful and that has hindered justice. Even during investigation, the District Public Attorney released Nirmala’s accused from custody under the pretext of age. And in other cases I’ve seen the Public Attorney take eighty-year old accused under custody. It is not the age of the accused, but rather his influence that has gotten him out of custody in this case.
At the same time, the police themselves have destroyed evidence in Nirmala’s case, planted false evidence, and are using evidence brought by the main accused as the primary evidence It is not that the involved authorities are incompetent: I’ve seen them work diligently to bring justice in other cases. But that has not happened in the current case. It is because the accused are using their financial and political power to manipulate the process. The District Police Office and the Public Attorney of Banke are gaining politically or financially from this case. The different treatment of the cases of Nankunni Dhobi and Nirmala Kurmi demonstrates the role that power plays in deciding justice for the general public.
What about the victims? How do they get treated in the investigation process?
In a twisted role reversal, the victim is treated as the culprit. Their statements and character are questioned much more than the perpetrator’s. They are told that the court process is very stressful and reminded of the stigma associated with it. Women are even told that it was in her best interests to have remained silent, and that being a woman, she should have tolerated a few slaps. They are also reminded of the perpetrator’s power. All of this destroys the victim’s courage: they begin to question their decision and even change their statements. They decide not to seek any further action, which is exactly what the perpetrator-centred institution wanted.
The situation would have been slightly different if the victim had been a male. A man’s words are not as easily dismissed as a woman’s. A woman is accused of backtracking on her statements, even though it is the police and society’s reaction that have forced her to do so, and then the police generalise that to all women. They start with the assumption that women are unreliable, and that’s the bias they hold throughout the entire process. This hampers the investigation process. A man cannot be as easily accused of being unreliable. When a man complains, his words are given a certain weight.
But there are class differences as well. If the victim is from a wealthy family, his complaint is immediately registered and the investigation process starts. However, if he is not wealthy and the perpetrator is, the victim may be pressured by the police to settle the issue. The victim goes through the same process of fear, regret and worry about social disgrace. He begins to justify the violence he faced in terms of class differences. The next time he faces violence, he does not try to file a complaint.
It seems to me that how the police deal with a case is entirely dependent on the power hierarchy. Violence by the powerful (male, wealthy, access to political power) against the powerless (female, poor, no political access) has been normalised in our society, and even law enforcement agencies accept this. However, violence by those without power against those with is not tolerated: immediate action is taken to punish the perpetrator and ensure the victim’s security. But immediate action to ensure the security of the victim should be the right of all, even if they are at the bottom of a power hierarchy.
When it comes to state action, the main questions are: what power does the perpetrator have and what power does the victim have? At the same time, we must remember that a powerful person cannot be victimised in the way a powerless person is. It is always the powerless who are victimised. Their human rights are violated. On the other hand, the perpetrator’s human rights – due to his greater access to power – are protected by both state and public institutions.
Class prejudices mean that a woman of a higher socioeconomic class is less victimised than a woman of a lower one. Her economic resources give her greater access to opportunities, including education.
Education itself creates another hierarchy. When a woman is educated, even if she is poor, she is aware of her rights. She knows the laws, and where to go if she becomes a victim. This gives her greater confidence. Statistics show that a lot of crimes are committed against the uneducated. This is because uneducated people lack information about their rights and about the steps that they could take should someone violate them. In this way, they are forced to tolerate whatever happens to them, and thus they are an easy target for the perpetrators.
Who were the 16 marchers who made the arduous journey?
The marchers were mostly rural women from Terai, both Muslim and Madhesi women. I’ve been involved in activism for about a decade, but most of the women involved in the march had had a very limited public life. They were mostly limited to their homes, their parents’ homes and the marketplace. Walking to Kathmandu was something that they had never expected to do: at times they were scared, and at times they were amazed by a world that was so different from theirs. In their daily lives, they would have had to ask permission from their husbands to visit their parents. They thanked me because their husbands would otherwise never have let them embark on this journey, and they were grateful for the different experiences.
There were only three men in our group. They were all rural men: they did not know a lot about the system or society. They had never left their village in their lives.
Three people joined us after we reached Kathmandu: they had not been able to walk with us due to various medical conditions. Five more joined us on our second journey.
Power and courage from the marchers
Five hundred kilometres is not a short journey. To inspire 15 others to make the journey by foot is an entirely different thing again. What difficulties did the group face during the march?
We started the march on Asoj 1 (September 17), and it lasted till Asoj 20 (October 6). Our march was one for justice. It was a very difficult journey, but it was also a journey of courage. Knowing what we suffer in the pursuit of justice and what women have to suffer strengthened our commitment and gave us the courage to tolerate hardships.
Our journey was not just difficult, it was risky as well. Before we left, I said to the group, “We are starting as 16 people, but we don’t know how many we will be by the time we arrive: we don’t know who among us will survive the march.”
We walked through landslide-prone areas; we heard rumours about tiger attacks; we were chased by snakes. We were scared.
For most of the journey, we walked on highways. The roads were never empty for even a minute. All kinds of vehicles sped past us. On one side of the road were big hills, and on the other was a deep fast-flowing river. One misstep in one direction and we would have fallen in the river; one misstep in the other direction and we would have been run over. Sometimes we cried from fear.
On top of that, we were also scared of being victims of violence ourselves. Our group were mostly women between 20 and 45 years old. We had to face all the fears that haunt women. We were scared somebody would attack us. Twice, some drunkards tried to talk to us and to walk with us. There were others who would offer us rides on their scooter, but we knew they were not trying to help us. They would not leave us when we refused. And we knew that they were behaving that way because we were mostly women.
And we didn’t have enough to eat. We remembered all the food that gets wasted every day. We learned the value of a single grain then. There were times when we had to miss two or three consecutive meals. We used to pray that we would meet someone the next day who would feed us till we were full. There were times when I told the group that whenever they got a chance to eat, they should eat as much as they can, because we just didn’t know where our next meal was going to come from.
There were times when we would be so thirsty that our lips would be so dry that they would stick together when we tried to speak. Occasionally, we would find streams of water flowing from the hills. Those streams were so precious to us. Even now, I can taste the water. Back home, we wouldn’t think twice before wasting water, but during the march, we realised how significant water actually was, and what happened when we didn’t have enough to drink.
Sometimes we had to sleep on the road, where we were at risk of being run over by passing vehicles. We were so tired by then that even the hard stones became soft mattresses for us. Sometimes we would cry, missing our mothers, who would have fed us and gotten us to sleep.
Given all this, how did the group find the courage to complete this journey?
We started the march due to our hunger for justice, which was stronger than our hunger for food. It was so strong that while we were walking, it seemed as if our legs were walking by themselves. That was true for all of us. No one said once that it was getting too difficult, that we should probably return. Our hunger for justice could not be satiated with food, money or anyone’s support. It could only be satisfied with the confidence that someone would protect us.
Even now, our hunger has not been satisfied: we are yet to see how the latest agreement will be implemented. After the agreement, some of our friends told us that hopefully, we would not have to return to Kathmandu again. We told them that until our hunger for justice is completely satisfied and the perpetrators are punished, we will keep returning. Justice is an experience. It’s not something you can see. It’s something you have to feel.
During our journey, we became so involved with Nirmala and Nankunni’s lives that we felt like the two of them were walking beside us. That feeling of being close to them inspired a hunger for justice. We knew that it would not come easily and that it required courage. To overcome our fear of big hills, we used to say that our courage was bigger than the hills in front of us. We held each other’s hands while we walked and sang to distract ourselves from hunger. Four or five of us were close to dying. Yet, we survived all of that. It was our sense of justice that gave us the courage to face all of that.
Some of the women in our group had medical issues. But during the march, they said that they felt their health was improving. We checked their vitals on the road sometimes, and they turned out to be in the normal range. It felt as though nature herself was supporting us.
We used to have long conversations while we rested. We would talk about our lives, our joys and our sorrows. We tried to understand each other’s lives. Some women cried during these conversations. They talked about things that they had never told anyone else, things they had kept to themselves for years. They felt understood for the first time in their lives and thanked us for this. Usually, nobody listens to women, not even their husbands. They would dismiss a woman’s feelings and thoughts. When the rest of the group actually listened to those women, it was a big deal for them. They felt supported. They felt understood.
No one ever complained that they wanted to return. In fact, some even offered to carry others when they seemed sick. This shows that if one wills it, anything can be done.
Ruby Khan and her team at the beginning of the march
The group met a lot of people on their journey. What responses did you receive?
We met different kinds of people. Some were very supportive of what we were doing. They would offer all the help that they could. Some told us to return: they said that Nirmala Kurmi and Nankunni Dhobi were dead and the state didn’t care. They added that the state wouldn’t care if we all died, and that we shouldn’t risk our lives for that. They even offered us the bus fare to return home. We could see that they were concerned for us. Some cried for us: it was too difficult for them to see our suffering. We were in pain. We had blisters all over our feet, and it was difficult for them to see.
Others would encourage us to carry on. They said that it was necessary. With all the violence that was going on, the rapes that were happening daily, the abuse, the domestic violence, it was necessary to take a drastic step. Women were getting murdered. They said that our step would force the previous generation to consider what was happening and the next generation to learn. They said that we were creating history, that our children would learn that women made this long and arduous march for justice, and that it would be a source of inspiration for generations to come.
There were many more who showed their support. People learned about us through the media. They waited in their homes for us. In today’s society, it is difficult to find people who are willing to do anything for others at their own expense. Yet here we met people who were doing exactly that. Near Galchhi, we met an elderly woman. She offered us food, but we had eaten not long before. When we told her that we couldn’t eat, she offered us water, saying that it was the least she could do.
Even the police showed their support. We know that there are police who wronged us, but not every police officer is like that. It pained them to see our struggle. There were some who walked with us for the short distance that they were allowed. Some urged us to request security from their seniors so that they could walk with us. They showed their support in so many ways that it was a source of courage for us.
How was the group’s experience in Kathmandu?
In Kathmandu, demonstrations were more difficult than in Banke. Few of us had been to Kathmandu before. The first time we arrived, we were not in a good state. We had blisters all over our feet. The second time, the weather was very cold and we had to walk in the rain for a couple of days. It was so cold that it was difficult for us to hold our banners. The wind was so strong that it felt as if with every step, the wind was pushing us backwards. All of us fell ill; 14 got extremely sick and we had to seek medical help.
Did the group receive any support in Kathmandu?
We received support from those who cared about justice. We didn’t even have to call them. They found out about us and came to support us of their own accord. Dr Govinda KC is an example. He was working in Rukum, but he joined us, leaving his work until we achieved justice. He came to support us because he was moved by what we were going through. He is not even an advocate for women’s issues, but he could see we were fighting for a just cause and that we ourselves were being treated unfairly.
Advocate Mohana Ansari is another example. She has supported us in both a personal and professional capacity. She repeatedly warned the government to stop harassing us. For that she has received multiple threats. When I found out about this and asked her about it, she said, “If the fight for justice had been as easy, you wouldn’t have to walk from Nepalgunj to Kathmandu. This is a very small thing compared to what you had to go through. What’s more important is that we cannot afford to lose any more Nirmala Kurmis and Nankunni Dhobis.”
The list is long. A lot of other civil rights activists came to support us. There were students who would come directly from their examination hall to our demonstration site. They would skip a meal or walk instead of taking the bus and donate that money to us. We know what value money has in a student’s life, particularly those students from different parts of the country who come to study in Kathmandu. This shows their commitment to justice, and that we don’t need to call people to our cause. They join the fight if they are really interested in justice.
But we failed to garner interest from those we were hoping for: women’s rights activists in Kathmandu. When we first reached here, I contacted many women’s rights organisations for support. There was so much they could have done. The day we reached here the second time was the first day of a 16-day campaign protesting violence against women, for which many organisations were organising 1-day events. The cost of their 1-day events could have covered our expenses for 41 days. If, like the students, they had used that money to support us, it would have been a great help. If they had organised their events near our demonstration site, instead of in expensive venues, it would have helped us gain a lot more attention from the public. Many of the organisations have a shelter here in Kathmandu. We asked if we would be able to stay there, but they made various excuses. If they had only let a few of us stay, it would have considerably reduced our expenses.
The way I see it, they are not interested in justice at all. I’ve seen their work here. They are more interested in events that can be shared on different platforms. It is not that publicly sharing what you do is wrong. But most are interested only in that. They don’t even care if their events are effective, let alone about justice. They are content with sharing pictures of their events on social media and getting news coverage. This helps their public relations and can be used to gain further donations for similar events. And so on it goes. Since what they are doing is not really challenging the status quo, they don’t have to face as many obstacles. Those who are actually demanding justice are questioning the status quo and they face many challenges.
The team in a meeting with the provincial government
What was the state’s response to their movement?
When we started marching, we had hopes that the state would address us before we finished. With every step we took, that hope faltered. Yet we still expected the state to address our issue because that’s their responsibility. When Dr KC went to meet the Prime Minister with his own demands, he included our cause. At that time, the Prime Minister very clearly acknowledged all the trouble we were going through and promised that we would be sent home very soon. But a week passed without any progress.
The state did not show any concern for our movement. We were rural women who came from marginalised groups. We didn’t have much power. Plus, the mainstream women’s rights activists – who had relatively more power in terms of reach to both national and international platforms – were not supporting the issue. We came from the hottest place in Nepal and the weather of Kathmandu was getting colder by the day. Therefore, the state did not expect us to last long. They thought we would soon tire and return home. In fact, they wanted to tire us. But then civil rights activists – who had greater access to national platforms – got involved. Dr Govinda KC got involved. The media covered us and this created pressure. It was only then that the state showed any concern. On the 39th day of the second demonstration, government officials came to our site to get clarity on the issue. We used to reach the demonstration site by 10 in the morning and leave after 5, but it took 39 long days of hardship on our side for the state to finally want to “get clarity” on the issue. And that was after the Prime Minister had already verbally promised Dr KC that our demands would be addressed.
Our hopes for a positive response from the state had already died, but we had never expected the state to be so insensitive to the case. The first guardian of the nation, our President, is a woman. She did not show any interest in our issue. Our second guardian – the Prime Minister – went back on his words to help us. Because of this, we were forced to take another fast unto death. All of the women were willing to take the fast, but many of them were taking regular medication. We therefore decided that only I would take the fast, but that we could reconsider it depending on how the situation developed.
News of our fast unto death attracted the state’s attention and constant pressure from other activists forced it to take action. We were called for a dialogue within the Ministry of Home Affairs. Even then, there seemed no real urgency on the state’s side to take any concrete action. It was only when Dr KC announced that he would join our fast unto death that the state finally agreed to ask the CBI to investigate the case. The most important aspect was that we got their statement in written form, which is very rare and holds the state more accountable. What had not happened in 40 days was completed within two hours. This shows that it is not the validity of a demand that brings action, but applying pressure in the right way.
Meanwhile the families of those involved in the movement are being threatened by the accused.
It is a very risky situation. We are not safe from the police, the accused or their relatives. Badshah Kurmi went to our homes to threaten our family that they would hurt, abduct, or frame us, as well as threatening our families themselves with violence. Since we are mostly women and, comparatively, women are more attached to their families, it is easier to threaten us by getting to our families. They have said that because we are not as wealthy as them, our voices will be lost.
Our relatives are calling us, pressuring us to end this. They believe that the accused could harm them. But we are not going to let this stop us at any cost. Since we are mostly women and comparatively, women are more attached to their families, it is easier to threaten us by getting to our families.
We have sent applications to the District Police Office and District Administration Office regarding those threats, and we also mentioned them during our discussion in MoHA. They have said that they will send a letter to related offices for our security. The letter has probably reached there by now.
Why did the movement create a division between women rights’ activists?
There is a division between women rights’ activists in Nepal. We are not mainstream activists; we are marginalised activists. Not only do we come from marginalised groups, but also, even in our activism we have had marginalised roles. Mainstream activists do not accept us as women’s rights activists. If Gita Chamar – a widow from a marginalised area – becomes the face of the women’s rights movement, it will hamper the reputation of those who are currently the face of the movement. Their authority as champions of women will be challenged, and this fear has stopped them from helping our movement.
Our point is that they need not have supported Ruby Khan’s movement. But as women’s rights activists, they should have supported justice for Nirmala Kurmi and Nankunni Dhobi. When we first arrived in Kathmandu, I asked them to take the lead in this movement. Because who leads the movement should never be the focus: it should always be about the cause. This movement was never my movement. It has always been for the justice of two women who were subjected to brutal violence.
On top of that, what the mainstream activists are currently doing does not challenge the status quo. They conduct token programmes and receive attention for that. My understanding is that – and I may be wrong here – if more people knew about our movement, they would have questioned the tokenistic actions of mainstream activists. In this way, they would have been held accountable for their inaction. That was another reason they did not want to support us. And this is something I have experienced from my hometown to Kathmandu.
One journalist also revealed to me that one of the so-called activists asked her why the journalist was focusing on Ruby Khan. That was very hurtful. A women’s rights activist questioning a journalist for focusing on women’s issues. What does it say about them that they spent that much energy on sabotaging a women’s rights movement?
Overall, what has the group’s experience been?
It is ironic that we came to fight violence against women: we ourselves were not safe from that same issue. We had to face violence from the police as well as from the accused. We know that this is not the end. We will have to face more violence once we reach home. But we are prepared for that. We went into this knowing what we might have to face.
Nankunni Dhobi and Nirmala Kurmi are just representative cases of a culture of violence against women. How would you describe your 10 years as a women’s rights activist? How did the community respond to your activism?
I come from a community where women are supposed to stay behind a veil and are expected to be limited to their home. If we wanted to be educated, or if we voiced our opinions, we were called names to shame us into silence. The elders from my community would question us. They would taunt our family members for living off a woman’s earnings. They would even get people beaten for that. That’s the culture that I was raised in.
Now, the very same people who used to shame me now refer women who face problems to me. They are my father’s or my grandfather’s age, yet they trust me to solve different problems. That is a big deal in a patriarchal society like ours.
To help support their communities, women and girls should be educated. We are working on that, and we are providing alternative education to those who have dropped out. We have very little financial support, but we are still working on formal education.
There also needs to be education for both women and men on women’s rights. Ultimately, in our society, a woman does not have sole authority over her life. She still seeks permission from the head of the family (usually a man) for major decisions in her life. Therefore, men also need to understand the importance of women’s education and of speaking for oneself. If my parents had forbidden me to work after facing taunts from the community, I would not have reached where I am today. This is a long process. It is true that we are becoming a little more progressive in regard to education. Nowadays, girls can go to school. Even so, there are only a handful of girls in Madhesi and Muslim communities who have attempted matriculation, and there are still some districts in Nepal where women have not yet passed matriculation.
These are serious challenges. Unless we face them, our dream of a safe society for women will never be fulfilled.
What needs to happen for violence against women to end?
We need to make the state and all its related institutions accountable. There is no use fighting with them; we need to do this tactfully. If we think an official is acting irresponsibly, we need to show that they might get into trouble if they don’t act responsibly. If that doesn’t work, we need to take action. It is not enough for a single person to be accountable: the entire institution should be accountable for its actions. In our case, when the government failed to complete its previous agreement, we had to start the second phase of our movement.
Right now, the situation is such that women in my locality (including those who were part of the movement) have to ask their husbands for transport costs even if they have to go to a police station. Their husbands, in turn, are daily wage labourers. They earn less than Rs. 500 a day. They have to choose between the fare for their wives and feeding the family that night.
If these women had a source of income themselves, they would not have to rely on their husbands for everything and would have greater autonomy in their lives, including their choice to fight for other women. I’ve seen cases where a woman wants to get involved in activism but is restricted due to her husband’s inability to spend that Rs. 30 on her travel. This is particularly important for women who have been the victims of domestic violence and who want to fight for their own justice.
That is also true on an organisational level. We had to ask for donations both in Nepalgunj and Kathmandu in order to cover our basic expenses. Right now, we are staying in a total of six rooms in a guest house. Thankfully, the owner did not ask us to pay anything till now. Now that we are leaving tomorrow, he is going to calculate the cost, and we are asking for donations to cover that. If we had secure funds as an organisation, we would be able to organise many more of these movements.
Lastly, we need to see every incident contextually. The oppression of one woman is very much related to the oppression of another. We organised this movement for two women, but we know that if justice is delivered in these two cases, it will serve as a motivation for all future movements and a deterrent for all perpetrators.
Ruby Khan is a member of Women’s Rights Forum and Muslim Community Development Awareness Center of Nepal (Nepal Muslim Samaj). Women’s Rights Forum is a network that advocates for marginalised and oppressed women. They focus on getting those women out of their oppressive situation by helping them gain independence in their lives. Nepal Muslim Samaj helps women gain access to economic resources so that they can live a dignified life.
Update: The CIB has already started the investigation on Nirmala Kurmi’s case. Ruby Khan’s team has returned to their hometown, where they are facing harassment from the primary accused and his relatives. One of the demonstrators was severely beaten in his own home. The local police has not officially filed a complaint. Currently, Ruby Khan and her team is seeking financial funds for the legal defense of Nirmala’s case for when the CIB finishes its investigation.
Originally published at FiLiA.
 Both Muslims and Madhesis are marginalised groups in Nepal.
 Dr Govinda KC is a medical doctor in Nepal, and a strong activist against the privatisation of medical colleges. He has taken multiple fast unto deaths for that cause.
 Adv. Mohana Ansari is a senior human rights activist in Nepal.
 Rs. 500 is a little over £3 GBP or $4.00 USD.
“You Can Kill a Man, but You Can’t Kill an Idea” – Medgar Evers
This article first appeared in Common Dreams.
“After a year of strikes—and having faced brutal repression that claimed some 700 lives—India’s farmers are victorious in their struggle.”
By KENNY STANCIL
Workers’ rights activists around the globe rejoiced on Friday after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his government will repeal three corporate-friendly agricultural laws that the nation’s farmers have steadfastly resisted for more than a year.
The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), a coalition of over 40 farmers’ unions that led the protests, called the development a “historic victory” for those “who struggled resolutely, unitedly, continuously, and peacefully for one year so far in the historic farmers’ struggle,” India Today reported, citing a statement from SKM.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement to repeal three farm laws is a welcome step in the right direction,” said SKM, though the organized labor coalition did not commit to ending its mobilization. “SKM hopes that the government of India will go the full length to fulfill all the legitimate demands of protesting farmers, including statutory legislation to guarantee a remunerative MSP [Minimum Support Price].”
Rakesh Tikait, a leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, welcomed Modi’s announcement but said that “we will wait for the day when the farm laws are repealed in Parliament,” where the winter session starts on November 29. He added that in addition to the MSP demand, “the government should talk to farmers on other issues.”
Modi’s announcement—and the sustained resistance of India’s farmers—were celebrated by progressives worldwide.
“We will wait for the day when the farm laws are repealed in Parliament.”
Al Jazeera reported that Modi’s “sudden concession comes ahead of elections early next year in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, and two other northern states with large rural populations.” Opposition parties attributed the prime minister’s move to sinking poll numbers, characterizing it as part of an effort to appeal to voters who support or sympathize with the nation’s struggling farmers.
According to CNN, “Farmers are the biggest voting bloc in the country, and the agricultural sector sustains about 58% of India’s 1.3 billion citizens. Angering farmers could see Modi lose a sizable number of votes.”
As India Today noted, “Hundreds of farmers have been camping at three places on the Delhi border since November 2020, demanding the repeal of the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020.”
For over a year, CNN reported, “Indian farmers have fought the three laws, which they said leave them open to exploitation by large corporations and could destroy their livelihoods.”
Al Jazeera explained that “the legislation the farmers object to,” passed last September, “deregulates the sector, allowing farmers to sell produce to buyers beyond government-regulated wholesale markets, where growers are assured of a minimum price.”
Modi’s cabinet said the laws are “aimed at giving farmers the freedom to sell directly to institutional buyers such as big trading houses, large retailers, and food processors,” Reuters reported. While Modi claimed the legislation “will ‘unshackle’ millions of farmers and help them get better prices,” opposition parties said that “farmers’ bargaining power will be diminished.”
Small farmers expressed alarm about the legislation, saying that “the changes make them vulnerable to competition from big business, and that they could eventually lose price support for staples such as wheat and rice,” Al Jazeera reported.
Beginning last September, farmers from regions of India that are major producers of wheat and rice blocked railway tracks, which was followed by larger, nationwide protests, including some that used trucks, tractors, and combine harvesters to block highways leading to New Dehli, the nation’s capital.
By last December, “protests spread across India, as farm organizations call[ed] for a nationwide strike after inconclusive talks with the government,” Reuters reported, adding that demonstrations also took place throughout the Sikh diaspora.
In January, “India’s Supreme Court order[ed] an indefinite stay on the implementation of the new agricultural laws, saying it wanted to protect farmers and would hear their objections,” the news outlet noted.
Over the course of several months, which included a brutal winter and a devastating Covid-19 surge, farmers continued to agitate for full repeal of the three laws. Repression from Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party resulted in hundreds of deaths.
At the largest rally to date, more than half a million farmers gathered in Uttar Pradesh on September 5, roughly 10 weeks before Modi announced that he will repeal the laws.
In response to Modi’s decision on Friday, “farmers at [the] protest sites of Ghazipur, Tikri, and Singhu borders celebrated by bursting crackers, distributing sweets, and welcoming the [government’s] move,” India Today reported.
The Transnational Institute praised “the resilience, courage, and determination of India’s farmers who succeeded in overturning the pernicious farm laws,” calling it “the power of movements.”
“The repeal of the three farm laws… is a major political victory for India’s peasant movement.”
That sentiment was shared by numerous other observers.
“The repeal of the three farm laws—unconstitutional, with no demonstrable benefits, and aimed to expand corporate control over agriculture—is a major political victory for India’s peasant movement,” said R. Ramakumar, an economics professor in the School of Development Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. “Their resolute struggle has shown and amplified the power of dissent in our democracy.”
Priyamvada Gopal, a professor of postcolonial studies at the University of Cambridge, placed the overturning of Modi’s unpopular reforms in a broader context, arguing that “the victory of farmers in North India is not a local matter.”
“This is a victory of global significance,” she added. “Immense class and oppressed caste solidarity, fierce determination, [and] deep courage defeated the combine of chauvinist authoritarianism and corporate greed—our common enemy.”
This story first appeared in Global Voices.
Protestors highlighted the increasing femicide and violence rates in Turkey
By Arzu Geybullayeva
Hundreds of women took the streets in Istanbul to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25. However, protestors were met with police violence, including tear gas and rubber bullets, as they tried to break through barricades to march on a busy pedestrian street. Similar protests took place across other cities, including the capital Ankara.
Women continue to be the hope, with their hopes, excitement, determination and enthusiasm. They have turned night into day on Istiklal Avenue.
We are not staying silent, we are not afraid, we are not obeying.
The women groups were also joined by the LGBTQ+ activists.
The main demand on the streets was for Turkey to rejoin the Istanbul Convention — a legally-binding human rights treaty created by the Council of Europe pledging to prevent, prosecute, and eliminate domestic violence and promote gender equality. Turkey announced its decision to withdraw from the international treaty in March of this year. In July, women across the country protested the official withdrawal.
Away from the busy street of Istiklal, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was also marking the day, promising to someday eliminate violence against women. “I hope we eliminate violence against women by strengthening our human and moral values. We are determined.”
But women’s rights groups say words aren’t enough, as Turkey continues to see increasing femicide rates. According to We Will Stop Femicide, a local platform documenting violence against women, a total of 225 women were killed between January and October 2021. A separate tracker documenting the names of women killed as a result of violence puts the number of victims at 353 in total for 2021. One of the most recent victims was 28-year-old Basak Cengiz, who was stabbed by a man who later confessed he did it out of boredom. The killer was charged with aggravated murder.
Cengiz’s murder renewed the calls for Turkey to rejoin the international convention; however, authorities — including Erdoğan — continue to insist the domestic legislation is enough. “To us, women are the holiest creature. We will never allow their holiness to be tainted,” the president said reportedly last week, adding, “Thus, there’s no need for the Istanbul Convention.”
The government’s “Action Plan for Combating Violence against Women” was announced in July 2021 and includes goals such as reviewing judicial processes, improving protection services, and gathering data on violence. So far, it has proven futile. “The current laws are not adequate. We hear about women being killed every day, because the existing structure, both legally and implementation wise, is not adequate,” Ayşe Faride Acar, a Turkish academic overseeing the implementation of the Istanbul Convention between 2015 – 2019 told AlJazeera in an interview.
And the numbers speak for themselves. Berrin Sonmez of the Women’s Platform for Equality recently told AFP that ever since the country withdrew from the convention in March, the sense of impunity has only risen. She said, “180 women were murdered between March and July 2021, and besides that, there have been 171 suspicious deaths. This is not a justifiable number.”
Erdoğan first expressed interest in leaving the convention in 2020. The final decision came after the president unveiled a human rights plan he says would “improve rights and freedoms in Turkey and help the country meet EU standards.”
The atmosphere on the streets on November 25 painted a different picture. “We are in the streets to call for the right of women to defend themselves, to call for justice for women who were killed, for their right to work, for the rights of lesbian women,” told one protest participant, a member of Women’s Defense Network, an organization connecting women activists across the country, in an interview with AlJazeera. Another protest participant said, “Every day in our homes, in the streets, in our workplaces, we are subjected to violence,” adding, “We’ve had enough.”
This article first appeared on the Association for the Tree of Live Website.
By JEAN ARNOLD
A ravenous, yet decrepit cyborg – part machine, part zombie – lurches onward as it is programmed to do. Its hunger is so insatiable that it eats its own flesh; it eats its offspring; and it eats the future. The catabolic effects are inescapable and its death rattle reverberates for miles. An entire city lives inside this beast. Yet in this late hour, inhabitants put their heads down and carry-on as usual, for they are all dependent upon this monster for their very own food, water, and shelter. No one dares utter a stray word, until the day one brave soul holds up a mirror that reveals who they have become.
A decade ago, I attended a series of contentious activist meetings with Rio Tinto, the mega-mining corporation that owns the massive Kennecott copper pit in the Salt Lake Valley. Rio Tinto planned to expand the mine, and activists were pushing back. The meetings foundered and collapsed upon the lack of viable possibilities for avoiding local impacts and for making operations more sustainable. Activists’ proposals were considered impractical and unprofitable. Ultimately, Kennecott got its expansion and activists got nothing.
Jean Arnold, Civilization, 2012, oil on canvas, 42 x 42 inches.
An early Egyptian pyramid is seen with the gaping hole of the Kennecott copper pit. As civilization builds up monuments to itself, it must tear down into Earth for her treasures.
As a visual artist, I took my angst to the studio and captured eviscerated earth in a series of paintings and drawings, depicting large-scale mining operations that are rarely seen or considered by the public. What better way to reveal our civilization’s insatiable hunger for resources?
I realized that the mining industry cannot be greened, intrinsically by its very nature. Mining casts a long shadow: habitat loss, land theft, worker exploitation, local health impacts, and groundwater contamination, to name just a few issues. Without mining and other forms of extraction, Industrial Civilization could not exist. Yet we rarely ponder our Wonder-World’s material basis and its extraction costs.
Turns out I’m not the only one working in this vein – far from it.
This year a broad panoply of photographers, painters, poets, and printmakers are raising a ruckus in a four-continent constellation of almost sixty exhibits, installations, performances, and events under the rubric “EXTRACTION: Art on the Edge of the Abyss.” When EXTRACTION originator Peter Koch announced the project, it took off like wildfire. Creators are shining lights on all forms of the omnivorous extractive industry, “from mining and drilling to the reckless plundering and exploitation of fresh water, fertile soil, timber, marine life, and innumerable other resources across the globe.” The project’s broad definition begs the questions: In our civilization, what isn’t based on extraction? What isn’t affected by extraction?
The Algonquin word “wetiko” reveals extraction as a symptom of the culture-wide soul-sickness driven by domination, greed, and consumptive excess. It blinds humans from seeing ourselves as part of an interdependent whole, in communion with all of life. It is through this toxic mindset that the world is divided up and consumed for profit.
Extraction is an uncomfortable topic: it confronts us with our system’s voracious appetite for taking Earth’s riches without reciprocity – the very epitome of wetiko. Sure, we can point at capitalism, corporations and elite interests, but as participants in this wetiko culture we are all infected by this mind virus.
Far beyond a “problem” – extraction and its consequences pose a predicament without escape. Humanity is hitting planetary limits: declining resources, excess CO2 in the atmosphere, and plastic choking our oceans. Many of the proposed “solutions,” are just new iterations of the same paradigm, bringing more extraction. For example, see our blog “We are Strip-Mining Life While We Drink ‘Bright Green Lies’” as to why “green” tech will never save us. Humanity has dug itself deep into a hole from which few of us may emerge.
Since stories create meaning, the “wetikonomy” seeks to maintain itself through a tight control over its own narratives. In our situation, the system rewards those that uphold its delusions: endless growth, techno-magic, fulfillment through consumption, and superiority over nature. We are told there is no alternative and things are getting better all the time.
Stephen Braun, The Hoarder, 2009, raku ceramics, 24 x 30 x 8 inches.
Clinging to the same mentality at the root cause of the crises.
The pressure to act according to these grand-yet-contradictory narratives is pervasive, which means compliance is near-universal. Witness the charades played by world leaders and diplomats at decades of climate conferences, giving lip service to fossil fuel phase-out while maintaining the techno-growth-extraction paradigm – essentially mocking the stated climate goals by clinging to the same mentality at the root cause of the crisis. Does anyone think this year’s climate conference, COP26 in Glasgow will play out differently?
Why are people so willing to surrender their agency? Society is captivated by a grand bargain described by social critic Lewis Mumford in his 1964 essay “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics”:
The bargain … takes the form of a magnificent bribe … each member of the community may claim every material advantage … food, housing, swift transportation, instantaneous communication, medical care, entertainment, education. But on one condition: that one must not merely ask for nothing that the system does not provide, but likewise agree to take everything offered … Once one opts for the system no further choice remains.
In other words, the bribe offers everyone a share in the largess, that is, the cornucopia of material goods unleashed by this industrial economy — as long as one does not question the costs to others, to ecosystems, or to the future.
The wetiko-spirit hates to be seen and named, as this begins to dissolve its parasitic power over its host. Dissent against the existing paradigm is ignored, penalized, or co-opted – that is, absorbed into the hegemony. Until it’s not. The time comes when costs become unbearable, limits are reached, and opposition finally boils over.
Thus, the last thing the power structure wants is a cultural spotlight on extraction, which exposes the core of our malady. And certainly not through art, which has a visceral, soul-level power – a power that scientific reports, statistics, and warnings do not have. Art can play a prophetic role: bearing witness to unsettling matters and grabbing attention before we can turn away. It can portray possibilities previously unconsidered, vitally needed at this time.
Jos Sances, Or, the Whale, 2108-2109, scratchboard, 14 x 51 feet
This very large scratchboard drawing was inspired by Moby Dick and the history of whaling in America. The whale’s skin is embedded with a history of capitalism in America—images of human and environmental exploitation and destruction since 1850.
EXTRACTION co-founder Edwin Dobb (now deceased) posed the question of our time: Can we break the spell? A growing chorus on the periphery – Greta Thunberg, poets, painters, performance artists, Extinction Rebellion – is revealing the sociopathic end-game holding us in its grip and unraveling slowly in real time. Learning to see wetiko within ourselves and our culture can begin to break its spell. Can we come to see our own hubris? Contraction is coming whether we like it or not – how can we deal with this if we are spellbound? We have no individual or collective roadmap for the coming post-extraction Reality.
The EXTRACTION project’s exhibits and events are winding down, although organizers hope for continuation in some form. Only a few more venues are scheduled to open, yet its effects will continue rippling outwards. The project has legitimized the extraction art movement and showcased some of today’s most potent work. It has broadened my own definition of extraction-inspired art, which helps me see new possibilities. The project will live on in the evolving work of extraction artists and in others forging authentic responses to our global predicaments. Art is all-too-often wed to money and societal embrace, compromising its own power and obscuring rather than illuminating Reality. Artmaking on the margins is not easy, so supporting this work is necessary.
Chris Boyer, Atlantic Salmon Pens, Welshpool, New Brunswick, Canada (44.885980°, -66.959243°), 2018.
Art that challenges the wetiko-extraction paradigm will become even more relevant, as extraction’s impacts widen. Extraction art is not going away, until extraction itself goes away. While industrial-scale extraction has “only” been with us for four hundred years, art has been with us for thousands of generations, since our early ancestors rendered images inside caves.
Listen to an audio of this blog, narrated by Michael Dowd.
Learn more about the EXTRACTION project.
EXTRACTION megazine (648 pages): download for free or purchase a printed copy for $25 + $7 shipping.
Partly a group catalog of extraction-related artwork, each artist or creator’s individual contribution documents their own personal investigations into the extraction question. The project is by no means limited to the visual arts—in these pages you will also find poetry, critical writings, philosophical treatises, manifestos, musical scores, conversations, historical or found photographs, and much more.
Make a donation to the EXTRACTION project.