6 Bodies 6 Bodies

Collective actions


[The march] gives the movement agency: the chance to present itself, its leaders, and its agenda to the world on its own terms and articulate its demands in its own words.

Gary Younge, The Speech, 2013

To demonstrate is invariably to walk, together. Most demonstrations entail a march to a point of assembly and speech-making, while some consist principally in collective walking. Walking together can become rhythmic, synchronous, the bodily equivalent of the chant (and many crowds chant while marching). In some contexts, notably in the military, it connotes – even creates – discipline and power, in what William McNeill terms a process of ‘muscular bonding’.

The collective walk brings together the iconography of the pilgrimage with that of the military march and the labour strike and demonstration: it is a show of strength as well as conviction.

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust. A history of walking, 2001

‘A never-ending procession, filling both sides of the boulevard, students, Spanish workers, hospital personnel in white, setters, printers, drivers, hotel employees, teachers, all groups with their own songs, of all ages, often arm in arm, an incredible number of women and girls among them, everything that fills the pavements of Paris, a happy crowd that finally merges into itself like a river’

Cees Nooteboom, Paris, May 1968, cit Geert Mak, In Europe, 2004

Gandhi led the Salt March against British colonial taxation in India in 1930. In China, the Long March of 1934-1935, though a military retreat in front of nationalist forces, was the formative collective experience of Mao’s Red Army and what became the communist party leadership. In the UK, in 1936, unemployed workers marched from Jarrow to London, while annual marches to London from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston were the focus of CND protest in the 1950s. In the US, key moments in the civil rights movement of the 1960s were the marches in Birmingham, Alabama (1963), on Washington (1963) and from Selma to Montgomery (1965). Cesar Chavez led the United Farm Workers ‘pilgrimage’ from Delano to Sacramento in 1966; walks since have commemorated and raised funds for those affected by HIV/AIDS and the events of 9/11. The European Network on Independent Living has organised Freedom Drives every two years since 2003, initially in Strasbourg and subsequently in Brussels.

Rambling clubs formed in Britain around the turn of the twenty-first century, espousing the benefits of walking for increasingly urbanised populations while also asserting a simple right to walk, a right of access to the countryside. Walking expressed an ideology of movement and becoming, of boundary crossing, in opposition to a static, exclusive conception of land ownership, as testified by the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932.

Hiking was a major, if unofficial, component of the socialist lifestyle… [it] had a particular appeal to working class Bohemians, as a mainly intellectual alternative to the dance hall, and one that cost no money.

Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory, 1994

Similarly, hiking clubs in Soviet Lithuania of the 1960s and 1970s had several goals: ‘study of the country and region, ecology, monument preservation, physical and spiritual training and self-education… And the idea was to speak about real history not the made-up Soviet one, to say how it really was, so that these facts were not forgotten but passed from lip to lip and at the same time organise a kind of education’. The point was to talk, as well as to walk. The walk or march is a space to meet like-minded others; we fall into conversation as we fall into step.

When bodily movement becomes a form of speech, then the distinctions between words and deeds, between representations and actions, begin to blur, and so marches can themselves be liminal, another form of walking into the realm of the representational and symbolic – and sometimes into history.

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust. A history of walking, 2001


It is very important that each and everyone follows the marching order; when a group or a bus arrives it is necessary to line up for roll call immediately. After all we are political soldiers.

Hamburger Sturm 1998, cit Fabian Virchow, ‘Performance, emotion and ideology’, 2007

People gather to walk, and then walk together, and the words we use to describe what’s going on mean very different things at one and the same time. Marching has military connotations, but the march is a staple of progressive social movements, too. The parade is a spectacle, put on for an audience, though the military parade doesn’t look or feel much like the carnival parade. The procession is much more for and about its participants. But what difference does music make to walking?

The street musician is treated as a kind of vagrant, and regulated as such. Street music often appears as an outsider activity, and when made among people gathered together often has a celebratory, even liberatory and taboo-breaking feel. Left protest around the world is now invariably imbued with a carnival atmosphere. Yet whether on the right or left, music can make the march seem exclusive and aggressive as well as joyous and inclusive. In Northern Ireland, for example, Protestant marching bands assert the presence and identity of a political community. Older bands adopt a uniformed and disciplined, regimental style, while younger ones might be more raucous.

It is perhaps more in the adaptation of the marching style itself on the streets that youth attempts to breathe some life into established tradition. We can list these stylistic innovations—the subversion of the military marching style in the exaggerated swagger and rhythmic shuffle of the fluters; the weaving dancers of the cymbal players who jaunt, crissing and crossing, through the ranks of the rest of the band almost in the manner of a country set dance; the antics of the bass drummers [careering into spectators…]; the vigorous, synchronised swirling of the flags by their bearers; the drum majors providing a touch of pure circus as they hurl their stocky decorated batons high into the sky above the crowd.

Desmond Bell, Acts of Union, 1990, cit George McKay, ‘The soundtrack to insurrection’ 2007

Sometimes the march breaks into song. Just as often, music works below or reaches beyond words: it makes an emotional rather than logical appeal. It seems to be around us, but also to take place somewhere within us, to dissolve the boundaries between our selves and our surroundings, and between each other.

I’m standing in a club called Lovelite when I hear the Infernal Noise Brigade, tinny and building, through radio speakers above the bar. It’s a song they like to begin with, called ‘Retardvark’. At first I can’t figure out where it’s coming from and imagine that the band is marching up the street, that they’re going to march through this room, past the bar, over the couches—you never know how the INB is going to make an entrance – but then the walls begin to rattle. I feel the drums. They’ve entered from the back. They’re in the next room… The band is in partial uniform. They’re wearing the pants: black, with reflective-orange stripes down the legs. They wore these pants for crowds in London, Edinburgh, Brussels, Amsterdam, Hamburg, and towns in between… Now they’re crowded together on the Lovelite’s stage. One of them is in the crowd, wearing twin aluminum poles that hold a set of speakers over his head. He looks alien. He’s controlling the sounds that come out of the speakers with an iPod—bleeps, sirens, policemen, static, a choral ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’… The singer, who is black and queer and has a commanding presence, and whose instrument is a megaphone, holds his megaphone up to a microphone and lets out a beautiful, atavistic wail. There is a pause, a second of saturnine nothingness, and then a thundering beat. The crowd loses it…

What is the INB getting at? What are people supposed to think? ‘I don’t want them to think’, someone says right away. ‘I just want them to find it kind of ecstatic.’

Christopher Frizzelle, ‘Enduring Freedom. Marching through Europe with The Infernal Noise Brigade’, 2005

‘What happens in social movements when people actually move’, George McKay asks, ‘how does the mobile moment of activism contribute to mobilisation? Are they marching or dancing?’


We’re going to do some folk dancing, which, first of all, is really fun. And it creates some automatic solidarity between people. Just standing in a circle, holding hands, is the basic gesture of solidarity.

A member of Public Movement, in Oliver Marchart, ‘Dancing politics’, 2017

In 2011, around the time Zuccotti Park and other similar spaces in cities in Spain, Greece and elsewhere were taken over by Occupy and related movements, Tel Aviv began to dance: ‘At different street crossings, dozens of activists gathered repeatedly to collectively paralyse traffic for two and a half minutes to dance to Od lo ahavti dai‘.

They were protesting at the social costs and consequences of the Netanyahu government’s economic policies. They were evoking Public Movement’s How long is now? (2007) which took the same 1970s pop song as the basis for guerrilla performances in the street. They drew on the way Israeli pop songs have a dance associated with them, which in turn is derived from Israel’s deliberate construction of a new, synthetic folk culture in the 1940s. They knew, too, that dancing was fun, that there is a physical pleasure in moving together. This was a ‘tactical frivolity’.

At a demonstration in Jordan in 1997, the riot police began to dance. A large protest had been organised against an Israeli trade fair; its slogans and chants were anti-Zionist, an assertion of national identity, especially among Jordanians of Palestinian origin. Protestors accused the police of betraying their country, in response to which the police themselves broke into nationalist songs and traditional tribal dances, arms around each others’ shoulders, something like a chorus line. This was a claim to an alternative, East Bank identity: song and dance gave officers a way of remaining at their posts, and remaining Jordanian.

Toward the end of part 1 of the Battle of Chile, Patricio Guzmán’s film about politics in the time of Allende and the coup which overthrew him, crowds gather for a rally in the centre of Santiago. The camera pans cross a sea of bodies, all jumping up and down and chanting ‘if you don’t jump, you’re a ‘mummy’! (momio, the colloquial term for a conservative).

Next to sex, the activity combining bodily experience and intense emotion to the highest degree is the participation in a mass demonstration at a time of great public exaltation. Unlike sex, which is essentially individual, it is by its nature collective, and unlike the sexual climax, at any rate for men, it can be prolonged for hours. On the other hand, like sex it implies some physical action — marching, chanting slogans, singing — through which the merger of the individual in the mass, which is the essence of the collective experience, finds expression.

Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times, 2002

William McNeill, Keeping Together in Time. Dance and drill in human history, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997

‘[The march] gives the movement agency…’: Gary Younge, op cit, p 107.  ENIL’s Freedom Drives are here

‘The collective walk…’ Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust. A history of walking, London: Verso, 2001, p 58

‘A never-ending procession…’: Cees Nooteboom is cit Geert Mak, op cit, p 656

‘Hiking was a major…’: Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory, vol 1: Past and present in contemporary culture, London, Verso, 1994, pp 297-298

On hiking clubs in Lithuania, see Ainė Ramonaitė (2010) ‘Creating one’s own reality as resistance: the shape of ‘parallel society’ in Soviet Lithuania’, Lithuanian Historical Studies 15 79-106; the quotation is p 85

The idea of movement versus stasis is also from Solnit, and ‘When bodily movement…’ is Solnit, op cit, p 217

‘It is very important…’ Hamburger Sturm 1998 5 (19), p 9, cit Virchow, op cit, p 155

‘It is perhaps more in the adaptation…’ Desmond Bell, Acts of Union: youth and sectarian culture in Northern Ireland, London: Macmillan, 1990, cit MacKay op cit, p 28

Christopher Frizzelle wrote about marching through Europe with the Infernal Noise Brigade for the Stranger, 18 August 2005; the Infernal Noise Brigade is remembered here

‘Are they marching or dancing?’: George McKay (2007) ”A soundtrack to the insurrection’: street music, marching bands and popular protest’, Parallax13 (1) 20-31, p 20

On dancing in Tel Aviv, see Oliver Marchart (2012) ‘Protest, Tanz, Körper: die Passage von Kunst zu Politik / Protest, dance, body – the passage of art to politics’, in Demonstrationen. Vom Werden normativer Ordnungen, Frankfurter Kunstverein, Nürnberg: Verlag für moderne Kunst (‘At different street crossings…’ is p 112) and likewise Marchart (2017) ‘Dancing politics. Political reflections on choreography, dance and protest’, in Siegmund, G and Hölscher, S (eds) Dance, Politics and Co-Immunity, Zurich: Diaphanes

And on police dancing in Jordan, Jillian Schwedler (2005) ‘Cop rock: protest, identity, and dancing riot police in Jordan’, Social Movement Studies4 (2) 155-175

Eric Hobsbawm speaks of bodily experience and intense emotion in his Interesting Times. A twentieth century life, London: Allen Lane, 2002, p 73