3 Meeting 3 Meeting

Gathering, demonstration, event


Observations on the physiology of the uprising, in Niépovié’s book: ‘Nothing has changed on the surface, but there is something unusual in the air. The cabriolets, omnibuses, and hackney coaches seem to have quickened their pace, and the drivers keep turning their heads as though someone were after them. There are more groups standing around than is usual… People look at one another with anxious interrogation in their eyes. Perhaps this urchin or this worker hastening will know something; and he is stopped and questioned. What’s going on? ask the passersby. And the urchin or the worker responds, with a smile of utter indifference, ‘They are gathering at the Place de la Bastille,’ or ‘They are gathering near the Temple’ (or somewhere else), and then hurries off to wherever they are gathering…’

Gaetan Niépovié, Etudes Physiologiques sur les Grandes Metropoles de l’Europe Occidentale: Paris (Paris, 1840), in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Sometimes what gathers is a crowd. People may gather in response to a shortage of food, a miscarriage of justice, a strike or a terrorist attack, for example, or as observers of or witnesses to some other activity: at a vigil, at the presence of a prominent figure, or at a parade.

In a tradition of thought derived from Gustave le Bon’s Psychologie des Foules (1895) we typically refer to the crowd as mindless and irrational, as a form of action or being which is at best pre-political, if not simply politics gone bad. But crowds express the concerns of those who do not go to meetings, who do not speak as individuals in front of others, do not write and leave records of what they are about; they express interests which have become urgent, and which it may be impossible to express collectively in any other way.

Crowds lack formal membership or formal structures. They often face novel and ambiguous situations.

Stephen Reicher, ‘Mass action and mundane reality’, 2011

What makes crowds distinct from other social groups, Stephen Reicher explains, is not their ‘irrationality’, but their lack of routinisation. In this way, we might think of the crowd as a collective encounter. The crowd, and the people of which it is comprised, must cope with the immediate uncertainty of who they are and why they’re there. It develops a collective identity as its members come to identify with others, and recognise their interests and concerns as shared. They do so in hurried questioning and conversation, in sharing information and rumour, in chanting slogans, in pointing and gesture. ‘The sense of “we are in this together” is far from automatic. It is an accomplishment’. Taking his cue from Benedict Anderson, the crowd, Reicher suggests, is ‘the imagined community made manifest’.

When I think about Greenham and when I think about the camp that we have now at Aldermaston, the thing that comes to mind is community, being with people who feel the same way as you…

Jill Raymond, in Bibi van der Zee, The Protestor’s Handbook, 2010

St Pauls, Bristol, April 1980

The police were driven out of the area for several hours. People took control of the area and decided who came in and who did not. They also decided which institutions belonged to the community and which oppressed it—the latter coming under prolonged and concerted attack which left a bank, a post office and several large showrooms in ruins. The impact of these acts was clear the next day. St Pauls identity, defined largely in relation to black experience, had previously been characterised in terms of subordination and repression. Now it was defined in terms of agency, of strength and of self-assertion—and this was clear in the acts and even to assertive postures of the locals as police pairs nervously walked by on patrol.

When asked, what makes people so excited about crowd action is that, for one of the few times in their lives, they feel empowered to enact their identities. Within the event itself they can live according to their own values and act according to their own beliefs—what we term ‘collective self-objectification’. Through the event, they are able to shape the wider world in their own terms. For once, they do not have to live in a world made by others, they make the world for themselves. In other words, in crowds, people become the subjects of history. The crowd (that is, the social category united and in action) constitutes them as effective social beings.

Stephen Reicher, ‘Mass action and mundane reality’, 2011

Gathering creates and expresses community. At the March on Washington made by African Americans in August 1963, one of the speakers (and later Congressman) John Lewis remembers, ‘We were supposed to be leading the march, but the people were already marching, by their hundreds and by their thousands. The press and the park police estimated the crowd to be more than 250 000, but it was many, many more. It probably was more than half a million. It was a sea of humanity, it was like saying, ‘There go my people’…’.


Protests are a way for people to make political ideas, or at least political grievances, physically present in the world.

Joshua Keating, ‘Why do people protest?’, 2013

Time and again, mass demonstrations take place on the street, in the square, and though these are very often motivated by different political purposes, something similar nevertheless happens: bodies congregate, they move and speak together, and they lay claim to a certain space as public space.

Judith Butler, Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 2015

In gathering in public space, we do politics. This is Judith Butler’s theme, though her word is assembly, as in ‘freedom of assembly’. Much of what she says is rooted in her engagement with Arendt, if with a specific insistence that agency is both embodied and situated.

Her argument is that gathering is a plural act that creates the plurality which acts; to gather is assert existence and persistence. People ‘assemble, and so manifest the understanding that their situation is shared, or the beginning of such an understanding… sometimes it is not a question of first having power and then being able to act; sometimes it is a question of acting, and in the acting, laying claim to the power one requires… there is a collective action without a preestablished collective subject; rather the ‘we’ is enacted by the assembly of bodies, plural, persisting, acting, and laying claim to a public sphere’.

But then we must note that the crowd is plural not singular: the gathering or assembly is a set or nexus of actions both convergent and divergent, irreducible to a single action or claim. ‘Showing up together does not mean that everyone agrees with everything that is said in the name of the assembly or even that the assembly has a name’.

In the 1920s, in the early days of the Weimar Republic, the communist party in Germany gradually introduced an element of organization and discipline into workers’ traditional May Day festivities. Demonstrators wore their Sunday best, with badges and other markers such as red handkerchiefs and red carnations; uniforms became more prominent, as well as singing together, chanting and marching in closed ranks. The party’s purpose was to construct a mass, secular alternative to religious and nationalist rituals.

Communist May Day activities typically began in the late morning with a stream of closed-rank processions from proletarian neighbourhoods to a central location, usually an open-air public space in the inner city. Carrying pictures of revolutionary heroes, posters and banners inscribed with political slogans, red flags, and Soviet flags, workers, sometimes with their families, paraded through city streets, reciting revolutionary chants and songs in unison. Alongside the marchers were floats adorned with an array of communist symbols and slogans, and at the front of many of the parades were children’s groups, marching together. Thousands, tens of thousands, and in some cities even hundreds of thousands of marchers converged in the city centre… The open-air demonstrations featured a variety of activities, including performances by musicians and working-class choirs. The highpoint was speeches by prominent KPD [Communist Party] leaders, and the capstone to all May Day events was the collective singing of The Internationale… As they marched home, still often in disciplined formation, communists typically sang revolutionary songs on the streets.

Sara Ann Sewell, ‘Forging a revolutionary community through ritual’, 2018

The gathering becomes an event. For the crowd is news: rallies and demonstrations are widely reported and debated, finding a secondary audience in the broader population as well as among those who must more directly respond to them. It is in crowds and from crowds that we learn, if not who we are, then who people like us seem to be (and do and want). The demonstration has a demonstration effect.

The militant anger on Saturday protests was mixed with a sense of relief: people had discovered they were visible at last… Part of [this relief] is to do with congregating in a non-virtual space that isn’t a music festival. Paradoxically, the gilet jaune obsession with recording and posting as they march has prolonged this exuberance, and helped them keep the initiative. At the end of a Saturday they find it difficult to part company.

Jeremy Harding, ‘Among the Gilets Jaunes’, 2019

It is in the nature of a demonstration to provoke violence upon itself. Its provocation may also be violent. But in the end it is bound to suffer more than it inflicts. This is a tactical truth and an historical one. The historical role of demonstrations is to show the injustice, cruelty, irrationality of the existing state authority. Demonstrations are protests of innocence.

John Berger, ‘The nature of mass demonstrations’, 1968

What distinguishes the demonstration from the crowd? The aims of the crowd, and notably the riot, are direct and immediate, such as the release of a prisoner, the distribution of food, the damaging or disabling of machinery or equipment. A demonstration, by contrast, is understood as one move in a sequence of actions, requiring a response on the part of others, usually those against whom it is directed. It takes place in a symbolic centre, such as a capital, rather than a strategic one, such as a courtroom, warehouse or barracks.

The demonstration, notes John Berger, is ‘a created event, which arbitrarily separates itself from ordinary life… Demonstrators interrupt the regular life of the streets… they transform them into a temporary stage’. But the demonstration is less the play itself than a rehearsal, a test of its own strength. ‘Demonstrations express political ambitions before the political means necessary to realise them have been created’.

We prepared all demonstrations as great theatre performances. If we needed to come to quick agreement, we used theatre jargon. We treated the tribune for the great demonstrations on the Letna parade ground as a stage. We sketched out the staging, worked out a scenario, used our dramaturgical sense to decide which political speech should follow which, when a representative of the workers should appear, when a well-known actor should speak, when a song would be sung. We divided the responsibilities just as in the theatre. We had stage managers, quick conferences of the team responsible for dramaturgy and direction. Although Havel was the protagonist, he also supervised the direction. All of us poured into these events all the experience we could muster. And all our feeling for the dramatic moment. And yet – time and time again these great demonstrations were also great improvisations. And, though they had theatrical aspects, they were not theatre performances. Theatre is acting about life, imitating life – in these demonstrations we were acting for our life, as part of life itself.

Petr Oslzlý, ‘On stage with the Velvet Revolution’, 1990

Niépovié’s ‘Observations on the physiology of the uprising…’ are noted in Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, trans Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999, p 140

Much of this account of crowds is from Stephen Reicher (2011) ‘Mass action and mundane reality: an argument for putting crowd analysis at the centre of the social sciences’, Contemporary Social Science 6 (3) 433-449; successive quotations appear p 437 (‘Crowds lack formal membership…’), p 438 (‘The sense of..’) and p 441 (‘the imagined community made manifest’); case material on St Pauls is p 443 and p 446

‘When I think about Greenham…’ Jill Raymond, in van der Zee, B (2010) The Protestor’s Handbook, London: Guardian Books, p 191

John Lewis, BBCR4 Archive on 4: This Train Rides Again, 24 August 2013, 50:19-50:47

‘Protests are a way’: Joshua Keating, ‘Why do people protest?’ Foreign Policy, 2 July 2013

Judith Butler’s thinking about the demonstration is set out in Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2015; quotations used here are taken from p 446: ‘Time and again, mass demonstrations…’; pp 25, 58 and 59 (‘assemble, and so manifest…’) and p 167 (‘Showing up together…’)

Information about Communist May Day activities is from Sewell, S A (2018) ‘Forging a revolutionary community through ritual: Communist May Days in Weimar Germany, 1919-1924’, Socialist History 54 7-34, where the cited material appears p 15; ‘The right to street demonstrations…’ is from Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Die Maifeier im Zeichen des Wahlrechtskampfes’, Dortmunder Arbeiterzeitung, 20 April 1910, as cited by Sewell p 20

Different understandings of ‘demonstration’ and its logic of visibility are explored further in Andrew Barry (1999) ‘Demonstrations: sites and sights of direct action’, Economy and Society 28 (1) 75-94; see also McPhail, C and Wohlstein, R T (1983) ‘Individual and collective behaviors within gatherings, demonstrations, and riots’, Annual Review of Sociology 9 579-600

Jeremy Harding was among the gilets jaunes for the London Review of Books in early 2019; this piece appears in volume 41, issue 6, pp 3-11 and this observation p 6

John Berger (1968) ‘The nature of mass demonstrations’, New Society, 23 May, 754-755; emphasis in original

Petr Oslzlý (1990) ‘On stage with the Velvet Revolution’, The Drama Review 34 (3) 97-108; pp 107-8