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.
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’.
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’…’.
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.
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.
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’.
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
‘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