A political demonstration is an action by a mass group or collection of groups of people in favor of a political or other cause or people partaking in a protest against a cause of concern; it often consists of walking in a mass march formation and either beginning with or meeting at a designated endpoint, or rally, to hear speakers. It is different from mass meeting.
Actions such as blockades and sit-ins may also be referred to as demonstrations. Demonstrations can be nonviolent or violent (usually referred to by participants as "militant"), or can begin as nonviolent and turn violent depending on the circumstances. Sometimes riot police or other forms of law enforcement become involved. In some cases this may be in order to try to prevent the protest from taking place at all. In other cases, it may be to prevent clashes between rival groups, or to prevent a demonstration from spreading and turning into a riot.
The term has been in use since the mid-19th century, as was the term "monster meeting", which was coined initially with reference to the huge assemblies of protesters inspired by Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847) in Ireland. Demonstrations are a form of activism, usually taking the form of a public gathering of people in a rally or walking in a march. Thus, the opinion is demonstrated to be significant by gathering in a crowd associated with that opinion.
Demonstrations can promote a viewpoint (either positive or negative) regarding a public issue, especially relating to a perceived grievance or social injustice. A demonstration is usually considered more successful if more people participate. Research shows that anti-government demonstrations occur more frequently in affluent countries than in poor ones.
Historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote of demonstrations:
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... 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.
There are many types of demonstrations, including a variety of elements. These may include:
Demonstrations are sometimes spontaneous gatherings, but are also utilized as a tactical choice by movements. They often form part of a larger campaign of nonviolent resistance, often also called civil resistance. Demonstrations are generally staged in public, but private demonstrations are certainly possible, especially if the demonstrators wish to influence the opinions of a small or very specific group of people. Demonstrations are usually physical gatherings, but virtual or online demonstrations are certainly possible.
Topics of demonstrations often deal with political, economic, and social issues. Particularly with controversial issues, sometimes groups of people opposed to the aims of a demonstration may themselves launch a counter-demonstration with the aim of opposing the demonstrators and presenting their view. Clashes between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators may turn violent.
Government-organized demonstrations are demonstrations which are organized by a government. The Islamic Republic of Iran, the People's Republic of China, Republic of Cuba, the Soviet Union and Argentina, among other nations, have had government-organized demonstrations.
Sometimes the date or location chosen for the demonstration is of historical or cultural significance, such as the anniversary of some event that is relevant to the topic of the demonstration.
Locations are also frequently chosen because of some relevance to the issue at hand. For example, if a demonstration is targeted at issues relating to foreign nation, the demonstration may take place at a location associated with that nation, such as an embassy of the nation in question.
While fixed demonstrations may take place in pedestrian zones, larger marches usually take place on roads. It may happen with or without an official authorisation.
Protest marches and demonstrations are a common nonviolent tactic. They are thus one tactic available to proponents of strategic nonviolence. However, the reasons for avoiding the use of violence may also derive, not from a general doctrine of nonviolence or pacifism, but from considerations relating to the particular situation that is faced, including its legal, cultural and power-political dimensions: this has been the case in many campaigns of civil resistance.
Some demonstrations and protests can turn, at least partially, into riots or mob violence against objects such as automobiles and businesses, bystanders and the police. Police and military authorities often use non-lethal force or less-lethal weapons, such as tasers, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas against demonstrators in these situations. Sometimes violent situations are caused by the preemptive or offensive use of these weapons which can provoke, destabilize, or escalate a conflict.
As a known tool to prevent the infiltration by agents provocateurs, the organizers of large or controversial assemblies may deploy and coordinate demonstration marshals, also called stewards.
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The right to demonstrate peacefully is guaranteed by international conventions, in particular by the articles 21 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (right of peaceful assembly and right of association). Its implementation is monitored by the United Nations special rapporteur on the right of peaceful assembly and association. In 2019, its report expressed alarm at the restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly:
The Special Rapporteur has expressed concern regarding laws adopted in many countries that impose harsh restrictions on assemblies, including provisions relating to blanket bans, geographical restrictions, mandatory notifications and authorizations. [...] The need for prior authorization in order to hold peaceful protests [is] contrary to international law [...].
Demonstrations and protests are further regulated by the Federal Law of the Russian Federation No.54-FZ "On Meetings, Rallies, Demonstrations, Marches and Pickets". If the assembly in public is expected to involve more than one participant, its organisers are obliged to notify executive or local self-government authorities of the upcoming event few days in advance in writing. However, legislation does not foresee an authorisation procedure, hence the authorities have no right to prohibit an assembly or change its place unless it threatens the security of participants or is planned to take place near hazardous facilities, important railways, viaducts, pipelines, high voltage electric power lines, prisons, courts, presidential residences or in the border control zone. The right to gather can also be restricted in close proximity of cultural and historical monuments.
Public demonstrations are rare in Singapore, where it is illegal to hold cause-related events without a valid licence from the authorities. Such laws include the Public Entertainment and Meetings Act and the Public Order Act.
Under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 and the Terrorism Act 2006, there are areas designated as 'protected sites' where people are not allowed to go. Previously, these were military bases and nuclear power stations, but the law is changing to include other, generally political areas, such as Downing Street, the Palace of Westminster, and the headquarters of MI5 and MI6. Previously, trespassers to these areas could not be arrested if they had not committed another crime and agreed to be escorted out, but this will change following amendments to the law.
Human rights groups fear the powers could hinder peaceful protest. Nick Clegg, the then Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "I am not aware of vast troops of trespassers wanting to invade MI5 or MI6, still less running the gauntlet of security checks in Whitehall and Westminster to make a point. It's a sledgehammer to crack a nut." Liberty, the civil liberties pressure group, said the measure was "excessive".
One of the biggest demonstration in the UK was the people vote march, on 19 October 2019, with around 1 million demonstrators related to the Brexit.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution specifically allows the freedom of assembly as part of a measure to facilitate the redress of such grievances. "Amendment I: Congress shall make no law ... abridging ... the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
A growing trend in the United States has been the implementation of "free speech zones", or fenced-in areas which are often far-removed from the event which is being protested; critics of free-speech zones argue that they go against the First Amendment of the United States Constitution by their very nature, and that they lessen the impact the demonstration might otherwise have had. In many areas it is required to get permission from the government to hold a demonstration.
Another common tactic is to infiltrate legitimate demonstrations in the attempt to stir widespread violence and rioting, seen most recently in a spring anti-Iraq war gathering in Vancouver, Canada. This has become so commonplace that sources within activist organizations have told STRATFOR they police their own demonstrations to prevent infiltration by fringe groups.