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How to talk about demonstrations

TOP MESSAGING TIPS

 Don’t feed the peaceful versus violent protest debate

Avoid attaching labels such as peaceful, violent or disruptive to protests and demonstrations. The framing of ‘good' and ‘bad’ protestors is an incredibly powerful and persistently used tool that is used by our opponents to weaken our movements through ‘divide and rule’ and to legitimise crack down on the latter. The language of ‘violent protest’ is often used as a dog whistle in the media to talk about black and brown demonstrators. Instead, widen the focus of the debate to highlight how our right to protest is being attacked and needs to be protected.

Avoid condemning others, but when cornered use your words carefully

If an action has been particularly controversial you may be asked, “Do you condemn xyz?” Try to avoid this trap - speaking instead about the motivation for someone's actions in the context of inaction from the government. If you feel unable to defend a specific action, then be specific about it and deal with it quickly by saying, “I personally wouldn’t have taken that action, but I’m not here to talk for other people, and the context is xyz.”

 Talk about demonstrations as an essential way to take part in the democratic process

Use people’s support for democracy to frame the right to demonstrate as a right we all enjoy and should protect. Talk about it being a way for people to get their voices heard and challenge the government in a system where voting only takes place every few years. Start your message by asserting democracy as a shared value, this will create a point of connection between you and your audience. Suggest that people have sometimes exhausted other forms of democratic participation with limited success and so are trying this instead.

EXAMPLE:Demonstrations are part and parcel of a democratic society. By finding a collective voice we can send a message to our elected representative that we are unhappy with a decision made by this government. It is a way for everyday people - like you and me - to make our voices heard outside of the ballot box.

Spotlight historic demonstrations and how their wins have benefited everyone

Without people taking to the streets and demonstrating in different ways we wouldn’t be where we are today. Use examples like the suffragettes, the gay rights movement and opposition to apartheid in South Africa as moments where the public fought for people’s freedoms and rights through demonstration - and won.

EXAMPLE:People went out on the streets in demonstrations against apartheid. Women took part in countless demonstrations for the right to vote. These are just two moments in history where freedoms and rights were won through demonstration. From small to big wins, we can all see that demonstrations are an important tool for everyday people to bring about the changes we need.

Stress the need to ring the alarm in a crisis  

Forefront the motivation and vision of a better world that underpins the demonstrations. Demonstrations happen when people really care about something. Issues, such as police brutality or the climate crisis, are societal issues that need to be stopped. Provide a clear picture of the scale of the problem and an explanation of why direct action is being used as a tactic. Where possible, position the demonstrators as being on the side of common sense and representing a large swathe of the public. This will guard against opponents trying to characterise demonstrators as part of a ‘radical’ or ‘extreme’ minority.

EXAMPLE:Imagine your smoke alarm is out of battery and is beeping, trying to get your attention. That’s exactly what these demonstrators are trying to do. People are demonstrating because they want this government to address the immense disruption caused by climate change.

 Show how demonstrations can come in different shapes and sizes

When communicating about demonstrations, bring in a wide range of examples. As well as talking about the large-scale and well known demos, highlight smaller, local demonstrations too. This will show that demonstration is a part and parcel of everyday life and challenge the idea that demonstration is inherently scary or dangerous.

EXAMPLE:At some point in our lives, many of us will take part in a demonstration, whether it’s for our local library closing or for the increase in student fees. It is an important way to make your voice heard in society and something we should all defend.

 Call out excessive police force and violence

When this happens, your messaging should make clear that the use of force by police against demonstrators is abhorrent. Connect this to the Police Crime and Sentencing Bill when possible. Explain how the bill will give even more power to police to take matters into their own hands and use excessive force against people who are just exercising their rights. [See our messaging guide on the Police, Crime and Sentencing bill here]

 WORDS THAT WORK

✓ Do say

✗ Don’t say

Demonstration.

[This is not a hard and fast rule. However the media has done a really good job of painting “protests” in a negative light. We suggest saying demonstrations as it encompasses all the different ways people can speak up against the government.]

Protest.

Demonstrations come in all different shapes and sizes - from action in small communities to national days of action.

Peaceful protest.

Don’t repeat your opponent's frame - even to refute it.

These protests were violent.

Public outcry has undoubtedly shifted the dial on the climate crisis. Over the last couple of years we have seen people from across society voicing their concern - without groups, such as the student strikers, the climate crisis wouldn’t be getting the attention it has today.

This protest does more harm than good.

Demonstrations are a tactic that people use when they don’t feel heard. At such a crucial point in the climate crisis people are frustrated about this government’s inaction.

Direct action gets us nowhere.

This is part of raising the alarm and putting pressure on this government to take action on the climate crisis. We have gone through all the routes, we have voted, written to MPs and signed petitions and, despite that, this government has agreed to new plans to drill for oil on the Shetland Islands.

[This is for small inconveniences.]

This person’s inconvenience is nothing compared to … .

This incident doesn’t change the position we are at.

Whilst I wouldn’t personally take part in this kind of action, we all want to live in a healthy democratic society. Demonstrations have played an important role in making society a fairer place.

This type of protesting is wrong.

Campaigner/Concerned Mother/Engineer/Teacher/Doctor

Activist.

This government

The government

 COMMON ATTACKS

  1. None of these people would’ve been hurt if you weren’t blocking the road today

It was not the intention of this demonstration to cause harm or injury [where applicable] and it’s terrible that it happened. We all want to live in a society where people can express their opinion and speak up when decisions are made they disagree with - and this demonstration was a reflection of just that. We face major threats to the planet and human life, and most of us want to see solutions that match the scale of the problem. If this government acts soon, we will have a chance to repair the damage that has been done. We want to tell this government on behalf of the UK public that action is needed.

  1. This is an illegitimate tactic - why don’t you go and speak to a member of parliament or set up a petition

There are many ways to engage in the democratic system - and demonstrating is an important one. Without the suffragettes protesting for the right to vote, women might still be locked out of our democratic system today. It is important that this government engages with people’s views away from the ballot box - and understands the views of the people they have been elected to represent.

 HOW THE PUBLIC THINK ABOUT DEMONSTRATIONS

  1. There is a high level of public support for people and organisations to organise demonstrations - but some demonstrations are seen as less legitimate as others

The majority of people are in support of the right to demonstrate against the government (60%). 70% believe that people should be able to stand up to power and challenge injustice (Liberty). Two-thirds of the public are concerned about this government’s plans to “criminalise protest” (Independent).

However, when it comes to types of demonstrations, there are splits. 44% of the public oppose disruptive demonstrations, though 57% think that disruption is a valid tactic occasionally, while 39% think that it is sometimes or always valid. When it comes to statues, there is broad agreement (52%) that statues related to the slave trade should be taken down, but not through direct action techniques like pulling them down (Redfield and Wilton).

  1. Very few people have had their lives disrupted by demonstrations 

Three-quarters (71%) of people have not had their day-to-day life disrupted by demonstrations at any point in the past three years. This directly challenges the media’s framing of a lot of demonstrations as extremely disruptive.

  1. The public generally supports police intervention in demonstrations

The majority of the public broadly think that police handling of demonstrations today is either about right (32%) or not enough (26%). 42% of the public think the police should be able to stop a demonstration if they believe there is a risk of at least one person being distressed by it. 

  1. Historical movements like the suffragettes are regarded positively

One in three Brits say the suffragette campaign makes them especially proud to be British. 27% of respondents chose Emmeline Pankhurst as their most respected 20th century political figures, not far behind Queen Elizabeth (40%) (YouGov).

  1. Demonstrations are not broadly seen as able to achieve their purpose 

A minute percentage of people think that protest marches often or very often reach their purpose (6%). Whilst 33% think they sometimes do (YouGov).

 RESOURCES

We Keep Us Safe Toolkit  

We Make the Future Messaging Guide 2021 

NEON Polling on Police Crime and Sentencing Bill