Peter Tatchell says it’s not just numbers that count during protests- imagination, humour and entertainment value can capture more attention.
Traditional left-wing protests tend to follow the same boring routine of a march followed by speeches. It’s a dull turn-off to most people, alienating potential participants and supporters.
In contrast, the lesbian and gay rights group OutRage! has been in the forefront of developing a new style of radical politics. It believes that demonstrations can and should be fun – both for those involved and those who witness them.
Projecting political demands with imagination and humour is a crucial way of defusing hostility, overcoming apathy and promoting interest in radical ideas. It’s a way of making those ideas more accessible and attractive to a wider audience, many of whom would otherwise remain disinterested or sceptical.
The Left’s often stern and belligerent approach to campaigning is usually counter-productive. It tends to alienate the uncommitted and wavering (the floating section of public opinion which often determines whether a policy wins or loses majority support).
Applying the insight that successful campaigning needs to be both educate and entertaining, OutRage! has dramatically increased the public profile of demands for lesbian and gay equality.
Though small and under-funded, its “media-aware” style of “protest as performance” has resulted in massive press coverage. Highlights have included the “Kiss-In” at Piccadilly Circus, the “Queer Wedding” in Trafalgar Square, and the “Exorcism of Homophobia” at Lambeth Palace.
While the socialist Left is comparatively marginalised and in retreat, OutRage! is constantly powering forward to new successes. Demands for lesbian and gay equality are not only gaining more media coverage, they’re also attracting increasing mainstream political credibility and endorsement.
Perhaps OutRage! has something to teach the Left about how to popularise radical ideas and build wider constituencies of support?
“Before we can change laws, we first have to generate public awareness and debate about anti-gay discrimination,” says OutRage!. “The media is the main way of communicating ideas in our society. We need to use it to get across our demands for equality. A demonstration can, of itself, only reach a few thousand passers-by. But getting a demonstration onto prime-time television and into the national press can communicate ideas to millions. Obviously, it’s essential that political campaigning is media-aware and media-friendly.”
Unlike much of the Left, OutRage! has modernised and updated political protest to the age of telecommunications. It has an astute understanding of how the media works and what makes good copy. It realises that traditional marches have become so commonplace that they are now, sadly, rarely deemed to be newsworthy.
As OutRage! has shown, size isn’t everything. What’s essential for media exposure is imagination. A 20-strong protest with an interesting and unusual “tele-visual” angle is far more likely to get picked up by the press than an old-style march of thousands.
OutRage! therefore consciously tries to make its protests informative and amusing. It projects it’s political message with wit, style, humour and theatricality. Indeed, a typical OutRage! action could be described as “radical theatre of the streets”.
“Organising each protest is like putting on a one-performance stage play,” says OutRage!. “Visual props have to made and all the participants are assigned specific roles. We aim to create good photo-opportunities which will maximise our chances of media coverage”
For its action against military homophobia, OutRage! made giant speech bubbles emblazoned with the words: ‘Can Kill! Can’t Love A Man.’ These were held up to the mouths of the statues of closeted gay military commanders such as Montgomery. It created an amusing, and slightly shocking, image which nevertheless made a serious political point about the Armed Forces’ ban on lesbians and gay men. Because the action was ‘media sexy’, OutRage! got huge press and television coverage.
If OutRage! can use the media to successfully sell radical ideas, what’s holding back the rest of the Left? Isn’t it time that socialists also realised the importance of imaginative forms of protest as a way of communicating their values and policies to a wider audience?
Socialist, May 1992