Marching madness

Gathering in public places to defend a position or oppose a policy is an American tradition enshrined in the Bill of Rights. But these assemblies lose their meaning when the public is over-saturated with unfocused marches, walks and rallies.

Monday’s Million Family March is the most recent example of events in the name of activism that lose their meaning because organizers seem more interested in drawing large crowds and creating a spectacle than driving home a message. About 400,000 people showed up to Monday’s march, but a unified message among participants and a purpose for taking over the National Mall were not apparent.

Nearly every weekend, or so it often seems, one group or another gathers on the National Mall to protest or advocate, to raise money or awareness. Colon cancer, AIDS, family values, women’s rights, equality for gays and lesbians – these causes are just a few of the catalysts for recent rallies. But with so many different groups vying for the limited attention span of the American people, these numerous gatherings become irrelevant as television viewers change the channel and newspaper readers turn the page.

Today’s marching season can be characterized by a lack of focus. The purported reason for being on the National Mall for a particular march is to listen to speakers and show support for the issues they enumerate. But too often marchers gather to see the sights, to snap up memorabilia. Vendors hock T-shirts, hats, pins and even tennis shoes with the logo of the issue of the day. In light of all this apathy and commercialization, most marches have become no more than an especially heavy tourist event rather than a powerful motivator for social change.

Organizers should take steps to refocus attention on the issues at hand and work to make events more effective. Those seeking to stage events on the Mall should take a cue from AIDS Walk Washington. When officials realized that most walkers came to participate in a good cause without working to raise money that supports research, event organizers instituted a mandatory $25 registration fee. This nominal charge brought walkers back to the focus of the event – raising money to help people with AIDS.

If the orchestrators of these marches are ever to regain the momentum seen in the marches of the 1960s, they have to work harder to focus supporters on the issues that prompt the events in the first place. With the National Mall filled with tourists masquerading as activists, who buy shirts and hats and pay little attention to the message of the event, how can organizers expect the rest of the country to care?

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