The march halted in McPherson Square, a downtown park where several different counter-inaugural marches were to coalesce that afternoon for a further round of rousing speeches. While they waited for the others to arrive, one of the organizers, Sarah Long, declared the morning’s “Women’s March and Funeral Procession” protest a success. “I think we had a great turnout; we looked good… the coffins were all in order…. Today is a small victory for us.”

Victory might seem an odd word choice, considering that the day’s counter-inaugural protests were relatively isolated events in a city celebrating the reelection of George W. Bush and larger Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. But in the self-referential world of modern protests, Long was correct. As with most demonstrations today, the march wasn’t planned to accomplish a concrete result by demanding the passage of a particular piece of legislation. Instead, its organizers had focused largely on two things: affirming the protesters’ right to protest, and enriching their experience of the protest. While in the past a march was judged successful if it affected a political outcome, today’s protests are judged on how they affect a protester’s sense of self.

The first march on Washington took place in the midst of an economic depression in 1894 when populist leader Joseph Coxey led an army of 500 jobless men to the Capitol steps to demand a public works program that would provide jobs for the unemployed. (Coxey was carted off by police before finishing his speech.) Two decades later, in what must have been the first counter-inaugural protest, 28-year-old Alice Paul organized 8,000 women wearing white to march down Pennsylvania Avenue a day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. The women were there to lobby for women’s suffrage, a demonstration that was rewarded by the passage a few years later of a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. In 1941, the mere threat of a public protest was enough to force political change: When A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, announced plans for a march on Washington, Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order banning discrimination in defense industry and federal jobs. And the granddaddy of all protests, the March on Washington in 1963, drew a quarter million people to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial to demand voting protections and desegregation of public spaces; shortly thereafter, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Protests and marches in Washington and elsewhere–including demonstrations against the Vietnam War outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago–continued throughout the 1960s and into the next few decades. But as various advocacy groups and social movements became institutionalized, setting up shop in Washington and hiring staff, the use of protest marches as a strategic tool became less common. In the new world of professional advocacy, the National Organization of Women and Greenpeace turned not to direct action but direct mail to achieve their goals. Even the biggest marches–such as those against apartheid or the Reagan administration’s policies in Central America–drew relatively small crowds and scant press attention.

In 1995, the Million Man March brought marches back onto the national stage in a dramatic way. The first event of that scale organized in decades, the demonstration drew nearly one million African-American men and boys to Washington. Many federal workers stayed home in anticipation of disruptive protests. But a funny thing happened. The marchers hadn’t come to demand passage of a legislative agenda or to bring pressure to bear on national politicians. Instead, they had gathered to make a promise to themselves–and to each other–to improve their lives and their families. The men crowded shoulder-to-shoulder along the Mall and recited a 10-tier pledge about fatherhood and responsibility, and listened to exhortations from the likes of Maya Angelou, Jesse Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Rosa Parks. Even a bizarre, two-hour, veering-into-numerology speech by the event’s organizer Louis Farrakhan couldn’t dampen the mood.

The press didn’t quite know what to make of the Million Man March–there was no precedent for a march designed primarily to allow participants to encounter each other and pledge life change–so media coverage focused largely on the sheer number of marchers and on Farrakhan’s loopiness. What they missed was the fact that the Million Man March was creating a model for a new type of demonstration. Most of the copycat marches since, including the Million Mom March, the Million Family March, and the Million Worker March, have had something of the same flavor. Even if they were ostensibly focused on a specific policy goal–and many don’t even pretend to have that impetus–organizers have crafted marches to be fulfilling experiences for those who come to participate. Any impact on those outside the march seems to be an afterthought.

Perhaps the epitome of this new kind of demonstration was the March for Women’s Lives, which took place on the Mall in April 2004. Organized by a coalition of women’s groups including NOW and the Feminist Majority, the march was intended not to advocate new laws but to show support for old ones. If you wandered among the protesters for a few minutes, however, it was clear that the real purpose of the march was to promote girl (and the occasional boy) power.

Mothers drove with their daughters for hours to share the experience of the march and their own histories in a way that doesn’t happen during most carpool rides or trips to the shopping malls. Groups of college friends flew in from all corners of the country to use the event as a mini-reunion, converging on the Mall with shrieks and hugs. Along the side of the march route, three generations of women–a mother, daughter, and grandmother–held up signs proclaiming their family’s support for a woman’s right to choose. Everywhere you looked, women in pink T-shirts were high-fiving and using their “Pro-Choice, Pro-Family” circular signs as Frisbees. It was often hard to hear the event’s speakers over the chatter inside the march (given the off-key crooning of a few folk singers, that might have been a blessing), but it hardly mattered.

That’s because the show on the Mall, while officially the main event, was just one part of the weekend’s activities. On that Saturday afternoon, tables lined Dupont Circle manned by women’s groups that were distributing informational fliers about their organizations and giving away (or selling) bumper stickers, pins, hats, and other souvenirs. If you’ve ever been to a trade conference and watched sparkplug wholesalers wandering around with free T-shirts pulled over their button-downs and goody bags over their arms, you’d recognize the same “Oooh…it’s free” response among marchers. Many other demonstrations now stretch over three or four days, involving training workshops and after-hours events, opportunities to deepen knowledge, develop networks, and polish the craft of protesting.

The counter-inaugural protests had a similar trade-show feel. Protesters had come to voice outrage at George W. Bush, but also to see old friends, network, and, as one twenty-something woman put it, “Get myself back into action.” At their convenience, they could drop by the “Convergence Center”–several rented rooms (above a record store) that included meeting rooms, art room (stocked with supplies for posters and puppet-making), computer room with Internet access, kitchen, and children’s playroom. Activities ran from Monday through Sunday, giving the out-of-town demonstrator plenty of pick-a-protest opportunities, from workshops on “nonviolent direct action” to dancing at the “Punk Rock Counter-Inaugural Ball.”

Perhaps in an age when blogs have given average people the pundit’s power to bring down network anchors and Senate leaders and shape the nation’s political agenda, dissenting Americans no longer need protests and marches to be heard. Yet there remains among many a need for something more–to have an adventure, to experience an historic event, to make direct connections with like-minded people. This existential desire, plus a certain nostalgia for the good old days, fuel much of contemporary march culture. Which is fine: Protesting for protesting’s sake serves a market. But so do rock concerts and tractor pulls. If today’s marchers want their efforts to mean a great deal more than that, they would do well to recognize the real reason why the marches of yesteryear are remembered. It wasn’t just about the messengers. It was about the message.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!