Since January 2017, the Carlisle Square has been the site of 14 rallies centering on issues ranging from gun control to calls for unity following events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and here at home when KKK flyers were found in some Carlisle neighborhoods. The rallies have been held in addition to the traditional commemorative events held at the Square on a regular basis. Those events include monthly rallies to support American troops, the National Day of Prayer, Memorial Day observations and vigils for POW/MIA and victims of domestic violence.
The Square in Carlisle has always been an epicenter of momentous events.
It’s become a central meeting place, in part, because the rights to freedom of speech and assembly are guaranteed in the First Amendment on the Constitution.
“It’s our legal right with an application and $10 to apply,” said Duffy Batzer, a librarian in the Carlisle Area School District who organized July’s Lights for Liberty Rally on the Square with co-organizer Emily Pawley, an associate professor of history at Dickinson College.
That’s where logistics become a bit of a maze for some groups.
Batzer and Michael Smith, a Carlisle High School senior who played a role in organizing two rallies, had to draw on the knowledge of Carlisle Borough Council members or those who previously organized rallies to determine who issued permits for rallies on the Old Courthouse steps.
“In general, people just really like to get that feeling that they’re participating in a movement in the same way that those before them in Carlisle did,” - Michael Smith
Those planning to hold a rally on the Old Courthouse steps on the Square have to apply through Cumberland County’s Facilities Management Department. The borough is the contact for activities on the four corners of the Square or on the sidewalks.
The whole process creates a challenge for getting people to show up, Smith said. Applications for permits have to be made two to four weeks ahead of time, although there have been exceptions. The most notable of those exceptions was an October 2018 rally against the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court that came together in about four hours.
With that much lead time required, “it’s difficult to give a sense of urgency to meeting at a rally,” Smith said.
Social media has been essential to that effort.
“I don’t think that you could gather people to the Square in four hours in the same way without having a Facebook event you can share and without having a flyer that you can tweet and put on your Instagram story and all of that,” he said.
A rally will be held Monday on the steps of the Old Courthouse on Carlisle’s Square in response to the distribution of flyers containing Ku Kl…
Smith said he also had to talk to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office about safety plans before rally permits were approved.
“It’s all generally on a case-by-case basis on the nature of the rally,” he said, adding that safety becomes more of an issue with rallies on controversial topics that may have a tendency to draw counter protesters.
Smith was one of the students who organized the Cease Fire rally in March 2018 to call for what they called “commonsense” gun control following the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, the previous month.
Supporters of the Second Amendment held their own rally across the street from the Cease Fire rally in which they held large signs, prayed, talked with passersby and occasionally shouted at the speakers across the street in their call to protect the Second Amendment.
Smith said he walked across the street to talk to the counter protesters and came away with no concerns about safety.
“He was respectful and he and his group were just planning to have their megaphone,” he said.
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Rallies like the Cease Fire event with a clear focus on a concrete issue tend to be the most successful, but rallies can also be successful for people who think they are alone. It helps when they can come together with like-minded people when there seems to be a trend in another direction, Batzer said.
But, are these rallies effective in bringing about change?
“I don’t know,” said Alison Dagnes, professor of political science at Shippensburg University and author of “Super Mad at Everything All the Time.”
Some in the field of political science say it has no effect while others say rallies can be good for mobilizing voters.
“What is demonstrably true is that when you feel your voice is heard, you will engage more actively in politics. If you feel that nobody is listening to you, you will stay home on Election Day. So that is one proven outcome of these rallies,” she said.
Rallies, by their nature, don’t delve deeply into issues, but neither do organizers typically boil down an issue into its most basic form. Rather, Smith said, organizers show the surface of the issue and give attendees the resources to learn more.
“There are a ton of different things that can be done in that regard,” he said.
More than a destination, rallies are an easy starting point for someone looking to learn about an issue.
“We’re now in a period of time where people recognize they need to learn. They need to understand. They want to be involved. They’re not necessarily sure how to go about it so a rally is an easy starting point,” said Robin Scaer, executive director of YWCA Carlisle which has been involved in a number of rallies.
Pawley said she doesn’t know anyone who has attended a rally and left thinking the problem had been solved, but she does know that people are “tired” and that they don’t know what to do next unless they are given specific steps.
Those steps could include reading, talking to legislators and volunteering for organizations that deal with the issue, Scaer said.
“It’s easy to show up one time and then the fire dies out. If it’s no longer in the media everyday, it could die out,” she said.
Though Smith said he has noticed plenty of people whose activism lasts as long as the rally itself, he agreed that there should be an increase in the amount of direct actions suggested by speakers at future rallies.
It’s important that such calls to actions be given during individual speeches and at the end of the rally itself, he said. At the Kavanaugh rally, for example, the phone numbers to Sen. Pat Toomey’s office were read out so people could put them into their telephones.
But, he admitted, there’s a limit to what can be done from the rally itself.
“You can’t do much with the energy that someone gets from one rally,” he said.
Pawley said it can be tiring to show up at rallies, but that persistence has been the key in successful movements throughout history.
“It’s important to remember that’s how social change happens. Keeping pressure on is important,” she said.