The millions who took to the streets on February 15, 2003 didn't stop the war in Iraq, but the lesson too many extrapolated from that extraordinary march was the wrong one. Crowds out in the streets do have power, and they sometimes do change what goes on in governments. The third month of this year could have been called the month of marching, as students across France, migrants and migrant-rights activists across the US, and citizens across Nepal, took to the streets.
The mostly Latino marchers in the US sent a forceful message to Washington: that they would not be forever silent, fearful and exploitable, and they pushed back some of their demonizers. Theirs were some of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in Los Angeles and Chicago; nationwide their demonstrations swelled into the greatest May Day celebrations in a century in my country.
Sometimes it seems that the fate of the world is decided entirely in the ether of electronic communications and corporate backroom deals. That some portion is still determined by citizens gathering together in public is deeply reassuring and a little subversive - subversive of the postmodern tendency to dismiss bodies and places as anachronisms, of the mainstream's insistence that change doesn't come from outside.
But rather than see these demonstrations on foot as extraordinary, it is important to see them as an extension of the ordinary. The exercise of democracy begins as exercise, as walking around, becoming familiar with the streets, comfortable with strangers, able to imagine your own body as powerful and expressive rather than a pawn. People who are at home in their civic space preserve the power to protest and revolt, whereas those who have been sequestered into private space do not.
More and more I think of privatization as being not just about the takeover of resources and power by corporate interests, but as the retreat of citizens to private life and private space, screened from solidarity with strangers and increasingly afraid or even unable to imagine acting in public. This is how human beings get downgraded from citizens to consumers. We talk about politicians being in public life, but they seldom appear in the public space where everyone is free to appear as a citizen.
You can design democracy out of a landscape. The University of California at Santa Cruz is infamous for having been designed to lure away student radicals. It sequesters them in a beautiful, isolated campus with no centre, geographically or symbolically, and therefore no place to gather and make a difference. The students have taken action anyway, most recently by driving military recruiters off campus in April, but they are handicapped by design. If Los Angeles has a less vital political culture than my own city, San Francisco, it too seemed to be partly a matter of design, if not intent: little pedestrian life, no boulevards ideal for marching, no plazas perfect for speechifying - almost nothing of the old civic landscape that has made cities such as Prague and Paris ideal for revolution. There, cars are the measure of all things, and bodies often seem hapless, obsolete, certainly inadequate to navigate the sprawling spaces.
But on March 25, an overwhelmingly Latino crowd of migrant-rights supporters overcame the terrain to promenade together. Estimated at up to a million people, the demonstrations made it an unprecedented moment in LA history. Across the US, the question that hovers is: will we suburbanize Latinos before they urbanize us? Latino migrants en masse often revitalize a community by bringing a social, pedestrian energy to the often-empty sidewalks and streets of this country, and this activity that is often purely social easily becomes political.
There's a continuum between promenades, parades, festivals, and uprisings, a continuum of active bodies and public boldness. And there's an eros of public life too, not as simple as cruising or getting picked up, but a more dispersed business of bodily confidence and pleasure in the company of strangers, coexisting under the same sky and perhaps finding the same passions.
For democracy itself is in part a bodily, tangible life, which is why dictators begin by forbidding public gatherings and groups. They know that democracy must be exercised, regularly and on foot. Few others seem to remember it; even the American Civil Liberties Union defends freedom of speech, the press, and religion far more often than the right of the people peaceably to assemble. Walking itself is often seen as a pleasant, rural, wholesome activity, simply because we don't often enough take stock of urban walking, of the life of crowds, of the vitality of the streets, and of the potential for revolt that always hovers there.
These days it often seems as though bodies themselves are becoming obsolete, ineffectual, inadequate to traverse the strange new car-scale world we've built, and this is both a political and an ecological catastrophe. But there are places, communities, and moments when the power of the people asserts itself, in public, in the streets, on foot, and they still matter.
Rebecca Solnit is an activist and cultural historian, and author of "Wanderlust: A History of Walking," published by Verso
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006