The contents of this article are for information and educational purposes only. Patriot Propaganda does not officially recommend using any of the tactics, techniques or procedures presented. 


To mourn the death of a public hero; to link a natural disaster or public tragedy to a political message; to protest the launch of a war.



The word vigil comes from the Latin word for wakefulness, and refers to a practice of keeping watch through the night over the dead or dying. Compared to the blustery pronouncements of a rally, a candlelight vigil offers a more soulful and symbolically potent expression of dissent. 


Unfortunately, routine and self-righteousness can strip vigils of their power. In the American peace movement Of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, the “candlelight vigil” — all too often a handful of dour people silently holding candles — became a standard, and fatally predictable, form of protest. 


An artistic vigil, on the other hand, brings a more artful touch. This doesn’t necessarily mean costumes and face paint and puppets (though it could). It means thoughtful symbolism, the right tone and a distinct look and feel that clearly convey the meaning of the vigil. An artistic vigil often draws upon ritual elements to both deepen the experience of participants and demonstrate that experience to observers. 


A good example is the series of “Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War” vigils organized by the Artists’ Network of Refuse & Resist in New York City in the wake of 9/11. People were asked to wear a dust mask (common in NYC after 9/11), dress all in black (common in NYC all the time), show up at Times Square at exactly 5 pm, and remain absolutely silent. Each participant held a sign that read “Our Grief is Not a Cry for War.” These vigils were silent and solemn, but there was a precision to the message that gave them a visceral potency in that emotionally raw time, for participants and observers alike.  


The most famous vigils of the late twentieth century were probably those organized by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of Argentinian women whose children were disappeared by Argentina’s military dictatorship. By gathering every Thursday for more than a decade in the plaza in front Of the Presidential Palace, they not only kept vigil for their lost loved ones, but also kept pressure on the government to answer for its crimes. 


The “artistry” of a vigil can be exceedingly complex, or as simple as a few basic rituals. The simple fact of women wearing black and gathering in silence on Fridays gives shape and presence to the Women in Black worldwide network of vigils. Begun by Israeli women during the First Intifada to protest the occupation of Palestine, it has since expanded across the globe and embraced broader anti-war and pro-justice themes, but nonetheless maintains its distinctive character. 



Make it fun. Make it unusual. Make it memorable. Don’t just hand out leaflets. Climb up on some guy’s shoulders and hand out leaflets from there, as one of the authors of this piece did as a student organizer. (He also tried the same tactic, hitchhiking, with less stellar results.) The share-holder heading into a meeting is more likely to take, read and remember the custom message inside the fortune cookie you just handed her than a rectangle of paper packed with text. 


Using theater and costumes to leaflet can also be effective. In the 1980s, activists opposed to U.S. military intervention in Central America dressed up as waiters and carried maps of Central America on serving trays, with little green plastic toy soldiers glued to the map. They would go up to people in the street and say, “Excuse me, sir, did you order this war?” When the “no” response invariably followed, they would present an itemized bill outlining the costs: “Well, you paid for it!” Even if the person they addressed didn’t take the leaflet, they’d get the message. 


The point is, leafleting is not a bad tactic. It’s still a good way to tell passersby what you’re marching for, why you’re making so much noise on a street corner or why you’re setting police cars on fire. But people are more likely to take your leaflet, read it, and remember what it’s all about if you deliver it with flair. Or ice cream. 



Compared to the average political event, a ritual is expected to have a certain gravitas, a higher level of emotional integrity, even a transcendent quality for participants. Like all rituals, a vigil should work at both the personal and political levels. It should offer a sacred experience for participants while effectively reaching out to nonparticipants. The more these two goals align, the more powerful the experience is for the participants and the more powerful the impact on the broader public. 


This article was adapted from Boyd, Andrew. Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. OR Books, 2012.


Other References:

  1. Sharp, Gene. From Dictatorship to Democracy. Serpent’s Tail, 2022.
  2. Beer, Michael, et al. Civil Resistance Tactics in the 21st Century. International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, 2021.
  3. Popović, Srđa, and Hardy Merriman. CANVAS Core Curriculum: A Guide to Effective Nonviolent Struggle: Students Book. Serbia, CANVAS, 2007.
  4. Stephen, and Steve Lambert. The Art of Activism: Your All-Purpose Guide to Making the Impossible Possible. OR Books, 2021.
  5. Marovic, Ivan. The Path of Most Resistance: A Step-By-Step Guide to Planning Nonviolent Campaigns, 2nd Edition. International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, 2021.
  6. Sholette, Gregory. The Art of Activism and the Activism of Art. New York, United States, Macmillan Publishers, 2022.
  7. Clark, Howard; Garate. Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns. Revised edition, War resisters’ International, 2022.
  8. Thompson, Nato. Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-first Century. Melville House, 2015. 
  9. Gavin, Francesca, and Alain Bieber. The Art of Protest: Political Art and Activism. Gestalten, 2022.
  10. Miller, Matthew, and Srđa Popović. Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World. Random House, 2015.
  11. Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. Vintage; Reissue edition, 1989.
  12. Bernays, Edward. Propaganda. Ig Publishing, 2004.
  13. Abbott, Daniel. The Handbook of 5GW: A Fifth Generation of War? Amsterdam, Netherlands, Adfo Books, 2021.

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