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Welcome to Be The Change, a series on grassroots activism, community organizing, and the fundamentals of fighting for justice. Primarily instructional and sometimes theoretical, this series creates space to share tips, learn skills, and discuss “walking the walk” as intersectional queer feminists.
Rallies, rallies, rallies, rallies, rallies everywhere! I’m starting to think I should just keep a stash of poster board and markers in the trunk of my car, like I did back in the Bush era. (Did you ever think you’d start to feel nostalgic for the post-9/11 Bush era? ME NEITHER.)
Demonstrations and political protest are pillars of democracy. I, like many others, remember my first protests and can trace my activist roots back to participating in a demonstration. The first time I marched for a cause, it was in a Take Back the Night march at my undergraduate college in 2001. I initially went to the march because it counted as extra credit for a course I was taking, though I generally felt like sexual assault was a bad thing and feminism was a good thing.
It was at the speak-out after the march, organized by our campus Women’s Center, listening to survivors tell their stories, that I converted into a full-time feminist, officially. I never looked back. I joined the Women’s Center. The next year, I helped organize the Take Back the Night march. The year after that, I ran the Women’s Center and I helped organize buses to the March for Women’s Lives. The March for Women’s Lives was my first mass demonstration, where I joined 1.5 million other reproductive rights activists on the Washington Mall.
That demonstration moved more than just my legs and body. As we wound a vicious and joyful path through the Capitol, I came to understand that my body was a weapon as much as my words. I learned something about community and solidarity and showing up. I carried that swelling feeling of being a part of something collective, of standing up together, with me long after the march.
A couple years later, I was working as a community and campus organizer for Planned Parenthood and today I am proud to work for the New York affiliate of the ACLU. I believe strongly in the First Amendment, in the right to protest. I believe even more in the power of protest, that protesting can change us as individuals and as a culture, that it can help change laws as well as #heartsandminds.
We just witnessed one of the largest mass demonstrations of all time, the Women’s March, which engaged 3.3 million people across the world. This past weekend, thousands of people flooded and disrupted airports across the country to literally stand against Trump’s outrageous and horrifying Muslim ban. Less than two weeks into Trump’s presidency, I’m positive that protest is going to be a necessary weapon in the fight against this administration. We’ll need to rise up and use our bodies and voices, working alongside Congress and the courts, to defend our collective rights over and over and over and over.
Perhaps you’ve been moved to organize a demonstration, but don’t know where to begin. If so, I hope this guide will help you.
1. Why do you rally?
Before you even decide what kind of demonstration to have, you need to consider the “why.” Ponder these questions:
- Why do you want to demonstrate?
- What are the goals of the demonstration (media attention, getting a specific legislator’s attention, passing a bill, standing in solidarity, etc)?
- Who is the target of your action? A.k.a. who can give you what you want?
- How will you know you’ve succeeded?
2. What kind of action?
There are many different ways to do a public demonstration. Here’s some ideas and questions to ask yourself:
Types of Events:
- Rally – Protest event where people gather in large numbers to make a statement.
- March – Protest event where a gathering of people walk together en masse.
- Burma Shave – Holding signs by the side of a busy road with a message that people will read as they drive by.
- Street Theater – Acting out a scene or dramatic interpretation in public.
- Flash Mob – Showing up with many others in a public place at a designated time and doing a choreographed dance or song or action together, then quickly dispersing.
- Banner Drop – Hanging and dropping a banner with your message from a prominent or symbolic place.
- Blockade – Denying access to a building/place/street by putting many bodies in front of it and locking arms.
- Guerrilla Action – Any kind of unconventional method (including flash mobs and street theater) used to disrupt the status quo or promote an activist message.
Questions to Consider:
- How many people do you expect to participate? That may change what the most effective type of demonstration may be. An organized burma shave with five people on a busy street can be very impactful compared to five people rallying in a park. A demonstration with 100 attendees is better suited to a rally or march.
- Is there a strategic reason to hold a type of demonstration? For example, if you are participating in a national day of action and your smaller rally will be one of hundreds across the world, it makes sense to rally (even with a smaller group of attendees).
- Is there a symbolic reason to hold a type of demonstration? For example, if you are protesting the murder of a Black trans woman, you might do a silent vigil at the place where it occured.
3. Who’s invited?
Who is directly impacted by the issue you’re rallying for? Who will be your allies? What kinds of groups and organizations and individuals should you reach out to? Who will definitely come? Who do you need to engage?
As you’re considering the who, also consider that you are centering people who are directly impacted, especially if you are an ally to the cause. It can be easy to get wrapped up in good intentions as an ally and forget that we must amplify others’ voices, speaking up but not over.
4. Is There a Strategic Time and Location?
Now that you’re clear on why and what and who, it’s time to figure out where you’re going to hold your demonstration. If getting media attention is important, you need to be in a high-traffic area or a highly symbolic place that you can invite media to. Should it be in the morning or early afternoon to get the most media attention before press time for TV news stations? The evening or late night? A 24-hour vigil or camp-out/sit-in? On a weekend or a work day? Do you want to coincide with a holiday like International Women’s Day or Refugees Rights Day or Labor Day?
Here are some examples of a thoughtful location:
- If you’re protesting at a specific organization or company, it might make sense to have the demonstration at a time that’s disruptive to their business hours.
- If you’re demonstrating support for a bill, it would make sense to have it when legislators are in session, in a place where you will be visible to them.
- If you’re protesting the Trump administration, it would make sense to be in front of the White House or at the federal building in your nearest city.
- If your main goal is to get on the evening news, you should have your demonstration early enough that media will make it before the final cut for the evening show and you should send out press releases aggressively.
- If you are protesting police brutality, you should consider protesting at the police station or at a symbolic place where an incident of brutality took place.
5. Assign Roles
For a large demonstration, you’re going to need help. Here are some volunteer roles that people can play. (One person may play multiple roles.):
- Decision Maker(s) / Lead Organizer(s) – Folks who make the big decisions on the demonstration and take the lead role in organizing.
- Peace Keepers or Marshals – Folks who will look out for fellow protestors and try to keep the peace between law enforcement and demonstrators during the march, usually wearing armbands or a certain color of clothing or something to visibly mark them as marshals.
- Police Liaison – Person who will coordinate communication between the organizers and law enforcement, will introduce themselves to law enforcement and communicate directly throughout the demonstration.
- MCs and Speakers – Folks who are scheduled to speak (if there’s a speaking opportunity at your demonstration).
- Media Spokespersons – Person or persons who will be prepared to speak to the media on behalf of the group/organizers.
- Other Roles: Accessibility monitor, street medic, outreach team, filmer or videographer.
6. Spread the Word
Don’t underestimate the power of social media (FB, Twitter, Tumblr), especially for spontaneous actions that are organized quickly and need an immediate turn-out. Here’s some other ways to get the word out:
- Flyering – good ol’ printer paper and tacks and tape
- Street teams
- Email lists (including those of co-sponsoring groups or individuals)
- Blogs and Websites
- News Calendars
- Press Release
- Door-to-door canvassing
- Announcements at meetings, church groups, community events, etc.
- PSA on public radio
- Texting and calling friends and supporters
- Making a promotional video and spreading via social media
7. Symbols and Chants
Powerful symbols emerge from protest movements. Think of the “Hand Up Don’t Shoot” or “I Can’t Breathe” signs and images and chants that are prominent in the Black Lives Matter protests. The pink hats (whether you love them or hate them) at the Women’s March on Washington. The “Silence = Death” banners held by ACT UP activists during the AIDS epidemic.
What will your symbols and chants and slogans be? Will you have a common hashtag for the event? How will you make the event meaningful?
If you have specific messages or slogans you want to highlight, it helps to make and bring a bunch of your own signs. People will often bring their own signs to rallies and demonstrations, but many come empty-handed and are happy to hold one of your pre-made or pre-printed signs.
Tweet out and share updates on social media as they’re happening with the hashtag, directly at targets and media contacts if you can.
8. Safety and Permits and Civil Disobedience
Finally, there are some important things to consider when it comes to protecting yourself and your fellow protestors.
Permits and Laws
You don’t need a permit to hold a demonstration on public property or in a “free speech zone” like on a sidewalk or in a public park or the plaza in front of a government building. However, you may want to get one anyway to ensure you will have the space or to ensure that counter-demonstrators don’t have an equal right to be in the area in which you’re demonstrating. There are less likely to be unlawful arrests at a permitted protest, which may be important if people are coming who are likely to be targeted by police.
You do need a permit to march in the street. Technically, marching in the street without a permit is not clearly Constitutionally protected (in the United States) and you can be arrested. Blocking traffic on the street or the sidewalk without a permit is considered unlawful. There may be other local ordinances that impact protest. For example, it is illegal to carry a sign on a wooden stick in New York City.
Some protest tactics involved planned civil disobedience. For example, sit-ins or die-ins, where protestors sit or lay on the floor/ground, often blocking traffic or access to a building, sometimes on private property. Any protest on private property is not Constitutionally protected free speech and you can be arrested for trespass among other charges.
Civil disobedience can be powerful protest. I really urge you, though, to communicate to others what their rights are, so that people know the risks of participating and consent to them willingly. Some people can’t afford to be arrested if they are on probation or parole, are undocumented, or have jobs that would fire them if they were arrested. Also, some people may be more likely to be targeted by law enforcement during a demonstration based on their perceived race or ethnicity, gender, or religion. Take that into consideration when planning a demonstration during which people expect to be arrested and/or to break the law.
If you are planning civil disobedience, expect that you may be arrested and prepare attendees for potentially being arrested. I’d recommend carrying a government-issued photo ID on you so you can identify yourself after you’re arrested (or else you may be stuck in jail until you can ID yourself), as well as emergency contact numbers and the number for the National Lawyers Guild in your area written in permanent marker on your inner arm or upper thigh. Read up on your rights before you go and have a plan for when you get arrested including knowing how you’ll pay your bail (cash is usually the best and fastest option).
You can also plan ahead who is willing to be arrested and have others who are not willing to be arrested observe those folks from a legal distance and be on-call to post bail for them, provide support, etc. after the arrest.
You may consider inviting legal observers to monitor your protest, to document any interactions between law enforcement and protestors and to protect your rights. Should there be an arrest or issue, legal observer records can be used in court to help support protestors’ rights.
You could also consider having a permit for part of your demonstration and civil disobedience during another part, letting people know when the shift is happening so they can make informed choices about participating.
You can have levels of participation (Red, Yellow, Green or 1, 2, 3) that involve different levels of risk and let people know what those are ahead of time and at the beginning of the protest.
9. After the Rally…
I believe demonstrations are important. What’s even more important is what happens when the demonstration is over and everyone goes home.
After the demonstration is over, you will hopefully have a group of engaged folks who want to keep taking action. If you collected email addresses or contact info from attendees, follow up with folks by thanking them for coming and letting them know what the next action will be or how they can stay involved. Keep them engaged.
Think about how you can keep the pressure on your targets and devise other organizing strategies and tactics to get you there. Perhaps a whole campaign plan is in order, if you don’t already have one.
Keep being brave.
Have other tips you want to share? Do you remember your first protest or rally and how it made you feel? Let’s keep the convo going in the comments!
I just read this: https://medium.com/@yonatanzunger/trial-balloon-for-a-coup-e024990891d5#.b0kuslt5b. The whole piece was fascinating/terrifying, and so were the comments.
Anyway, one of the things they pointed out was: “On Inauguration Day, Trump apparently filed his candidacy for 2020. Beyond being unusual, this opens up the ability for him to start accepting “campaign contributions” right away”, to which someone reacted saying: “Perhaps even more important: 501(c)(3) orgs are not allowed to “campaign”, or they risk losing their non-profit status. Now that he is “candidate Trump”, even speaking negatively about him could open them up to legal action. This is — in effect, if not also in design — a veiled threat to non-profits as they gear up to fight his policies.”
Something to keep in mind while organizing protests… This is looking more and more totalitarian every day. :(((
It’s getting really scary. :( That’s…ugh…so unethical!
This is such a good article! Thank you for going through it in so much detail and adding in really practical steps.
One thing I’d point out, though, is that the Women’s March, while huge, wasn’t actually the largest mass demonstration of all time – the February 15 2003 protests against the invasion of Iraq saw between 6 and 11 million people globally (other estimates say up to 30 million), considered the largest mass demonstration in human history.
(source: Walgrave, Stefaan; Rucht, Dieter (2010), from “The World Says No to War: Demonstrations against the War on Iraq”)
I came down here to say that. I loved this article, and it’s important. It’s also really important that we remember and build on our own history of resistance.
I remember 15 February 2003 particularly clearly because it was my own first demonstration. My dad drove me 3 hours to the nearest city having a rally, Charlotte, NC, where there were maybe 200 people gathered. I was absolutely thrilled (he was disappointed no one sang Bob Dylan lol). It also gave me my first ever chance to connect in person with other people who shared my ideas, which was incredibly important. I have been on many marches and rallies since, with tens or even hundreds of thousands of people… but that relatively small gathering on a cold, clear afternoon will stay with me forever.
Point taken and corrected in the article!
I was also at the anti-war protests in 2003, but in my small, conservative college town. We marched from campus to City Hall (the closest government building in our small city) chanting “No Blood For Oil.” I remember it well. We’re still in that neverending “war on terror” that has resulted in the rampant Islamophobia that brings us to Trump’s ban on Muslims.
An example of a grassroots protest organized at the last minute while still being successful was our protest in Rochester MN to protect our Muslim, immigrant, and refugee neighbors.
We had a rally with multiple speakers and filled almost two or three city blocks with people overflowing into our walkways above.
Here’s a video of a protest that was completely peaceful and succeeded in boosting coverage.
Amazing work, @helensunflower. Thanks for sharing!
This is incredibly useful! I will be coming back to this post in the coming months for sure.
Let’s not forget that foam poster boards pollute landfills. PLEASE REUSE POSTER BOARDS!! Buy pad of large bond or newsprint. Create your poster on paper that can be taped on the board. This way – each poster can be either saved for a future protest or recycled.
PLEASE DON’T FORGET SUSTAINABILITY IN OUR PROTESTS!!!