The Dos and Don’ts of Protesting

I’m not an expert on anything. I used to be a quasi-expert on usability analysis, and then I left the field and in the meantime, it emerged as its own real subject area with doctorate programs and certifications and I’m far enough back now that I’m not even in the dust. I write books, because I’m somewhat good with words, but I don’t consider myself an expert in writing, per se. I tend to take a commonsense approach to most topics, I try to get involved beyond the standard dabble when the issue resonates with me, and I’m no longer surprised that a Catholic girl raised to be a conservative republican has somehow become instead a progressive man who doesn’t attend any church. What I am pretty good at doing—though again, not an expert—is spotting contradictions in culture and rhetoric, and I think I owe my skill to some badass teachers from my youth, and my own tendency to complain.

marchflyerIIwebSo that said, I am not an expert on protesting. I don’t know the intellectual lexicon of the protest theorist, or whatever they call themselves (all due deference to protest theorists). I’ve been involved in organizing protests for twenty-two years, was taught specific protest tactics and de-escalation techniques by some of the women who invented them, and have personally taught three dozen people how to eat fire. I’ve gone to some of the biggest protests ever seen in Washington, DC, and been one of three people holding signs on a street corner when nobody else cared enough to show up. So along the way I’ve heard some things that are a kind of best practices regarding protests, namely:

  • Have a plan before you head out to start protesting—It seems simple enough, but protests are more complicated than we see them on the news. Most of the planning sessions I’ve been in were attempts to answer a series of questions:
    • What is our message? Who are we targeting with our message?
    • What do we want to see happen as a result of our protest? The end of desegregated bussing, the involvement of the media to a previously silenced issue, networking with likeminded people?
    • Who do we need to get involved in our protest? This goes to ensuring it’s not allies running the show, that it includes people who may have already been working on the issue, etc.
    • Are we willing to be arrested en masse? This will affect what kinds of things protestors can include in the protest (Hint: shutting down a part of the local infrastructure will get at least some people arrested).
    • What is the history of the local law enforcement, and how are they likely to respond to our protest? As we’ve seen, protests have had different kinds of responses from police and military organizations in Egypt, Hong Kong, NYC, and Ferguson, Missouri, to name a few.
    • Who will volunteer to be our core group of organizers? It’s neither helpful to have one person coordinating a protest nor thirty, so a reliable group of four to ten folks can handle the heavy lifting while they communicate with the rest of the network who will make up the bulk of the protest participants.
  • Have a communication strategy for use before, during, and after the protest—Depending on the nature and controversy surrounding the issues taken up at the protest, there may be a lot of pushback during the protest itself. Marshals or coordinators should have a ready means of talking with each other especially if they will be dispersed in a large crowd. Things can happen quickly and everyone needs to know what’s going on.
  • Bring lots of cameras—No matter what you’re protesting, chances are you won’t have good media coverage or the kind of media coverage that adequately illuminates what you’re doing. (Anyone remember the Occupy Wall Street protests and the images we saw on CNN?) Document your work, and especially document the on-the-ground response to your work.
  • Know how to de-escalate—Many of the protests I’ve seen that had counter-demonstrators (usually ne0-Nazis, let’s be clear) had moments when yelling started to get out of hand. I am grateful to have worked with Marty Langelan who tested and pioneered a series of tactics to de-escalate hostility before it could erupt into violence. Before any DC Lesbian Avengers protest, we always got the participants together and ran down the ways to unlatch from an overly angry individual in our midst.
  • Identify the dramatic personalities in your network—I’ve seen a lot of damage to progressive groups because that one person gets the mic in front of them and makes everything about themselves, or they wind up making a small problem big and then the protest stops or gets diverted to deal with their dust-up. Minimize these distractions by keeping people involved, active listening to your group members, and clear communication. I was asked once to talk to a member of the DC Trans Coalition who kept taking us off topic in meetings with inappropriate statements, and while I wasn’t looking forward to the conversation, it did let her know where we all stood and what changes the group wanted to see from her. (Plus if Sadie Crabtree asks you to do something, you should do it.)
  • Stay on message—This means you all need agreement regarding what the message is. And while protesting isn’t about making people feel good, if you’re actively looking to antagonize people on the street, you will likely get a lot of upset people in your face, and they may not be listening to your message at that point. This is in part why you should consider protesting organizations and not general passersby, although of course shutting down the West Side Highway is a good way to get the attention of the City of New York, even if it does antagonize drivers (I mean, commuters, who are we kidding).
  • Know your protest history—Read up on the civil rights actions of the 1950s and 1960s, because hello, they were rather successful. Also read up on the Stonewall riot, the actions of ACT UP and the Lesbian Avengers, and other nonviolent groups who have changed institutions and public policy. Please please don’t ask some member of an oppressed group to tell you their history. Seek it out yourself.
  • Have an exit strategy—Protests end; they have to at some point. People need to eat, sleep, etc. Have a clear denouement to your protest so that you can claim the ending for yourselves and not have some competitor or media personality declare your protest over for yourself. Some protests go on for a long time, like the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But in that protest, people were avoiding doing a thing every day—taking the bus—and so it was a cyclical protest that could occur over a longer period. If you are standing on the sidewalk you will not be able to carry it on for a year.

Final points: Don’t make the protest about yourself. Don’t make the protest clever. Cleverness detracts from clarity. Don’t make the protest about the wrong group of people or a too-broad group of people (e.g., even white people are diverse in terms of their access to social and economic power). Don’t make your protest about a hodgepodge of issues because you will have too many messages to carry and communicate. Make your protest as safe for your participants and the general public as possible. And ignore the trolls.

And be well, friends.

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Categories: LGBT Civil Rights, Pop Culture


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