Thursday, December 10, 2009

10 Steps to Make Your Protest or Demonstration a Good One

In Brief: In this post, I describe some simple best practices when organizing a political demonstration, and help the reader to spot potential problems that may occur within their current structure.

To read my forward about why this list is so important and what's wrong with political advocacy today, click here.

  1. Learn as much as you can about YOUR side of the issue. Too many people get all worked up about what other people are saying and doing. They don’t take the time to understand the facts and feelings put forth by their own side of the debate. For instance, in a gay rights rally, you will rarely find an advocate that knows how many soldiers have been discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.

  2. Ignore the media. I know that might come as a shock to a lot of people because they believe in that old adage that “the media controls the message” but it’s simply not true. The media is lawless and crazy in America and they control THEIR message… which is often in stark contrast with what you may believe as a concerned citizen. The media will be impressed with your actions if they are interesting and well-planned but they cannot be counted on to side with you or even be compassionate toward your point of view. What’s MOST important is communicating to the people passing by in cars and those whom you can talk face-to-face with. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. You can be more effective in changing one person’s mind through careful dialogue than you can by instigating thousands to react without reason.

  3. Keep It Simple Stupid (K.I.S.S.). There are certain events (like the National Equality March in DC back in October ‘08) where it is very effective to bring a number of similar issues together under one big banner. But most activism that a person can take part in will be on a much smaller scale with less funding and support. You need to pick just one small issue and tackle that. Narrow your message down to just one goal and go from there. For instance, if your idea is to “empower the religious community” then you are going to have problems because everyone has a different religion and they don’t want each other to be more empowered… But if you wanted to plan a demonstration called “Baptists for Repealing Amendment 2” then that could be far more effective.

  4. Be nice to police officers and security. This needs very little explanation. These folks have a job to do and they don’t make the rules. You can’t let your fear of authority taint your view of the men and women who have been assigned to keep you safe. Sure, there is always that egotistical jerk that is just aching to use his or her taser but usually you are dealing with a regular Joe who just wants to make sure nobody blows anything up.

  5. Leave your vanity at home. All too often a demonstration goes sour because some idiot wants to play king or queen for a day and turns your activities into a lime light for themselves. I have not yet found a way to get rid of these people but I know better than to become one of them.

  6. Be tolerant of diversity but do not worship it. What I mean by this is that it’s ok if you and your peers all feel the same way about something and have a similar ideology. For instance, at a gay pride parade, you will see drag queens, circuit boys, political activists, religious leaders and sexual fetishes all displayed in the middle of the street. This is fine for a celebratory kind of environment but it does not send a clear message to anyone and does little to advance your philosophy on the national stage.

  7. Bring at least one member of your family or a close friend with you. Do whatever it takes to convince them to participate. It will be a momentous experience that they can be proud of for the rest of their lives. I don’t know how I could function without the knowledge that I have been part of a movement of people who fought for what was right. I pity anyone who has never held a picket sign or a megaphone.

  8. Figure out whether you’re participating in a protest or a demonstration or a rally. There is a major difference between protests and demonstrations. The term “protest” should only be used if you are specifically standing AGAINST the actions of a person, group, business or government entity. In that case, your motivation is to get them to stop their evil ways and you have more freedom to be angry and outrageous (as long as you’re abiding by the laws). In a protest, it is perfectly ok to use strong language and show that you mean business. But a rally or a demonstration is quite different because, in this case, the point is to advance your own cause. You will want to be pleasant and attractive. You will want to convince people to join you and identify with you. In the case of a rally FOR a cause, you will need the help of politicians and upstanding citizens who have reputations to uphold. The tone changes drastically when your motivation is to attract rather than to shock or scare. Both kinds of activism are valid and useful, but you have to know the difference. In my opinion, this is what failed with “the tea party movement”. They failed to decide whether their aim was to scare people or attract them. They weren’t clear in whether they were against Obama or rather FOR one of the many politicians who were involved. The combination of pandering and protesting did not mix very well in people’s perception of the movement.

  9. Decide on your role and stick to that. In every engagement, you will need a person or committee (depending on your size) to handle one of the following tasks: Designing pamphlets and signs, a media contact or liaison (the person who most understands the issues), a visible speaker/leader, a host to provide beverages and moral support, sign holders, pre-event promotion, a transportation/RSVP coordinator and a couple of people who are willing to chip in for the costs involved.

  10. Don’t let other organizers dilute your message and don’t do that to other people’s demonstrations either. Time and time again, someone will attempt to rally around an issue but it will get away from them and become something foreign and meaningless because of some type-A, egomaniacal opportunist who sees their cause as another chance to step in front of a camera for their own organization or self-promotion. You have to encourage supporters to get behind the issue because it’s important. Remind everyone of exactly what your mission is and thank them often for their participation. If you think that signs promoting another idea or concept are going to disrupt your message, don’t be afraid to tell someone nicely that you would rather they leave those particular signs at home. But you MUST have clearly legible signs with simple, catchy phrases or else it’s your fault if other people’s messages detract from your own. A protest sign should have no more than 8 words on it and be printed boldly enough that it can be read by a passenger in a car at least 40 feet away. And well designed literature like pamphlets, postcards and brochures are an EXCELLENT way to get your message out there without having to be a perfect spokesperson for your cause.

If there were to be an 11th rule here, it would be to expect steps 1-10 to fall apart before your very eyes no matter what you do. I have seen countless protests, rallies and demonstrations over the years and every single one of them has had its own unique flavor and set of challenges. The important thing is that you accomplish your mission or goal to some degree. If your goal is a realistic one, you have better chances. You must have a satisfactory outcome in mind when engaging in any political action. If your only motivation is to be a rabble-rouser, then you are what I call an "aww", a cute little acronym which I've coined to mean "angry with the world". Nothing can really be done for these people except to simply sigh in sympathy for them... "aww"...

Barring that, you must try to hold on to your dignity and sanity in the process. Political activism starts from a place of personal strife, trials and tribulations. From this anxiety is born a movement. But just because you put in the blood, sweat and tears does not mean that God, society or your local government is going to give a hoot. After the engagement is over, you will have to go back home and live with yourself. You must practice some acceptance of your friends, co-conspirators and even your opposition, because without them, you are reduced to being that crazy person who yells at traffic for no apparent reason.

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