Katy Pearce
Jan 29, 2017 · 8 min read

As newcomers join protests, veterans need to consider better ways to welcome them.

Last week, the Women’s Marches were wonderful experiences for many. Many expressed how safe and comfortable they felt. People knit hats, illustrated beautiful and funny posters, and marched proudly alongside babies, children, teens, adults, the elderly. And now related marches like the March for Science hope to continue the peaceful and positive efforts. Calls for “what to do next” were made.

But these nice outcomes with people basking in the glow of positivity is not always how physical actions turn out. And this came to a head last night in Seattle. Many communities organized formal actions about changes in immigration policy. However, as Trump introduced an immediate ban on visitors from particular countries, instant protest actions took place at airports around the country. Both these planned and instant actions were promoted heavily in the social media channels set up for the Women’s Marches, potentially bringing new and inexperienced people into the mix of activism.

What I believed happened was that people who had enjoyed participating in a Women’s March assumed that these new immigration-related marches would be similar to what they had experienced last weekend. But not necessarily.

Last night’s instant action in Seattle was a Facebook event hosted by three individuals, not an organization, and was promoted as a peaceful event taking place from 5pm-10pm. The event was shared by a number of individuals into the various Women’s March social media groups and hashtags, reaching over 100,000 Seattle area people that had shown interest in the previous event, including me. The official Women’s March Seattle twitter account promoted the event as well, perhaps endorsing it for some of their followers.

Initially the Saturday night event at SeaTac airport was peaceful. A diverse group of people gathered at the airport in a large open space and the crowd marched through the main ticketing area with plenty of room for passengers to maneuver through. People high fived parents with strollers with signs hanging off the back proclaiming an infant as “Woke AF except when I’m napping”, just like at the Women’s March. Pussyhats were proudly worn. I marched behind an older woman with an oxygen tank. Signs varied — most were oriented toward immigration or refugees, but some featured #NODAPL, #BlackLivesMatter, anti-fascism, or anti-Trump messages. It was interesting to see many groups coming together and demonstrating, yet not always about the goal of this particular action — to release the detainees and protest the immigration executive order.

After marching, the crowd gathered in a large area and people began to speak, using the technique popularized by Occupy — a mic check of repeating what the speaker says so everyone can hear. A few immigrants spoke about how much they love America and the crowd cheered. It was announced that a federal judge in New York halted the immigration executive order. More cheers. Then activists took the mic and expressed that those interested in immigration also need to care about other movements such as #NODAPL. The speeches then seemed to turn to be more labor oriented. The language used was that of anti-fascism and the billionaire class. Most notable was the use of the term “workers” when describing the crowd. “Will workers tolerate this ban?” “No!” shouted the crowd. But I wondered — did the woman with the oxygen tank identify as a worker? Perhaps, but with an estimated 10,000 people present, according to local indie weekly The Stranger, I doubt everyone was labor-minded.

The group then continued to march through the airport ticketing area, this time with people handing out labor-oriented posters, which many people used the back of to write their own slogans. The group finally rested near one of the TSA checkpoints, chanting and singing that we wouldn’t go until the detainees were released. Yet, among the Pussyhats, the women wearing hijab, and the strollers, there seemed to be a mix of prepared activists — they had bullhorns, walkie talkies, phone numbers written on their wrists, and knew all the chants. The differences between these two groups was quite visible.

At this point, speakers began again. City Council person Kshama Swant, a member of Socialist Alternative, spoke to the crowd again. She announced that attorneys were able to join the detainees and would stay with them until their release and asked everyone to attend the Sunday planned event and to march together to the light rail station. The crowd was confused — we had just been chanting that we would stay until the detainees were released. Some people left with Swant, and others stood around wondering what to do next.

At this point, those prepared activists took charge. This did not seem planned to me. The crowd was instructed to split up and go to different areas of the airport, but not given any reason why. Yet, people followed. Eventually it became apparent that the tactic was to block exits. Again, I do not know if this was planned. It did not seem to be. People were instructed to link arms and tightly cover the exits. Police, not looking pleased, stood in front of the exits as well. As individuals left escalators to get their bags, they were physical blocked by sitting people. Unsurprisingly, the passengers did not appreciate being preventing from getting their luggage. Altercations occurred. One passenger began assaulting a protester and the police stepped in and got rough as well. Among the sitting protesters, one got the sense that not everyone was comfortable with either the tactic or putting themselves in harm’s way.

After the first wave of passengers were blocked, and more police arrived with tear gas guns, those that had taken charged asked those standing further away to join the blockade and the tone became chastising. One woman yelled back that she was pregnant. Another showed that she had a baby sleeping in a backpack. People started walking around writing attorney phone numbers on wrists of those that did not have it. At this point, a woman called for a mic check to the crowd and said that there was a group that was going to engage in an action that may get people arrested and if people were willing, to join them. A dozen or so were willing and left. At various points, all exits in the airport had been blocked and as the night continued, two dozen protesters were detained and tear gas and/or pepper spray was used.

Last night’s event at SeaTac airport is a cause for concern for two reasons: first, the more seasoned activists were dealing with an unseasoned crowd. Working with novices seemed to frustrate some activists, but perhaps seasoned activists also have the responsibility to be more honest about the risks involved with such actions. They may have also taken advantage of the naiveté of the crowd. Second, those that went to the action expecting something like the Women’s March should have also been more thoughtful about preparing themselves for risks.

I imagine that this mix of seasoned and unseasoned activists will continue and I am concerned. Some may say that activism is risky and that individuals are responsible for securing their own safety. While this is true, organizers should consider the opportunity afforded them with a new influx of interested people. Undoubtedly increasing numbers can help. One of the largest challenges for any movement is increasing turnout. There is currently a unique opportunity where turnout is high. But we know from decades of research on social movements that an individual’s first few encounters have a lasting effect on their trajectory. Being made to feel unsafe is likely to turn people off to engaging in the future. I implore activist groups to do more to welcome and educate new people on how they can get more safely involved. Seasoned activists need to think beyond the needs of the short-term action and more about the long term movement. There also needs to be more opportunities for people to be involved without putting themselves in harm’s way.

Groups like the Women’s March also need to be more cautious about the power they wield when causally promoting other groups and actions on social media. This compounds the sense that other actions will be similar to the Women’s March when in fact they may not be.

To those individuals getting involved in such actions, there are risks associated with attending any large event and you need to educate yourself, especially when considering bringing children. It is absolutely possible to attend, but I encourage you to be prepared: bring water, food, and phone chargers. If you are bringing children, bring twice as many supplies as you would normally. Also, children, including my own son, get bored easily and appropriate distractions are a must. With children or not, everyone should have a few different plans for how you are going to leave the site and have a mental map of what the area looks like, where you currently are, and how you could exit. Do not assume that there will be reliable cell service. The airport action was unusual in that it was warm, dry, with bathrooms, food, and reliable wifi and cell coverage. That is much less likely in the outdoors.

And, importantly, if you feel uncomfortable — it is okay to stop or leave. Trust your gut. When someone asks you to do something, first consider why they are asking you to do something and what authority they have to do so. You are not abandoning the movement or being a bad activist for not engaging in something that does not feel good to you.

2017 has brought about an uptick in political activism, especially physical actions like protests and marches. Yet this trend did not start with Trump’s election — groups and movements like Occupy, Black Lives Matter and associated actions against police brutality, and the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline have been engaging in physical actions throughout the last few years. What has changed is the increase in individuals with little previous experience in activism, particularly in physical activism. This is bound to continue across the country. Seasoned activists have an opportunity to engage more people but need to be careful to not alienate new people in the process.

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