Tips for Organizing an Effective Protest
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
~ Dylan Thomas, poet
Ever wondered how to organize a protest?
Protesting is democracy amplified. But if you’re planning one, you want to make sure you do it right.
SPREAD THE WORD FAR AND WIDE
Promote, promote, promote. This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised how many well-intentioned events fall flat simply because people didn’t know they were happening.
Take to social media. Post the event on Facebook, Twitter, NextDoor, Meetup, and any neighborhood forums. Send press releases to your local newspapers, bloggers, and libraries so they can cover the event. Drop off fliers at coffee shops with community bulletin boards. Notify local justice-centric organizations who may be interested in collaborating or otherwise promoting the protest.
Tell everyone you know and encourage them to SHARE the event. That might seem like common sense, but it’s more likely to occur to someone that they should share the event if you actually tell them to share it.
No matter how well you plan, there’s never going to be an event that’s at a convenient time for everyone who wants to attend. However, with some careful planning you can ensure that your event works for your audience and accomplishes your goals.
For example, I went to a protest recently that was at night (5:30pm) and the endpoint was the Ohio Statehouse. If you’re like me, you were probably wondering how any legislators were going to hear the demands of the protesters if the protest was in the evening. But the organizers were smart! They chose to have the protest on a day when there were an abundance of legislative committee meetings at the statehouse, which meant that there were definitely some politicians there late into the night and they heard our cries.
So consider when people are actually available. Weekends and weekday evenings after 5:30pm are probably safe since a lot of people work during the day on weekdays.
From there, consider the time it’s best to do your protest in order to accomplish your goals. If you’re going to a government building make sure it won’t be empty. If you’re protesting through a residential neighborhood, have the protest earlier so as not to wake up small kids who go to bed early. Although 100% satisfaction is impossible, try to make it a win-win for all in attendance.
STATE THE THEME EXPLICITLY
Are you organizing a protest because you want to protest Trump’s election or because you want to promote love and openness in your community? Although we know these ideals greatly overlap, the theme can really affect the tone of your protest.
For example, I went to a protest that was explicitly anti-Trump and it was mostly young people who showed up and the signs including sayings like “The Pussy Grabs Back” and “Fuck Trump.” I went to another protest that was protesting the rash of hate crimes that broke out after Trump’s election and that one included a lot of older people and families with young kids. Many of the signs said “Love and Respect for All” and “Human Rights for All.”
Similar sentiment, different tone. And of course there were both kinds of people at each protest, but the majority depended on the tone. There’s definitely value in both angles, but it’s important to decide how you want your protest to go and promote accordingly.
Likewise, if you’ve done a good job promoting the event, you should assume the media will cover it. Therefore, if you’re interviewed you’ll want to have articulate answers about what exactly you’re protesting. I recommend writing down a statement (better yet, do this in advance and include your quotes in the press release you send out) that includes a brief, cohesive list of demands for what you want out of your community. That can include demands from the citizens, the government, the police, etc. One example of this is to demand that your city be a sanctuary city and not comply with any mass deportations that might be ordered by the Trump administration.
WHEN IT COMES TO SPEAKERS, DO IT RIGHT OR NOT AT ALL
There’s nothing more frustrating than going to a protest and not being able to hear the person with the mic. Mostly likely your protest will be taking place outside, so unless you have outdoor concert-quality sound equipment, avoid having speakers. Not only will your fellow protesters be annoyed because they can’t hear you, it’s also pointless because if they can’t hear you then the hateful people definitely aren’t going to be able to hear you. And they’re probably the ones who need to hear the speakers most.
If you do have good quality sound equipment and you decide to have speakers, keep it short. No more than 30 minutes, and less if the weather is bad. If it’s cold or raining people are going to be miserable, so don’t keep them longer than necessary. Protesting in the wind is tiring because you have to use more strength to hold your sign upright.
In short, protesting is exhausting and if people are worn out by the end then they’re not going to want to hang around to sign your petition. More on that in a minute.
And for the love of all that’s holy, if you’re going to have speakers make sure it’s not all white people. Get speakers who are truly, deeply affected by the policies you’re protesting.
MAKE THE EVENT ACCESSIBLE TO ALL
All too often I see well meaning people who forget to consider those who are differently abled or whose personal financial situation may make your protest more difficult or impossible to attend. If you’re going to be preaching love and acceptance for all, you need to make sure your event is accessible for everyone who might want to attend.
Consider that some people don’t have cars, can’t afford gas, can’t afford a bus ticket, live too far away from the bus, or otherwise don’t have a ride to the event. Put out a call on the event listings on social media and encourage those who need rides to reach out. Encourage others attending the event to give people who may be close to them rides. You and your fellow organizers should offer rides to those who need them.
Make the event accessible for people of differing abilities. Have ASL interpreters there, especially if you have speakers. Make sure the route is wheelchair friendly — -avoid broken sidewalks where possible. Encourage those with differing abilities who may need assistance to reach out in advance so you can designate someone to help them.
Make it known that ALL people are encouraged to attend. In your promotional materials, event listings, etc., make sure to include that you invite people who are black, brown, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, native, immigrant, LGBTQIA+, differently abled, of varying socioeconomic statuses, women, and anyone who feels marginalized, silenced, and erased to join. Let them know their voices are important and they’re invited to the table.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
If your protest involves being on private property at any point, you must have consent from the property owner to be there. The moment consent is revoked, you and your fellow protesters are trespassing and are subject to lawful arrest.
So just make things easier and stay on public property. That means public parks and sidewalks. (Some parks are held via a public/private partnership, in which case it operates as private property. If you find this is the case, treat it like private property and either seek a permit or go elsewhere. Check the park’s website ahead of time for more information about this.)
However, just because a space is public doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want on it. Even in some public spaces it is necessary to get a permit from the city if you’re planning on not staying on the sidewalk, not obeying pedestrian signals (like your entire group crossing the street at once and holding up traffic), or using sound amplifying equipment.
Note that a permit cannot be denied because the city disagrees with the views expressed — -that’s a violation of First Amendment rights. Likewise, police and city officials cannot impose restrictions on the protest if it’s not necessary for traffic control or public safety.
If you apply for a permit you may have to do so a certain number of weeks in advance (this can vary city to city) and be expected to provide organizer contact information and the estimated number of attendees so they can plan adequately for police presence. When done well, this can be a helpful thing because your entire group will be able to stay together and not be split up by changing traffic lights.
Even if you do not get a permit, you can still protest. You just need to make sure you and all attendees know that they must stay on the sidewalk and abide all traffic and pedestrian signals or they’ll be subject to lawful arrest.
Whether with a permit or without, it is unlawful for protesters to block normal pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk or harass passersby, so warn people to be on good behavior. Reiterate that it’s a peaceful protest at every opportunity.
IF YOU CONFUSE PEOPLE, YOU LOSE PEOPLE
Just like the old saying goes, if you confuse people, you lose people. And you do not want to do that. So be extremely forthcoming with information, even to the point of being repetitive. There will always be people who joined the party late, didn’t check the website, had notifications on a post turned off, or some other reason, but you still want those people there if they want to support the cause.
Share the granular details in advance and again a couple of hours before the protest. And by granular details I mean all pertinent info and tips for attendees.
Post the route so people know exactly how far it is and those who join late can find you. Let people know what the parking situation is like so they can plan accordingly. Is the starting point near a bus stop? Let people know. Are you going to be taking up donations for anything? Tell people so they can bring cash, unless you’re going to have a card reader there too.
You can also post tips for attendees to help them have a better protesting experience. Most people probably aren’t seasoned protesters, so they may not think about simple things that will make their experience much better.
- Encourage those who are making signs to use heavier cardboard/poster board attach a stick, otherwise your arms will get tired and they’ll have some sore muscles in the morning.
- If you’re planning a candlelight vigil-type protest, encourage people to bring those battery operated candles. They’re cheap — -you can find them at the dollar store. And you don’t have to worry about catching anyone’s hair on fire or being a candle in the wind, literally.
- Encourage people to bring a bottle of water, especially if the protest is long and it’s hot out. You don’t want people getting overheated and have to call an ambulance. (Also considering letting people know what the bathroom situation is like because they’re not always available.)
- Also encourage the ladies to minimize their purses or wear something with pockets. Trust me, their shoulders will thank them.
EXPECT THE WORSE, EVEN IF YOU DON’T THINK IT’S GOING TO HAPPEN
Although I’m usually an advocate of thinking positive, this is definitely a time to imagine the worst case scenario. What if there are counter-protesters? What if the police show up and act threatening? Imagining the worst case scenario will help you plan accordingly. Of course, no amount of planning will account for every single imaginable circumstance, but it’s a worthy exercise.
Counter-protesters’ have First Amendment rights, too, so while you may not be able to shut them up or make them leave, there are a couple of things you can do. Will you ignore them completely? Will you lock arms to prevent them from coming near your speakers? Will you recruit those who brought signs to block them from view? All of these are valid options and you may want to do one or more depending on how many counter-protesters they are and how vocal they are. Most importantly, be sure to share that game plan with your people in advance so people know what to do.
Anytime there’s a protest there’s a possibility the police will show up, regardless of whether you warned them in advance. This is especially true for more public, crowded places, so be prepared and know that’s a possibility.
This should go without saying, but don’t do anything crazy that would lead to unnecessary police intervention. No smashing cars or windows, or blocking entrances to buildings, etc. Not only does it make you and your cause look bad, no matter how worthy of a cause it is, it also endangers your fellow protesters. They might become injured in the violence, or your protesters who are POC may disproportionately be targeted by intervening police since they are, statistically, targeted more often by law enforcement than white people anyway. Don’t endanger the people who’s rights you’re trying to protect.
If you see something go down, film it on your phone. Documenting the incident in video could literally be a lifesaver for the people involved. You are allowed to photograph incidents on public property, including sidewalks, government buildings, and the police (as long as you’re not interfering with law enforcement activities). The police cannot ask you to stop filming or photographing or to delete the images you capture without a warrant.
Since everyone has a camera on their phone and most people have phones, assume you are a potential photographer and learn your rights as such.
If you are arrested, don’t resist, even if you’re being wrongfully arrested. Not resisting arrest will help you get out faster, make your case look better, and lessen negative media attention on the protest. Interactions with police can be tricky, no matter how well prepared you are, so definitely know what your rights are if you encounter law enforcement, are stopped by police, and/or are questioned by law enforcement.
END WITH POWER AND PURPOSE
It’s good to have something for people to do at the end point. Perhaps have a laptop set up so protesters can sign an online petition or sign up for an email list to get more involved in the cause. Pass out fliers that say “Now what?” and has action items so they can keep fighting even after the protest has ended.
When you dismiss people at the end of the protest encourage them to use the buddy system to get back to wherever their cars are, especially if it’s late and at night. We can’t create safe spaces if we don’t make the people around us feel safe. It starts with us.
FOLLOW UP, FOLLOW UP, FOLLOW UP
I can’t say it enough because following up with people after the event really is that important.
You know all that promotional stuff you did to get the word out about your protest? Follow up with people in all those areas. Let those who couldn’t make it know how the protest went, reiterate action items for how people can continue to get involved, and tet people know if you’ll be planning more protests, organizing volunteering events, etc. Ask for feedback on the protest so you can make future ones even better. Ask people if they feel inspired to get more involved.
Bottom line, follow up with people so they don’t have that feeling of being all dressed up with nowhere to go.