How to Organize an Effective, Safe, and Peaceful Protest

NoBanNoWallSF
Feb 20, 2017 · 10 min read

On Saturday, February 4, four people — none with much grassroots organizing experience — held a peaceful protest attended by over 10,000 people in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza.

We planned our protest in less than a week, brought together a group of dynamic speakers, and worked with dozens of awesome volunteers. The rally surpassed our expectations, mobilizing thousands, showcasing the valuable efforts of grassroots organizations throughout the Bay Area and beyond, and reaching local, national, and global news networks.

Why would we dive into something like this without much experience? Upon hearing about President Trump’s executive orders on immigration, we knew we had to do something. We searched for a protest or march in San Francisco but couldn’t find anything specifically focused on protesting the Muslim Ban and Border Wall. Something had to be done. We thought, if not us, then who?

After organizing a successful and peaceful protest, we thought it would be valuable to create a how-to guide for future grassroots organizers. Organizing can be incredibly challenging, but if you’re dedicated to the cause, you’ll get through it — and it’s always worth it. We hope you find this guide helpful and if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact us. Best of luck in the resistance!

Form a Rockstar Organizing Base

Create a Facebook group: Know people interested in your cause? Form a Facebook group and add any person you think might be interested/able to help. Facebook Groups are great because whoever you add will automatically begin receiving notifications when you post. Make calls to action to your friends. This group will be a resource throughout the planning process. Count on the help of your friends. Their people are your base.

Communicate with your team: Speaking in person or on the phone can really help with splitting tasks and taking the burden off one person. Speaking with each other also gives you the opportunity to brainstorm. Communicate with your team regularly and make sure all perspectives are weighted when creating your target message.

Assign tasks: No one person can do it on their own. Create a master list of everything you need to get done for your event. Delegate tasks from that list to your fellow organizers and let them own the task. Check back in with them regularly to make sure you’re making progress but make sure not to micromanage. Your friends are your greatest resource. Have a friend who’s a graphic designer? Get them to make your event logo. Know someone who’s planned an event before? Get their help to find a staging company. Rely on your network to cut corners on a budget.

Pick Your Location

Decide what type of event you want to have: Holding a permitted march in San Francisco requires 15 days of advance permits. Since our event was happening in less than a week, we knew we couldn’t do that so we held a rally in a single central location instead. Make sure to speak with your local government about policies regarding rallies, protests, and marches. This will help you narrow down the type of event you can hold.

Location is key: In order to get people to your event, it needs to be easily accessible by public and private transportation. Make sure your event is ADA accessible and has appropriate fire exits. It is also key to hold your event at a central location within your city so anyone who may not have known about your event, but happens to be walking by, can jump in and join the resistance.

Permits

Location Permit: Make sure you have ample time to get a permit for your event. Since this kind of an event is a First Amendment right, most cities will expedite the process to meet First Amendment needs. Once you decide to hold a protest, reach out to the City Parks and Recreation Department as soon as possible to get started with the processes. Most permit applications will require you to fill out a fairly simple form with the location of your choice and the number of expected attendees as well as any ADA compliances that you will have.

Sound Permit: Let the city know what you’re planning for your A/V. Depending on the location, you may or may not be allowed to have certain types of amplified sound.

Security

To keep your event peaceful, you need to have a security team. To ensure our protest was fully protected and permitted by the city and we decided to have a police presence the day of. We spoke with the Police Sergeant the city connected us to early in the week before our protest and discussed a plan for the day. We also had a group of security volunteers to help with crowd control, keep sidewalks and roads clear, and help resolve issues before police needed to get involved. We understand that not all groups will be comfortable with a police presence and we leave that to each group of organizers to decide how they would like to handle this.

Miscellaneous

Park Rangers and Portable Toilets: Depending on the location of the event and number of expected attendees, the city may require park rangers present as well as portable toilets on location. Since our organizing team comprised of a group of individuals versus an established organization, the city waived park ranger fees as long as we had portable toilets present.

Photography and video coverage: Having high-quality photography and video for your event is vital. Remember that the biggest audience for your event may not be in person — it will be the people who see your event online, via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and the mainstream media. Competent photographers and videographers are more widely available to help with events than you think; post and invite people to help, and you will probably find someone. It’s important to capture short clips or key speeches, and to share them quickly afterwards with speakers — they will want to push these out through their networks and will probably deliver the biggest reach for you event. Posting these will also invite the media to embed them in any local media coverage; hosting via Facebook is best, and will ensure the largest online reach. 1–2 minute long clips work best, unless it’s a really good speech! Also, have your video person plug in directly to the sound system if possible — the audio quality will be much stronger, given the likely crowd noise at your event.

Crowdfunding: Depending on the size of your protest, you may need to spend some money on materials, equipment, etc. Don’t let that get in the way of your vision! Our vision was to create a space for affected communities to share their stories. We thought that this meant an intimate gathering of 50–100 people gathered around in a circle. As soon as our numbers went to the thousands, we knew that what would work for 50 people would not work for thousands. We needed a sound system, we needed a stage. The city told us we needed port-a-potties, park rangers. These things are not cheap and we didn’t have the money to cover it ourselves, so we did what one can do in this amazing, digital age of ours. We created a tilt crowdfunding event with the goal of raising $10,000 and a promise to donate all leftover funds to causes that helped those affected by the executive orders — The International Rescue Committee (IRC) and The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Once you create the crowdfunding page, share it on your event page, message your friends individually — if they aren’t able to contribute financially, ask if they can spread the word and share your crowdfunding page with their friends and communities.

Signs and placards: An integral part of any protest is the use of creative signs and posters to transmit your message. Inviting your followers and organizers to sign making sessions in advance is a good way to connect people before the event and generate enthusiasm. If you live a larger metropolis, make sure to set up sign making sessions around different parts of town. For those who don’t have the time to make a placard, you can also share poster designs in your Facebook group so people can download and print.

Press Release/Media Outreach: Once you have the permits for your event and some high profile speakers, you are ready to put together a press release. The press release will include information on the logistics of the event, the type of protest, and names of a few of the speakers; include a quote attributed to a specific organizer, for ease of media pickup. Be sure to include contact information for a Media Contact. This person will be in charge of any/all media inquiries and can direct them to the organizers for interviews the day of the event. Once you have a press release set, send it to the media. The easiest way to make a media mailing list is to Google the newsroom contact address for all the local radio, TV and online media outlets; you can also search to see which reporters have covered similar local events in the past, and reach out to them by email or Twitter. Remember not to send your press release too early; a couple of days in advance is fine.

People Coordination

Speakers: If you’re creating a demonstration, you’ll likely run into one of two problems. Either you are searching through your address book to find potential speakers or you’re sifting through countless messages from potential speakers.

For us, it was the latter. How did we manage this? We created two groups of speakers — one composed of recognized community leaders who we knew would bring supporters, and another group of local immigrants who wanted to share their stories. For local speakers, we used a Google form to gather speaker information, background, topic, etc. To create a diverse, inclusive speaker list, we chose speakers from a variety of backgrounds. After making a rough outline of our speakers, we sent out emails verifying interest, setting time allotments, and providing information on when and where to meet. An integral part of coordinating speakers is being flexible. On the day of your event, make sure you can adjust your schedule of speakers for last minute changes. Like all things, make sure to express your continued gratitude after the event and ask their opinion on what they would have liked differently.

Volunteer Coordination: This is the essential base of your day-of support. Volunteers make all the magic happen. First, reach out to people you can trust, and make them volunteer coordinators. They will make sure to keep up communication with your volunteers and ensure they are in the right place at the right time. When trying to recruit volunteers, send out an online form to your community and see how many people are interested. If individuals expressed interest, we sent them detailed emails explaining what they would be doing, how long we would like them to stay, where to meet us, and the types of tasks they may be doing. The day of, make sure to have a training before your volunteers begin. It is vital to train them on de-escalating situations, the do’s and don’ts of using police force, and the importance of their actions as proxies of our movement.

Something to note — not all volunteers will actually volunteer. Although most people are amazing, some folk will drop out to due to a myriad of reasons. It is always better to overestimate than to be short support.

Equipment

A/V Sound: If your crowd size is large like ours was, it’s critical to have powerful A/V that can be heard by all your attendees. The strength of our A/V equipment required a 25KW generator; a 15–25KW generator will generally be needed for anything reaching a crowd in the thousands. It’s critical to get the A/V figured out as soon as possible — it can be difficult to get your hands on a generator without advance notice.

Staging: This is another area where it’s important to see what the City permits. The city of San Francisco was adamant about using a maximum of a 3 ft. platform for our stage. Anything over that would require additional ADA requirements, something we didn’t have the time or resources to secure. In addition to a stage, it’s nice to have a podium where speakers can rest their notes on while they talk. You may also want to get barricades to prevent the stage from being rushed.

Staying committed to your cause and staying on topic

To be effective, it is critical that your protest has a central focus. Pick one or two related causes and stick to that. Make sure that anyone who joins your cause is aware of the scope of your protest — for example, immigration issues only. It is great to join coalitions with other groups and organizations, but it’s important that everyone on board shares a common vision. Being inclusive and intersectional is valuable, and there are many worthy causes to protest, but if you don’t have a clear focus then your point may be lost.

Lastly, we know organizing is hard. It can be daunting and overwhelming especially when you and your fellow organizers have full-time jobs, school or other commitments. There will never be enough time to plan. But if you’re committed to the cause and movement that comes out of it, you will be successful. Your cause is your greatest motivation. If you catch yourself slipping, try your best to give yourself breaks to watch your favorite show or think about how amazing you’ll feel when you’re surrounded with people who care as much as you do. Remind yourself what you’re doing this for — a chance to stand up for a positive message and agenda, and to inspire and support others to take action in many different ways.

We wish you the best of luck. Please contact us with any questions you may have.

Peace and Solidarity,

Arya, Camilia, Dex, & Kayla (Organizers of NoBanNoWallSF)

NoBanNoWallSF

Written by

the people united will never be defeated

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade