Lessons from JFK Terminal 4

For new and seasoned protestors.

On Saturday I woke up, planning to spend the day relaxing and recovering from a long week of work and protests. Instead, I got word of the detentions at JFK and decided to head over. I arrived, with my friend Chris, at around 12:30pm when the crowd was small. By the time we headed home around 10pm, the crowd had grown from a few dozen to a few thousand, and had blocked all traffic to Terminal 4. This was a large, safe protest with many participants who headed to the airport without much experience at protests. Here are a few lessons and observations:

  1. Trust community groups and organizers.

No matter what issue you are protesting, there are community groups and organizers who have been working on these issues for a long time. Let them speak first; they have the expertise and the contacts to speak knowledgeably and strategically. Listen to them. If they represent communities to which you do not belong, especially if they are marginalized, recognize them as experts in how their communities are affected.

2. Affected communities to the front.

Let those who are most affected lead chants, speak, and suggest strategies. Don’t be the white guy in the Wharton MBA jacket trying to lead all the chants. Take a step back and be a follower.

3. Elected officials help.

Councilmember Menchaca provides an update, using the people’s mic.

On Saturday, early in the day US Representatives Velazquez and Nadler were at the airport, trying to secure the release of detainees. NYC City Councilmember Menchaca was a constant presence. Elected officials matter for a lot of reasons- the media will broadcast whatever they have to say, police are less likely to act aggressively when they’re around elected officials, and, rightly or wrongly, their presence lends the protests some moral authority.

Thank those who were there and took the right position- through letters, phone calls and social media shoutouts. Positive reinforcement is always a good strategy.

4. Lawyers know the law.

The lawyers were working hard on multiple fronts. They were working directly with the detainees and families at the airport, while also filing paperwork and securing the ruling from Judge Donnelly. They provided helpful updates to the protestors throughout the day, and put out calls for help from lawyers with the right bar admissions as needed. Lawyers from IRAP and Make the Road were essential, as well as those from the good old ACLU. Listen to the lawyers while protesting, and go ahead and donate to any and all of these groups when you get home.

4. Use social media and use it well.

Major media outlets love to embed certain kinds of Tweets. Some examples: witty protest signs; pictures of elected officials with direct quotes. Use hash tags to get the word out and spread the word on the hashtags that are getting the most traction.

Also, get streaming. This was my first time using Facebook Live- I had to change my settings to “public”. This allowed people to spread the word that the protests were building.

5. Numbers matter.

I firmly believe that the reason the protestors were able to close Terminal 4 through nonviolent action only was the numbers. It was simply not possible to stop this massive crowd from taking the roadways. The crowd didn’t rely on a few people risking arrest, instead the masses slowly and peacefully took the road.

6. Use your privilege.

If you are white, cis, salaried and a US citizen, you’ll likely be treated better by police than those who aren’t. Realize this and don’t assume others have these advantages. If some protestors are volunteering to be arrested, think about whether you are in a safer position than others, and act accordingly.

7. Manage your food and water intake appropriately.

Early on in the protest it was easy to come and go. Protestors could leave their signs behind and head into the terminal for food and drinks, bathrooms and phone charges. As the crowd grew, this was no longer possible. If you have to leave to use a bathroom, you may not be able to rejoin your friends. Balance your hydration and strategic dehydration with all of this in mind.

8. Dress warmly and in layers.

This is probably obvious. As early arrivals to the protest we didn’t know if we’d be inside the terminal or outside. Dress flexibly.

9. Visuals matter.

The media loves cool signs, but protestors love them too. My weary spirits were lifted by banner drops, and by the arrival of both The Illuminator and the Light Brigade.

10. Wear your affiliations on your sleeve, sign or shirt.

I was wearing a hat from my union, and I easily connected with other union members who were there. This wasn’t essential but it felt good.

11. People are kind, people like to share.

Bring some supplies to share. Among the things passed out to the crowd were pizza, cough drops (great for tired voices after hours of chanting), water, coffee, hot chocolate, hand warmers, cookies and more. People were also sharing battery packs. If you’re arriving with a later shift, bring something to share and the weary crowd will thank you.

12. Share good news

Use social media or the people’s mic. After hours in the cold and the snow, the news of the taxi strike, and later the judicial ruling, lifted everyone’s spirits.

13. When you get home, share your story.

Tell people you were there, tell them it was safe, kind and loving, and encourage them to join you next time.