*Editor’s Note: Based on feedback, we adjusted the title to more accurately reflect the content of this piece which is specifically about street protesting, following the street protests after the 2016 election results.
In the wake of the election results, we have been following, and in some cases participating, in the recent protests against the President-Elect. In chatting about our experiences with one another as we shared tips and information, it dawned on us that it would be helpful to create a WWAC guide for street protesting for beginners. If you are an experienced protester yourself, please share your own tips in the comments section.
Have you participated in a protest before? What prompted you to?
Marissa Louise: I participated in protests in the ’90s and early ’00s. I protested a lot of different things and thought protests brought visibility to issues.
Romona Williams: I’ve been to a handful of protests. I wish I had been to more. I went to protests to let it all out; to demonstrate and express my views in a way that other people would hear. I would take it up a notch if the person I was protesting would actually be present.
Brenda Noiseux: Yes, only a few and more recently as I’ve gotten older. Just last year, I organized my first event–a show of support for our local Planned Parenthood the day a large pro-life group was planning a protest. This happened after our state’s executive council voted to defund its Planned Parenthood contract due to the misleading videos released last year.
Ginnis Tonik: Yes, I was in Chicago during the protests following Trump’s election. I have also protested for reproductive rights. These issues are important to me, of course, and seeing people protest about an issue I care about inspires me. It makes me feel less alone, so in joining them, I hope I can inspire others similarly. In Chicago, they were walking by, and I just joined in.
How did it feel doing your first protest and what would you say to newbies who want to get involved, but are concerned/anxious/scared?
Marissa: I was too young and stupid to be scared, but also back then it wasn’t as common for police to harm people. I trusted that the police wouldn’t harm protesters. If you want to protest you should! It is one of the many tools in the activist’s kit. It is important to remember it is only one tool, though, so don’t feel guilty if it’s not a tool you can use right now.
Romona: I went to my first protest expecting to be respected by the other protestors. I was a teenager and had no solid concept of boundary violations. I still felt like a kid, and if an adult corrected me I assumed they were in the right and I was in the wrong. My friends and I brought signs, and one of my friends began to add a more extreme message to hers. I began to add to my sign as well. An adult woman was watching us, and when she saw what I wrote she said “I don’t think so” then took my sign away, bent it up, and threw it out. I was flustered and embarrassed. I felt like I had been caught doing something wrong, but in retrospect that adult woman was clearly in the wrong. My advice to anyone going to their first protest is don’t let others police your message. Your ideas do not have to pass a litmus test before they go on a sign.
Brenda: Every time I go, I do get a little nervous. I’m always hopeful no harm will happen, and nothing has happened so far, but there’s no guarantee. For newbies who want to get involved, woohoo! Actively getting involved is amazing! You’ll meet interesting people and find other ways to get involved. Pick the event that’s right for you. For me, I look at the info for the event to see if they’ve got the bases covered. Do they have the needed permits? Are they working with the police? Do they have an organized message, etc.?
Ginnis: I have been very nervous doing protests in the past, but it felt great doing the Trump protest!
What do you think are the essential items/preparations one needs for a protest?
Marissa: There is a lot to prepare for with a protest. It is important you stay calm and sober. Bring a bottle of water and a bottle of milk. Write in sharpie on your arm an emergency contact, your phone number, a local NP lawyer or defense lawyer you can trust. Your community can give you contacts for the lawyer. Do not wear contacts, and if you wear glasses, secure them with a string. Wear long sleeves and long pants. Bring a handkerchief, but do not hide your face. Wet it to prevent tear gas. If you do bring a gas mask, be aware that it is seen as a hostile act. You do have a right to photograph the police. You do have a right to know their badge number. If their faces and badge numbers are covered, they will not easily give up this information. Bring money for the bus and for phone calls. Separate your money into different hidden pockets. (Click here for information on protecting yourself from gases, and here for a link on preparedness from Amnesty International.)
Be prepared with knowledge of your rights, but be careful in how you fight back. Any hostility towards the police will be returned. Listen to the elders in your community. Listen to the minorities in your community. If this is your first protest follow the lead of the respected members of your protest community. Stop anarchists whenever possible. The damage anarchists do is taken out and reciprocated upon innocent communities. Communicate all plans over a whisper system. If you have not installed a whisper system do so. Understand that your phone will be taken away and searched. Most importantly protect your fellow protesters, and bring extra of what you can.
Brenda: First and foremost, know your rights. That covers both the actions you need to follow as a peaceful protester and what happens if you’re involved in an incident. The ACLU has a great Q&A on this topic. Dress for the weather, since events usually last several hours; bring sunscreen if it’s sunny and gloves if it’s chilly. You know the drill. Also, essential on my list is a sign! I love bringing a sign to add my own voice. When making signs, remember that you’ll be holding your sign for several hours. Also, you’ll need to get your sign to and from the event. If you’re taking the subway, you might want to use poster board rather than foam-core since it will roll up nicely.
What about things one can do for one’s mental health/self-care for a protest?
Romona: Go with a group of friends or at least familiar acquaintances.
Brenda: I second Romona. Go with someone you know and trust. Protests are emotionally charged, both at the event and how it affects you personally. Allow yourself some emotional downtime post-event in case you need it.
Why protest? Right now or anytime?
Romona: It’s a method to embody your message. There are several effective ways to lobby for change, but this particular approach has you physically out there, adding your presence and your particular message to a mobilized crowd. You can connect with each other and draw power from that solidarity, while knowing that you are being seen and heard. You can engage with people observing the protest, as well as with those reacting against it. It is a powerful means to engage beyond your usual social circle.
Brenda: In a lot of ways, the rules haven’t changed. Politicians are still expecting letters and phone calls on issues that are important to their voting constituents. The soft actions of online petitions, emails, and tweets aren’t always taken as seriously as they should. When you protest, you are actively showing up and saying “I’m here, you can see me, and my voice matters.” And if you’re willing to do that, chances are you’re also willing to vote. And that makes politicians take notice.