In this guide, you will learn how to organise a protest or demonstration. This article for activists explains step by step how to organise an action to draw attention to your cause.
The exercise of your freedom of peaceful assembly is more than a human right fundamental to participatory democracy; it’s an impactful advocacy lane. But what if you’ve never organized a protest before?
A successful demonstration -- one that accomplishes its goals either immediately or over the long term, and that runs the way organizers envisioned -- depends upon clarity of purpose, getting people there, getting the message to those who need to hear it, and leaving a sense of success and support for the issue with your target audience, your constituents, the public, and the media.
If you consider beforehand whether a demonstration is the right vehicle for you to get your point across, plan it carefully, carry it out well, and follow up diligently, then you should be able to stage a successful public demonstration.
Whatever you are planning on doing, you should do it together with others. If you want to achieve big change, you need big numbers. Do not let this discourage you though: you can start off with a very small group. In fact, especially small groups are able to come up with creative ideas and adapt quickly to changing circumstances.
Advocacy has many lanes—donating and fundraising, voting, writing and talking about an issue, researching, reporting, and protesting. You cannot occupy every lane, and the lanes we occupy may change over time. But know this, each and every lane is as important as the next to move your issue forward.
The time may come when you want to organize people to protest around your issue. Protest is an important and effective tool to both bring increased attention to your issue and to give others an advocacy lane. Protest also has the benefit of adding individuals and resources to the other advocacy lanes around your issue.
We recognise that the exercise of your freedom of peaceful assembly is more than a human right fundamental to participatory democracy; it’s an impactful advocacy lane. But what if you’ve never organized a protest before?
This guide provides the basics of organizing your first protest and other useful tips. Following are ten suggested steps to organizing an effective protest and some suggestions for taking it to the next level. There are plenty of opinions about how to host a successful and inclusive protest so feel free to read critically and adapt these ideas freely to suit your goals.
Certain images are printed on the brains of most Americans: labor union pickets in front of a Depression-era factory, with signs demanding living wages and workers--rights; black men, women, and children marching into the teeth of police dogs and the nozzles of fire hoses in their quest for civil rights and human decency; long -haired young people in tie-dye and beads protesting the Vietnam War.
These are all examples of public demonstrations, groups of people organized to come together at a specific place and time to call attention to a specific issue. Although we often think of demonstrations as negative--against "something," they can also be positive, supporting particular politicians and their ideas, specific initiatives, or existing programs. They are usually meant to influence the way things are done, or the way people think. Whether they're aimed at politicians, bureaucrats, corporations, or the general public, they can take many forms. From large, media -covered marches, to small gatherings to buttonhole legislators in the State House, to street theater on the town common, Americans have long used public demonstrations as a way of getting their points across to those in power.
Can--and should--your organization or initiative use a public demonstration to further its cause? If it can, what do you have to do to get all the right people together in the right place at the right time? After the demonstration, what do you do to build on it?
In this section, you'll learn...
Demonstrations may be meant to serve one or more different goals, depending upon the timing of the demonstration, the issues involved, who's doing the organizing, and what else has gone before. Setting out your goal clearly is important, because it will often dictate what form the demonstration should take, at whom it should be directed, and other crucial elements. Common goals for demonstrations include...
In reality, most demonstrations serve more than one purpose. Regardless of their other goals, most organizers seek media coverage for the demonstration, for instance, in order to draw attention to their cause. Most demonstrations either advocate for and support, or protest against, something. The difference is in the emphasis, which may have a great effect on the form and timing of the demonstration.
Make sure to check out our tactics chapter for more details.
While many of us are used to thinking of demonstrations in the form of mass marches or gatherings, often with signs, there are actually several ways to shape a demonstration. Some, especially those which address very local issues, such as the use of a neighborhood empty lot, don't require huge numbers of people in order to be effective. Others don't aim directly at issues, but use humor, theater, music, or other methods to make a point. The most common forms of demonstration are...
In Massachusetts, a rally to advocate for adult literacy funding was held on the steps of the State House. Several hundred students, staff, and supporters of adult literacy programs came from around the state to watch the organizers roll out a petition with thousands of signatures of adult learners asking for funding so that they could continue their efforts to gain the skills they needed. Afterwards, students and staff broke up into senatorial districts and went inside to visit their state senators. The rally served several purposes: It demonstrated that there was a large and active constituency for adult literacy; it drew media attention; it energized people in the field; it was very effective as an advocacy activity, with many senators who had been lukewarm becoming firm supporters of adult literacy funding; and it gave learners the opportunity to practice democracy. One student of English as a Second Language remarked to a friend as he left his senator's office, "In my country, they shoot you for this."
When demonstrators act in a way they know is illegal in order either to make their point extremely strongly or to point out immorality or error in the law itself, they are engaged in civil disobedience. This strategy was used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King and their followers, for instance, to give notice that they would not tolerate laws or conditions that were so clearly morally wrong that they had to be resisted. Civil disobedience is in the best American tradition--Henry David Thoreau wrote the essay "Civil Disobedience" in the mid-19th century while in jail for refusal to pay a poll tax which he felt was unfair to the poor. But it carries with it the obligation to face the consequences of one's actions, i.e. arrest, trial, and possible punishment. Otherwise, it's simply breaking the law, and carries no moral force.
Another aspect of a demonstration that has to be considered is its tone, the character of the emotions that it is meant to produce in its participants and in those who witness or hear about it. Demonstrations can be positive or negative in tone, regardless of whether they are positive or negative in content. For instance, protest can have a positive tone if it invites the opposition to work with the demonstrators to solve a problem, for instance; on the other hand, a supportive demonstration can be negative, if it attacks the opposition for their apparently unfeeling and evil nature. An organization can try to occupy a high moral position, or it can try to look tough and combative. If it's really good, it might accomplish both, but that's difficult.
Organizers can set up a structure to maintain the tone they want. Food and entertainment can keep a crowd happy, even in nasty weather, while incendiary speeches can make it angry and potentially violent. The presence of marshals (people who don't look threatening, rather than Hell's Angels) and non-violence buttons tells demonstrators what organizers are expecting of them; so do signs referring to the opposition as less than human. Whatever their decisions, demonstration organizers must be aware of the tone they're fostering, of the effect it will have on demonstrators, and of the way the demonstration--and therefore their issue--will be viewed in the long run.
There are many different ways to accomplish the goals that can be addressed by a public demonstration. Why use that method instead of another? The answer depends upon the history of your efforts, the timing of particular events, who you want to reach, and what, specifically, you hope to accomplish. Why might your organization want to employ a public demonstration?
Example: AIDS, even after it was detected and diagnosed in the early 1980's, wasn't considered a research priority by either the government or the general public. Many people saw it as affecting "only" homosexual males and intravenous drug users. The public and lawmakers felt it didn't affect them, and felt that those it did affect were not worth worrying about. AIDS activists, through marches, demonstrations by ACT UP, the Washington exhibit of the AIDS quilt (also a kind of public demonstration), etc., changed the country's attitude toward the disease and research.
By putting a human face on the disease, these demonstrations effected a turnaround in attitudes not only toward AIDS sufferers, but toward the gay community in general. Although they took the chance that they might alienate people, AIDS activists, through demonstrations, were able to profoundly affect the course of public health policy.
So, you've decided that you have some good reasons for using a public demonstration as part of your initiative. We've already seen that timing is important. Later, we'll discuss how much time you might need to plan your demonstration: that's a major concern. But assuming that that's taken care of, when will a demonstration be most effective? If you can, it makes the most sense to schedule it to coincide with an event or time that will help draw attention to your cause, or that needs to be brought to public attention. Some possibilities include...
If your demonstration is to go smoothly and to accomplish its purpose, you'll need to organize it carefully. There are really four major bases to cover in putting together a public demonstration:
If there is a single most important piece to organizing a demonstration, it's planning it completely beforehand. The demonstration must have a coordinator and a group of organizers who work together before, during, and after the event to plan and carry it out. They need to decide what the demonstration will be like, and to anticipate potential problems and plan for them as well.
Decide what you want to accomplish. What is (are) the exact goal(s) of the demonstration? It's important to decide whether you're advocating for or supporting a position, protesting something, or planning a specific action. Your purpose will help to determine the tone and shape of the demonstration. If advocacy is your goal, the demonstration might be upbeat, singing the praises of whatever you're advocating for. If your purpose is protest, or righting a wrong, then its tone will be different. Tone is important, because what you accomplish might depend on how the demonstration is viewed. If your demonstration leans too much toward entertainment and feel-good sentiment, it may not be taken seriously. If it's frightening, people may not listen to its message.
Decide on what specific things you'd like to actually happen -- and not happen -- at the demonstration. How do people get to the space where the demonstration will be held? How easily can they leave? How do you want them to behave while they're there? Will there be some sort of action, and will it possibly lead to arrest or other confrontation with the authorities? How will you handle that? A crowd can be kept happy with food and entertainment, or angered by aggressive speechmaking: it's up to the organizers to think through what they want.
It's important to confer with the authorities beforehand about use of space, to obtain the proper permits, and to work out with police and other officials how things will be handled, so that there are no misunderstandings. Make sure that those who are likely to attend the demonstration know what to expect and what you expect of them. If people understand that violence is unacceptable, or that it's important that everyone follow a certain route, they're more likely to behave accordingly.
Decide who you're trying to reach with the demonstration's message, and who you want to attend. Contact other organizations, coalitions, etc. long before and get them to endorse (and attend) the demonstration. The time, place, and program should be geared to the desired audience.
Plan your program. What you're actually going to do at the demonstration also depends upon what you want to accomplish and who your audience is. There needs to be a clear structure for what will happen, and everything in the program should be geared directly to the desired results of the demonstration. Block out the schedule to the minute, and let participants know well beforehand how long they have in the program.
Some possibilities for programs or program elements:
Decide where the demonstration will be. Your decision will depend on timing, on how large a space you need (How many people do you expect or hope for?), on whether your demonstration is a reaction to something specific in a specific place, and on who you want to reach with your message. However, there are some important general questions you need to answer in choosing a place. Is it available for the time you need it? Do you need, and can you get, a permit to use it? Will it cost you anything, and can you afford it? Is it accessible to those with disabilities? The answers to these questions will help you determine where to hold the demonstration.
Decide on a specific day, date and time. Sometimes, the day, date, and time are determined for you: a counter-demonstration, for example, will happen at the same time as the demonstration it is meant to counter; a particular vote in the legislature will take place on a particular day. But in general, these elements are determined by three things:
Decide on how you'll get people to come. To some extent, this depends on how much time and money you have to publicize the event, and how many people you want to attract. You have to reach people through methods they'll pay attention to, in language they're comfortable with. If possible, it's best to get the message out many times in different ways, and to reach as many people as possible personally. Methods might include flyers, posters, phone calls, mailings, ads in newspapers and local church and organizational newsletters, public service announcements on local radio and TV, announcements in churches, clubs, and agencies, etc.
Work out the logistics. Logistics are the nuts and bolts of any event, the who and how and when of what gets done. Each demonstration presents its own logistical questions, but some important ones are:
Try to think of every possible thing that can go wrong that you haven't already addressed, and figure out what to do about it. Where are you going to get toilets if the ones you ordered aren't delivered? What if there's a counter-demonstration? What if only a few people show up? What if the media doesn't show, or leaves too soon? Anything you can anticipate and plan for is another crisis you don't have to worry about: you'll know what to do.
As you begin to organize your protest, the more like-minded friends and community members you have at your side, the better! Reach out and ask if they want to help you organize. If your protest issue does not directly impact you, be sure that you are intentionally building relationships with those in your community who are, centering their voices and experiences, and listening to their guidance. It is best if you can co-create your team and action together. Lastly, seek out local or regional organizations who work on your issue and invite them to organize with you. (You may also learn a thing or two from them!)
Ask yourselves what you are trying to achieve through this advocacy lane. Are you trying to build awareness? Do you aim to build a larger coalition to continue work on your issue? Are you trying to be seen and heard by an elected official or influential figure? Be clear with yourself and others about the objectives behind your actions. This will help you develop the best strategy, and later reflect on elements that can be improved.
With your goals in mind, try to imagine the most effective protest to achieve those goals and focus on making that protest happen. Ask yourselves: when and where will you hold the protest and why? What type of protest is required to achieve your goal? The most common modes of protest are marches and rallies. But protests can take many forms: sit-ins, walk-outs, vigils, and more sophisticated efforts like encampments and choreographed or theatrical expressions.
Learn more about this in our strategies chapter.
Learn what local authorities require for public demonstrations in your community. You can often find specific permit requirements and guidelines on your local government’s website or by calling your town hall. Do you need a permit and what are its requirements? Are there restrictions such as amplified sound restrictions or fines for littering? When talking to the authorities, don’t shy from being clear about your needs, for example, to clear a road of traffic or provide a portable toilet.
You be the judge if you should adhere to the terms of the local requirements; violating those terms could invite confrontation, which your invitees may not be interested in or prepared for at all. Make it clear to the authorities, and your supporters, that safety is a priority. Ask the authorities to maintain contact with your group during the protest, and tell them how to do so.
Assuming your objective is to have the largest turnout possible, you will reach more people by diversifying your outreach. You may want a versatile graphic to draw people’s eyes to your invitations. Get the word out through every social media channel that will reach your intended audience. (One of the benefits of working with an established group is they can broaden your social media reach.) Put up posters where people can see them like public bulletin boards and lamp posts. Ask shops if you can put posters up in their windows. But nothing beats face-to-face outreach. Time permitting, visiting neighbors and personally inviting them with fliers in hand is a highly effective way of growing a protest.
Invite local television stations, newspapers, radio stations, and bloggers to your protest. Tell them what’s special about your protest and give them the most precise information about the protest you can. Encourage your invitees to post videos and photos to social media and give them a hashtag.
Every stage of protest planning is an opportunity to build solidarity and community. Keep an intentional lens on inclusion and intersection. Invite a wider circle of friends over for planning meetings. Sign-making parties are a great way to build relationships in advance of your protest.
You don’t want your invitees or spoilers to ruin your plans by damaging property or starting fights. Designate peace marshals within your team. A peace marshal’s job is to keep an eye out for anyone who is creating risks for your protests such as provoking police, vandalizing, etc. If tension rises, your peace marshals will step in and deescalate. You may also want to invite your local Lawyers Guild or other independent observers if you are concerned about keeping the peace or the police response.
If your local police tend toward clearing protests quickly or even violence, you will want to share tips about self-protection against, for example, tear gas or pepper spray. If you are expecting extreme hot or cold weather, provide suggestions for staying safe. During the protest, everyone’s safety should be your number one priority. Ask folks how they’re feeling.
Leaving a mess is not a good look for your team or your cause. Make sure people know your expectations up front about discarding signs and literature. Set an example by picking up litter from your group. When you see someone littering, point them to the nearest garbage can. You want to learn from your experiences so you do an even better job organizing your next protest. After your team has had some time to reflect (but not too long after your protest) get your organizing team together to discuss how the protest went. Review how you did with each of the ten steps. Document the conversation for the next time you plan a protest. And finally, be proud of what you have accomplished; you organized your first protest.
Protest is, in its own way, storytelling. We use our bodies, our words, our art, and our sounds both to tell the truth about the pain that we endure and to demand the justice that we know is possible. It is meant to build and to force a response. – DeRay Mckesson, Civil rights activist
If possible, it is best to allow more than enough time in planning a demonstration to handle all the details and pull everything together. Celebrities or public figures of any kind generally are booked far ahead, and unless (or even if) this is their pet project, they're not going to show up without adequate advance knowledge (at least several months, not several weeks). Sometimes acquiring, or even finding, a space to use can take longer than you'd think possible. Planning how to handle large numbers of people is difficult, and carrying out your planning is even more so (the sound system you need may not be available from the first or second company you talk to; and what do you do when it doesn't appear on the agreed-upon day?)
It's vital to build extra time into your planning if you can. More than enough lead time is usually measured in months, and there's no such thing as too much.
Sometimes, however, a demonstration has to be planned in days, or even hours. The key to planning something successful under any circumstances is to be honest with yourself. What can you really do effectively in the time you have? Don't overreach, and there's a good chance you'll end up with a demonstration that may be modest, but accomplishes your goals. Aim for the moon without adequate time to get there, and you're likely to miss entirely.
Also make sure to check out our chapter on communication for more details.
Design an effective general communication system. The most important thing you can do when you begin planning a demonstration is, if you don't already have one, to set up an efficient and usable communication system. This system should be available not only for demonstrations and emergencies, but for general use as well among people directly involved in and connected to your issue.
Systems like this prove their worth when there is a need to quickly sway the opinion of legislators. One person, emailing or calling a number of organizations, can, in a matter of hours, generate hundreds, or even thousands, of phone calls and letters to government offices. Fifty letters or calls on an issue is generally considered a large number by legislative staffs. If they get hundreds, that's a groundswell; a thousand or more is a landslide.
The ideal communication system has an individual or small committee as a central coordinator. In the best of all possible worlds, the coordinator would use email, which can reach large numbers of people with a single transmission, for fast and efficient communication. If email isn't available to everyone in the loop, the next best possibility is a phone tree that the coordinator can activate by calling a small number of reliable individuals who then call a number of others who then call others, until everyone on the list has gotten the message. These systems aren't perfect, but they greatly increase the chances that you'll be able to quickly reach everyone you need to. The coordinator should also maintain an up-to-date, computer -based if possible, mailing list from which to do mailings of general interest or importance.
Develop a plan for publicizing the demonstration. The coordinator would be the point person in informing supporters, the desired audience, and the public about the demonstration. Depending upon whom you were trying to reach, the coordinator could make up and assign the distribution of flyers; send out one or more large mailings from the computer list of supporters and relevant organizations; prepare and distribute press releases, news stories, and/or print, radio, and TV ads; post to an email list; activate the phone tree; and facilitate anything else necessary to get the word out. The coordinator doesn't have to do everything himself; but it's important that there be one place where the publicity and communication buck stops.
Orchestrate media coverage of the event. Again, one person--probably either the communications coordinator or an organizer of the demonstration--should oversee media coverage. One good way to guarantee accurate coverage before the event is to write your own stories about it, either as press releases, or, if you have a good relationship with media representatives, in some other form.
If you haven't already done so, you should begin to cultivate a long-term relationship with the media, so that when you need them--as you do now--they'll respond. Be generous with your time and information when they ask for it, and volunteer information when you can. Position yourself as the "expert" on your particular issue, so that you're the person they'll turn to when they want information about it. Try to establish personal relationships with reporters from different media; they're more likely to be sympathetic to your cause if they know your organization and have some direct contact with the issue.
Make sure that reporters and media outlets know exactly when and where the demonstration will be, and what they're likely to find there. Make organizers, speakers, celebrities, members of the target population, etc. available for comment before, during, and after the event. Think about photo and TV opportunities: if you want pictures or TV coverage, the demonstration has to provide the visual images. Try to make it as easy as possible for media representatives to do their jobs: find them places from which they can see, hear, film, etc. easily; assign a person (perhaps the same person who has coordinated media coverage) to take care of their needs; introduce them to the appropriate people; help them get around. If you want good coverage, then it's up to you to make the event as media-friendly as possible.
Ensure good communication before, during, and after the demonstration. It is vital that organizers be able to communicate with one another, with program participants, and with the crowd while the event is forming, going on, and winding down, especially if it's being held in a large outdoor area. Explaining changes in program, relaying instructions about traffic flow or trash pickup, and contacting individuals in emergencies are only some of the reasons why good communication is essential. Organizers and other key individuals should have cell phones, pagers, or some other means of quick communication with them. It might also make sense, depending on the situation, to appoint a group of "runners," people who can carry messages and run errands while the event is going on. Good communication could mean the difference between a successful demonstration and a disaster.
Immediate follow-up: Your job isn't done when the demonstration is over. There's making sure the demonstration breaks up in an orderly way, that everything's cleaned up, that people are able to get home. There may be other events scheduled right after the demonstration (visiting legislators, signing up for immunizations, etc.) It might be important to make sure that media representatives get to talk to celebrity participants, members of the target population, and/or demonstration organizers. And there may be organizational or legal issues -- paying suppliers or government permit offices, for instance -- that have to be taken care of before you can call it a day.
Long-term follow-up: The demonstration itself is only a first step toward something. If you don't continue the work you've started, you might as well not have bothered. First, it's important to go over the demonstration with organizers and others who were involved, to assess how things went, and to evaluate the event as a whole. Questions that need to be answered include...
It's important to remember that a demonstration is usually only one piece of a larger effort to publicize and/or affect policy on your issue. The law might not change right away; the service might not become available instantly. A successful demonstration may not immediately show obvious results, but it may help to build a foundation for what will happen later. If it runs smoothly and seems to have strong public support, then your organization might be seen as a force that the powers that be need to deal with. You might find yourself invited to meetings you couldn't get into before, and asked for advice by policy makers who formerly ignored you. That's success, too. You may need to wait a while before you can determine exactly how successful your demonstration was.
The next step in long-term follow-up is to build on the success and momentum of the demonstration. There are a number of possible ways to do this:
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