Come gather ‘round, children. Today we’re going to talk about how to organize a protest. Much has changed since my time. We didn’t have the Internet to bring people together. It was sheer caffeine-fueled determination, a stack of fliers, and a staple gun. We persevered, though, and our protests were huge. Half the time they got out of hand, and something ended up on fire. Horse-mounted cops came. So turn off your smartphone and snuggle up. Here are a few tips for assembling a critical mass.
Know the Laws
The freedom to assemble is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. States, cities, and all other municipalities are required to obey the rights set forth. However, some places in the U.S. have ancient ordinances that obfuscate unsanctioned public demonstrations, and can land you and your fellow protesters in jail on a technicality. For example, a Chicago law states that a group of people is prohibited from standing still in one place for more than a certain amount of time. Participants in the 2008 Anonymous protest against the Church of Scientology subverted this by circumambulating the North Lincoln Avenue building. They also took to doing the Hokey Pokey on the Reading Room’s front steps.
Corvallis’ are less arcane, so you won’t have to get as creative. However, do keep a few rules, quoted directly from the City of Corvallis website, in mind:
1) No person or group of persons shall, except as authorized by the City Manager or otherwise permitted by law, prevent, impede, or obstruct, cause to be prevented, impeded, or obstructed, or assist in preventing, impeding, or obstructing pedestrian or vehicular traffic on any public way.
2) No person or persons in violation of this Section shall fail or refuse to disperse when lawfully ordered to do so by any police officer.
3) No person shall use any device to amplify sound in any park unless a valid permit has been issued by the City Manager.
In English, that means don’t block traffic, listen to the nice officer when he tells you to bugger off, and don’t use a bullhorn or microphone without a permit. Also, don’t smoke in public parks. We know you’re a rebel and all, but that’s a lame way to go.
Define Your Message
The saddest aspect of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest was their lack of a coherent message. One camp wanted animal rights. Another camp wanted to end income disparity. Yet another wanted student loans to be forgiven. Others wanted peace in the Middle East and an end to police brutality. The rest of us had no clue what they wanted, except “Down with all that!” and something about the 99 percent. The whole thing eventually drove me to whiskey out of boredom.
No one can support you if they don’t know what you’re about, so don’t fall prey to ambiguity. Is the protest a call to action? Or are you just bringing attention to injustice? Use the advice of successful ad agencies against the machine: You have five seconds to capture someone’s attention, and 10 seconds to hold it. Your slogan should encapsulate everything the protest is about in five words max. A great local example—“Boycott the ‘Cock”—was employed by an Albany trans woman to incite the public to stay away from Corvallis’ Peacock Bar & Grill until its bathroom policies were changed. It was a crisp directive with enough naughty innuendo that the audience immediately understood what to do, and wanted more information. Plus, participants got to shout “cock” in the street, which is always a hoot.
Speaking of those devil ad men, you need to promote your protest properly. The Internet is a quagmire of social justice warriors these days, and it’s a shame when good causes drown in the muck. Most folks under the age of 40 are pretty web savvy, but a fully integrated campaign can do wonders. Here are a few pointers I learned from my days as a freelance social media hack.
Hit up all the sites: If you do a Facebook page, make sure you link it to a Twitter account that links to a WordPress blog that links to your Google+ that links to… that links to… etc. You’ve got your catchy slogan, so hang it out there. Include pictures. People love pictures.
SEO: That stands for “search engine optimization.” Hashtags are one way of doing it, but those only work on Twitter and Facebook. Another way is to tag blog posts with key words. Again, use your catchy slogan. Also include location (Corvallis), your cause (pay for Advocate writers), and similar national causes (contractor rights). Avoid obscure or overly general search terms like “ugh, so pissed off” and “within 30 days of invoice.”
Keep it concise: If you do a blog or some other venue that allows more than 150 characters, dispatch romantic notions of great revolutionary prose. Citizens of the 21st century will not support you if you post yet another rambling, Manson-esque manifesto online. They’ll read a few lines, and go back to Candy Crush Saga. Use spell check. Have a friend look at it. If your mom can’t figure out what you’re protesting, then go back to the drawing board.
Be consistent: Use the same keywords and hashtags until the protest is over or you get bored with your cause. You’re creating what marketers call a “brand.” People should say “Oh, yeah. The Pay for Advocate Writers group with that awesome slogan/mascot. I’m totally going to that protest. Have you met the organizer? She’s smoking hot.”
Look, just because your parents have smartphones doesn’t mean that they’re jacked in to Life2.0. A significant portion of the population lives IRL. You need to do outreach to that group, too. Contact local news outlets about your protest. Make a flyer at Kinko’s and paste that sh** all over town and campus. Tell every single person you encounter every day, even the Fred Meyer cashier. Just don’t forget pertinent details like where and when.
I’ve always felt bad for people who have birthdays near or on Christmas. They get overlooked for Jesus, and everyone gets presents that day instead of just them. In the same vein, don’t schedule your protest when you know darn well that something else is going on. No one will come.
Sometimes it can’t be avoided. For instance, a protest against legislation is best held in front of an appropriate government office. Your highest chance for maximum impact is on a weekday between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m., when employees are there. Unfortunately, this is also when most folks are at work. Critical mass is justly sacrificed for the chance of being heard in this case.
Large events and festivals can, however, be a boon for attendance if philosophically aligned with your protest. People are already in the spirit. Just don’t make the mistake of scheduling your gig while the event is still going on. Imagine throwing a party for yourself on the same day as one of your close friends. Sure, some people can hit up both till the break of dawn, but you’re forcing most of them to choose. Unless your protest is offering cash prizes, free pizza, and an Elton John appearance, time yours to start no more than an hour after the other event ends.
So you’ve spread the word around, and have a mile-long list of confirmed attendance for the big day. Everyone knows where to go and what time to show up. You should expect to lose some guests to emergencies, hangovers, or lack of motivation. Don’t let that get you down. If you’ve timed it right, you should have at least 10 people—the unofficial number to constitute a mob.
Once everyone arrives, it will be your job to inform protestors of local regulations for public assembly, hand out supplies to make signs, and emphasize that your demonstration is peaceful by all means necessary. That means no spitting, no throwing stuff, and no destruction of public property. If opposition arrives, do not engage them directly. If the police arrive, do not provoke them or give them any reason to detain you. Take a cue from civil rights protests in the 60s if violence occurs. Turn the other cheek. Keep your head up.