The Modern Survival Guide #26
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone, and definitely not government-sponsored. But if they were, and you really didn’t like them, then I think you should read this article, because this time around I’m talking about protests!
You have a right to peacefully protest the government. It’s literally right there in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution: Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
I thought I’d get that out of the way early, since there’s a fairly large segment of American society who always think that protesting is hippie commie bullcrap, and real Americans just drink beer and sulk or something. These people are wrong.
You have the right, nay, the duty to protest if you feel that your government is not acting correctly. Otherwise… how are they gonna know? There’s something really visceral about 500,000 people standing on the Washington Mall that cannot be captured in opinion polls or news articles. That stuff might be fabricated after all, in this modern age of fake news, but a crowd of people is a crowd of people.
A crowd of extremely upset people is yet another thing entirely. Opinion polls are sterile things, but a screaming protester is a loud, angry, borderline dangerous primate, and that’s a very effective way to gain attention. Never underestimate the value of communicating your emotions in a debate, and never underestimate the value of chanting loudly to attract cameras. Angry protesters are doing their job correctly — if they were happy they wouldn’t be protesting, right?
So let’s accept for a moment that protesting is a valid, patriotic, and effective form of transmitting your opinion to your government. With that in mind, when should you protest, and how should you protest?
WE LIKE PROTESTS, YES WE DO! WHY SHOULD I PROTEST, AND WHY SHOULD YOU?
To my mind there are a few times when you are obliged — not encouraged, but obliged — to protest. These are:
- When your opinions are not being captured in the national dialogue
- When a great injustice has been perpetrated against you without due compensation
- When your representatives are not paying attention
- When your livelihood is at stake
- When your freedoms are at stake
This is not an exhaustive list; these are just the things that I think of when I think of the need for protests.
What does it mean to say your opinions are not being captured in the national dialogue?
Quite simply, it means that the news isn’t covering your problem. There is something going on that you don’t like, and it isn’t getting any attention for whatever reason. This should make you angry.¹
In this situation, it is unreasonable to assume that your issue will gain attention without an outside force drawing attention to it — because if it could have, it would have already. Therefore in order for the issue to gain prominence, you must do something to draw attention to it, and news cameras love protests.
What does it mean to say that a great injustice has been perpetrated against you without compensation?
Quite simply, this means that you have been harmed — monetarily, physically, or emotionally — without an inciting cause, and no one has paid you for it. That is to say, you did nothing to bring this harm on yourself, it was damaging to you, and nothing has happened to balance the scales. This should make you angry.
The civil rights movement is the quintessential case here. An entire race of people who were relegated to second-class citizens for morally repugnant reasons, and who had no legal recourse — what else could they do but protest?
What does it mean to say that your representatives are not paying attention?
Quite simply, we live in a representative democracy, and the deal is that you vote for people who will represent your problems and wishes on the national scene. If they aren’t doing that, there’s a problem with the way democracy is working, and something needs to be done about that. This should make you angry.
The most immediately obvious thing to do is voice your displeasure. And the best way to get your representative’s definite attention is to protest whatever thing it is that they’re doing that doesn’t align to your interests. Congressmen hate seeing their constituents wandering around mad at them and holding placards; it looks bad for them on TV.
What does it mean to say that your livelihood is at stake?
Quite simply, this means that something is happening in the larger political or economic scene that is putting your economic security at risk. This should make you angry. In this sense, “economic security” means your ability to reliably support yourself and (if applicable) your family without reliance on outside support.
Moreover, this has to be something that your elected representatives can affect — if it’s just economics, then you’re screwed. But if, for example, an elected representative is pushing steel tariffs and that would kill your business model… well, that’s something that you can protest and have some expectation that a political change could solve the problem.
What does it mean to say your freedoms are at stake?
Quite simply, this means that core aspects of your rights or privileges are under attack, or that you are demanding new freedoms.
Remember, “freedom” just means stuff that you’re allowed to do — it is not confined to the Bill of Rights. “Attack” in this instance indicates that someone is trying to take away a freedom that you value. If you aren’t defending it, you obviously don’t value it, so who cares. But if it’s something you value, you are almost obligated to protest in its defense.
Similarly, if you believe that you deserve a freedom that is being denied to you, you are almost obligated to protest in support of that freedom. Because again, otherwise who’s gonna know? The world does not go around handing out privileges; we generally have to claim them for ourselves. Step one in that process is to loudly assert that we deserve the privilege.
WE LIKE PROTESTS, YES WE DO! HOW CAN I PROTEST, AND HOW CAN YOU?
Once you set your mind to protesting something, there are two paths to take: join or organize.
It’s pretty easy to find a protest these days, with our modern social media tools and the Almighty Google on hand to help search. And in the current political climate, there are no shortages of people who are pissed off and looking to show it.
Once you find a protest, it’s a simple matter of saving the date and putting together a poster. And if you can’t put together a poster, just show up. Protests gain power from bodies in attendance; nobody can read all of the posters, but each person who shows up grows the crowd, and the crowd is the medium through which protests demonstrate power by visually indicating that a large number of people are upset about something.
However, if you can put together a poster, then by all means do that. Posters are how people know what, exactly, you’re protesting. They’re important for messaging, and if they’re funny people tend to point at them, take pictures, and remember them.
Remember, joining a protest is about as American as apple pie. Even if you don’t stay for the whole thing, your presence makes a difference and lends power to the organizers. Speaking of which…
Organizing a protest is an art form all to itself. I’ll go over the high-level points in this article, but here’s a much better guide that goes into more detail.
First, set a goal. Pick a specific issue — as specific as possible — to plan your protest around. If you can’t fit it in a sentence or two, your goal isn’t specific enough. Remember, it has to be easy to understand and preferably easy to work into a chant.
Second, pick a date and time. Ideally this should match up with the purpose of your protest — if you’re trying to get Congress’s attention, hold a protest when they’re in session, for example.
Third, pick a location. Again, this should match up with your purpose. If you’re protesting a corporation in New York, it doesn’t make sense to hold the protest in New Mexico.
Fourth, get permits. Most cities don’t just let protests happen — you have the right to assemble, but not the right assemble anywhere. Even if you don’t need a permit, make sure to let the local police know what’s happening — they may have additional guidelines.
Fifth, plan the event. Remember that nothing complicated ever turns out good by accident — plans are essential to success. You need to consider the sequence of events that you want to happen, and how they might be attained. Then you need to put in place enough structure, and organize enough employees or volunteers, to ensure that this sequence of events happens.
Sixth, publicize the protest. People can’t show up if they don’t know it’s happening. Sending press releases to the local papers and media outlets is a good idea; so is setting up social media groups and lighting up your Facebook profile. Word of mouth works too. The gold standard is getting a famous person or two involved.
Understand that protesting is an inherently risky activity. You will be outside (wear sunblock!), around strangers (watch your wallet!), and possibly in confrontation with counter-protesters and/or law enforcement (don’t get shot!).
Try to be funny. Try to be respectful. Try not to piss off the cops.
Last but not least, know your rights. Understand that people may very well try to violate them — including those nice police officers. By organizing or participating in a protest you are, by definition, taking a stand against an interest group. Never, ever, underestimate the things that other people (and governments) will do to defend their interests.
Protesting isn’t a game. It’s a Constitutionally-protected exercise of your civil liberties. It’s your chance to make your voice heard, in public, often on camera, with like-minded peers. It’s your chance to directly oppose people who are doing things you don’t like. Don’t take this right for granted — and stay angry, my friends. When it comes to protests, anger is good. Anger gets things done.
¹P.S. — If your group has talk radio shows, TV shows, public figures who espouse your viewpoint, many brick-and-mortar locations, and a big internet audience, this does not apply to you. Just because your group has a victim complex does not mean that you are being ignored.