Advice from a ‘professional protestor’: Now is the time for private catharsis and public clarity

Now is the time for a massive move to the streets. Civil rights, women’s rights, same-sex marriage, and even weekends all come from previous protestors taking to the street and putting their bodies on the line for what is right. While many movements have won ground, others have failed. I believe, as do others, that the reason movements fail is because of unclear and mixed messaging.

So while it’s uplifting to see so many joining us in the streets, it’s also concerning that without clarity this movement against neofascism will fail.

In the last week, the marches and protests have been a catharsis, a collective yelp at the universe for such unexpected terror. But if we want to win, the time for public catharsis is over. Continue whatever venting you need in private or semi-private: get groups together, yell into pillows, drink as much as you need, make art, make jokes, make music. In public, we must show dignity and clarity (and outrage and love).

Our gut reaction is that being right is the goal, but at this time the goal is to win, this is a life or death emergency.

Winning takes being clear about what it is precisely that you want to win, and then fighting for it. The first step in getting clear about what we want to collectively win is for each of us to be clear on what we want to personally win (what drives us to action).

This is my guide to get clear on your message (poster or chant) to ensure the success and prevent the demise of this essential movement against neofascism:

  1. What message are you trying to send?  

Start by thinking of what you want to say, and then clarify it, then simplify it. Keep asking why, until you have a simple and clear message. You want something.  You have an ask, otherwise you would be watching movies or doing home improvements on a Saturday afternoon.  What is it that you want?

For an example of something that needs clarifying, let’s use “Fuck Trump”. That statement does feels good to scream, but even I, someone who is on your side, don’t know what you are trying to say.

  • First pass of clarification: Do you mean that you are unhappy with his cabinet choice, that you are appalled by racism, sexism, xenophobia? Are you afraid that rights we have already marched in the streets for will be taken away? Are you petrified at our lack of action on climate change? Are you in fear of an Authoritarian gov’t? It could be all of the above. Make your own list. You can be broad in your critique or demand, but you must be clear.
  • Second pass of clarification: Take whatever you chose as your biggest “Fuck Trump” issue and clarify it further. Have you noticed that people really differ on what they consider racism or sexism? Most people who are racist/sexist/xenophobic don’t know it, so simply using these words on a poster won’t change them (automatic feeling of Does Not Apply). How can you illustrate precisely what you mean by these words in ways that make people think?

Continue this clarification until you get to the heart of what you want to say and then:

  • Simplify it: This step is extremely difficult, but you are in luck. The job of many writers, artists, poets, musicians, activists, and clergy is to put extremely complicated political concepts into quotable statements. Use what is already written. Lift their words up. A quote I often use on posters is “Justice is what love looks like in public” –Dr. Cornel West. It encompasses many of the concepts outlined above broadly, clearly, and simply. Check out the playlist at the bottom of the page for some more of my inspiration.

A note on “Not my President”:  this statement is extremely confusing. Are you saying you don’t agree with the political process we’ve used since the founding of the country? Well neither do I, but may I suggest clarifying that statement: you may mean “The electoral college has to go!” or “Hillary won the popular vote!” or even “Impeach the Don!”  Because I doubt you are saying you don’t believe in democracy, but “Not my President” sure sounds like it. If you really mean “Fuck Trump”, you already know what to do.

None of this is to say to not proceed with absolute guttural fury, just channel it towards a message. None of this is to say not to be clever and funny, just make it mean something.

Democracy Spring pledge
Winning is in preparation: Democracy Spring pledge

2. Who are you trying to reach?

When you are out on the street, there are different groups you may be targeting with your message: the voting public, the rest of the world, your fellow protestors, those who will be most affected if you don’t take action, politicians? If you are particularly skillful you may be able to reach all of the above. How can we best reach each of these groups:

  • The voting public is the second most difficult group to reach and arguably the most important. We are simultaneously trying to get them on our side and bring this moment of crisis to their lives. That is why we shut down traffic. The anxiety of being stuck, of feeling helpless, is what we all feel when stuck in traffic. But that feeling has an end, while the crisis we are talking about has no end.

But we also want to be sympathetic, and send a clear message (see above). When we march without clarity or dignity, when we swear and deface property, we further the divide between us and the rest of the nation. Trust me, even if you aren’t acting this way, whoever is will be shown on the evening news. We are in this together, the people around you are your responsibility now. Welcome to ‘unity’.

By swearing and defacing property, we make Trump the victim, he is the sympathetic one while we make ourselves the chaos, the bad guys. People have pretty simple narratives and changing that narrative is not the immediate emergency, so let’s use those simple narratives to our advantage instead of falling victim to them.

  • The rest of the world, because many of us are embarrassed, we want to make sure the rest of the world knows this election does not represent our collective beliefs. Even though you are not trying to change anyone’s minds here, the principles above apply because the rest of the world is also getting this message filtered through the media.
  • Our fellow protestors are actually another difficult group in terms of messaging:

For one, they will give you a lot of positive feedback on more crude and derogatory posters. People will take pictures and post to Instagram and you will feel really funny and deep down good that you are a part of a community. When we scream “Fuck Trump” together it feels absolutely cathartic. Remember though, we are at a moment of absolute life or death crisis, are you trying to become internet famous? Or save people’s lives?

Second, you may believe that we all think the same things and feel the same ways, but everyone out there has a different personal story and point of view. Every person with their feet on the streets is at a different stage in their own journey to wokeness. I’ve actually had ‘aha moments’ when reading other people’s posters. These are some of the most important moments of learning and teaching. When we share the different issues we are concerned about, we can build stronger issue oriented movements.

Last, it is a beautiful thing that people are bringing kids out to these marches and protests. It shows them that adults can come together, that politics is more than just voting, and that the people have a voice. We need to be aware that there are children around when we chant, and when we choose the images and text for our signs.

  • Many of us are out in solidarity with those who will be most affected by the proposed policies and rhetoric of Trump and the hate in the general public it has released. To show that we are paying attention and we will not let up as these horrors continue. What is the best message you can send to those people?
  • The politicians, in many cases, they take more direct measures to move (addressed in the next section). However, when we try to win over the voting public, we are indirectly getting to the politicians. In my opinion, the people who have the most power to prevent some of our biggest fears from happening are moderate Republicans. The Republican elected officials owe way more to their own constituents than to us. As we all know, Republicans control Congress now and are the ones that can do the most to stop Trump. That means moderate Republicans need to think that we are more reasonable than Trump. We need them on our side (and believe they should be, it is not manipulation).

To guide how to navigate this territory, a quick note about psychological differences between conservatives and liberals: the very basis of conservatism is a fear of change, fear of chaos (ironically), and intolerance for ambiguity. May I suggest we consider and respect these personality traits when we determine our messaging for protests.

You may not agree to cater to the people who potentially supported Trump. You do you. But if you are actually terrified of the coming of death camps, you may want to consider being as strategic as possible.

Democracy Spring DNC protest tattoo
Winning is in the details: Democracy Spring DNC protest arrest hotline temporary tattoo

3. What to do next?

I call myself a ‘professional protestor’ in jest, because there is no such thing. However, I have been to over 10 protests and marches (counting things that you hold signs and chant things for political purposes) and been to 3 different trainings in the past year. This year alone, I’ve been to #noDAPL protests, anti-TPP protests, the Stop Trump Rally in March, pro-Bernie marches, BLM protests, a Free Higher Ed direct action, I was arrested at the DNC, and I’ve been to a couple Stop Trump marches since the election. This is to say, I’ve seen a wide variety of organizing strategies. As we go forward, and put pressure on politicians to stop the policies we fear, we should consider what works.

The protests that work best are well-planned, practiced, strategic, have specific asks, and direct action (aka people get arrested). These actions include people who are: marshals, energy, police liaisons, willing to get arrested, medics, media liaisons, and legal observers. These people take the time before a protest to practice the actions and learn to de-escalate others in churches and basements. The most amazing thing I’ve seen happen with strategic action: we’ve maintained control of the narrative. In the press, our message was communicated in the way we wanted. That is a big deal.

If you are interested in learning more, The People’s Lobby, a leader in direct action in Chicago, is having an event called Agonizing, then Organizing on Monday, Nov 21st. You can also contact us at connected@chicagoprogress.com to learn more about how you can get involved in direct actions or local politics in general.

“Finally, let us understand that when we stand together, we will always win. When men and women stand together for justice, we win. When black, white and Hispanic people stand together for justice, we win.” Bernie Sanders.

Here is a playlist for lyrical inspiration while making your signs or on the way to the protests or anytime. These musicians are experts at clarity of message. Okay, well some of these songs are just for catharsis. We need both, right?

3 comments

  1. This is excellent. All really helpful and productive. In the last few days, prompted by an article on a guy that feels his “fake news” sites may have contributed to the Trump win, I’ve seen more than a few articles, posts and comments that protests are funded & protesters paid. Like this one that claims “leftists organization” Planned Parenthood is behind the anti-Trump rallies.

    http://ijr.com/2016/11/737467-anti-trump-protests-are-popping-up-around-the-country-and-one-leftist-organization-might-be-behind-it-all/

    In less than two days it had over 56K views, there’s no share count, but I’m guessing it’s considerable. And it’s hardly the only article that invalidates the work and sincerity of protesters. People don’t trust mainstream media and are relying more and more on sites like this. Unlike the guy that kept publishing fake news even while being aghast that folks were believing it and spreading it far and wide, this one claims to be “independent journalism” So, we have folks that believe this nonsense, don’t understand satire and/or don’t care and sites that are making big money off their ignorance and have no desire to lose those dollars. For any reason. Not even the destruction of democracy.
    So, as much as I admire and appreciate this article, maybe stop referring to yourself as a “professional protester” Sarcasm quotes are lost on people, they don’t get it. And people like yourself doing important work, can be discredited just for that. Which is as appalling as it is hard to believe all at once. But that’s where some folks are. Don’t give them more rocks to throw.

  2. “HUMAN RIGHTS”
    the article advices we take our biggest “Fuck Trump” issue and clarify it further.
    but the umbrella which contains them all our complaints, is the consideration for our “Human Rights”

    Human rights are what our laws are primarily built upon,
    (they are what give legitimacy to sovereignty, in democratic constitutions)
    and yet understanding and enforcing them has been grotesquely disregarded.

    They have been clearly defined through international treaties and include :
    the protection of a sustainable environment.
    equal treatment by law, for minorities.
    women’s right over their person, and proper medical care
    the economic right to a dignified livelihood, for all citizens.
    the right to education & the right to privacy.
    (among others).

    Trump has already been complicit with Putin/Assad’s attack on 250000 civilians in Aleppo.
    That is condemned by the UN, and called an act of genocide by our republicans.
    is it not time, in the name of human rights, that we demand he acts to help prevent this slaughter ?
    and instead of dealing with Putin demand a genuine humanitarian corridor for civilians to escape through?

    Simply google “children alleppo”.

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