Corporations can do a lot of great things for the worlds we live in. For example, companies like The Body Shop and Starbucks have used their massive purchasing power to invest in sustainable, community development projects in poor nations around the world. While some corporate actions make the world a better place, sometimes companies choose to put profits ahead of social responsibility, acting in ways that hut people, animals, the environment, etc. When you hear about these shady corporate dealings, it is common to feel completely powerless to change anything.
Fortunately, we live in America, the “land of free speech,” and if you want something changed, there is something you can do. For centuries, activists have been organizing protests and demonstrations to take their message to the streets. A lot of people are intimidated by the thought of organizing a protest, but it really is a very simple process. For the past 5 years, I have been deeply involved in the gay rights and animal rights movements, and in that time period I have organized well over 100 protests. In this article, I’ll share the basic steps of organizing an effective protest…you’ll probably be surprised just how easy it is!
Step 1: Let go of your fear. For the past few years, I’ve been volunteering with an animal rights group in Baltimore, and we have a little saying: “Organizing a protest just means showing up first with signs and leaflets.” That’s all there is to it. People tend to get overwhelmed at the thought of organizing a protest (especially if it is their first time), but in reality, it’s a pretty simple process. If you can show up somewhere on time and prepare some simple materials, then you definitely have what it takes to organize an effective demonstration.
Step 2: Decide on a time and location for your protest. This is probably the simplest step, but it does require a little thought and consideration on your part. If you’re protesting a business or organization with just one location, then the choice is obvious. If you’re targeting a company with multiple locations in your area, try to pick one that has a lot of foot- or car-traffic…after all, your goal is for as many people to see you as possible.
When it comes to picking a time for your protest, you’ll want to consider the traffic patterns particular to your target. For example, if you’re protesting a fast food restaurant, you may want to protest at dinner time on a weekend when more people will be patronizing the establishment. On the other hand, if you’re trying to reach a group of executives, you’d want to schedule your protest on a weekday during business hours when you have the best chance of being seen. Just make sure that whatever time you choose is a time that you can show up…no matter what. Also, if you’re working with other people on a protest, realize that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to find a time when everyone is available. You may need to settle on a time when most people are available…those who aren’t can always join you at your next protest!
Step 3: Publicize your event. Once you have worked out the specifics of your protest, your next step will be to get the word out about your event. Make a flyer informing people about your demonstration-be sure to include the date, time, and location of your event, as well as a brief narrative about why exactly you are protesting. You can hang these flyers around town and give one to anyone you meet who might be interested in attending your demonstration.
Also, try to find like-minded groups of people in your area that might be able to help you publicize your event. For instance, if you are organizing a protest regarding an environmental issue, you might want to contact the local chapter of The Sierra Club. If you’re organizing an animal rights protest, the local Humane Society might be a good ally. These groups will likely have an established network of local contacts that could substantially increase the turnout at your protest, so it’s definitely worth a quick phone call or e-mail to see if they would be willing to help out with your efforts.
Step 4: Make sure you have plenty of materials, including signs and leaflets. Your materials are really the “heart” of your protest. During a protest, signs and leaflets are the main items that you’ll be using to get your message across. When it comes to the signs, you’ll want to use succinct sayings or phrases that sum up exactly why you are there. For example, when we protest at Kentucky Fried Chicken, my animal rights group uses signs that say things like “KFC Tortures Chickens” and “Boycott KFC.” These “sound bites” are quick enough for drivers to read as they speed pass, and they also sum up the basic reason why we’re out there. You’ll also want to make sure the lettering on your sign is large enough to be read from far away, and you might want to consider using bright colored poster board that will attract attention from a distance.
Leaflets are important to provide more information to passersby that are particularly interested in what you are doing. On your leaflet, you’ll want to include the details about exactly why you’re protesting, including pictures whenever they are available. Your leaflet should also include actions that people can take to help out, such as writing a letter or donating money. Include a link to a website where people can link up with your campaign. Basically, the purpose of your leaflet should be to inspire people to get involved and provide them with the information they need to do so.
Before you invest hours of your time producing materials for your protest, make sure you’re not duplicating someone else’s work. If your protest is part of a national campaign, chances are that a larger group has already produced some quality materials that you can use. Search the internet to see who else is protesting the same companies or issues, and don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. Groups like Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) will often provide materials for little or no cost if you simply ask for some help.
Step 5:Check with your city to see if you need a permit. I should start this step off by saying that, in my experience, you do not need a permit to protest 98% of the time. It is your first amendment right to stand with a group of people on a public sidewalk and hold signs or hand out leaflets. If the sidewalk is adjacent to a public road, chances are that you can protest without and permits or prior permission.
There are a few occasions where you might need to get permission, however. If you want to protest inside a shopping center or other “private property,” you’ll need to ask the owner beforehand. Also, if you are planning to use amplified sound equipment (like a bullhorn or a microphone) or if you expect more than 25 people, you should check with the city first. Usually, a quick phone call to city hall or the local police will be all it takes to determine if you’ll need a permit for your event.
Step 6: Have a great protest! On the day of the event, make sure you show up on time. Nothing is worse than showing up to your own protest late, only to have people standing around wondering what to do. Assign people tasks that they are comfortable with. Some people may be great at handing out leaflets and engaging passersby in discussion, while others would prefer to just stand quietly and hold a sign. It is important that everyone has something that they are responsible for, so that all of your participants can feel like they are an important part of something larger.
Be prepared for the cops to show up. Most businesses don’t like protestors standing in front of their stores, and they will often call the police on you. Just remember that it is your constitutional right to protest in public areas. Usually, the police will be well aware of this and will just stick around long enough to make sure everything is peaceful, and then will be on their way. As the leader of the protest, you should be on the lookout for any law enforcement and be prepared to answer basic questions such as why you are there and how long you plan to stay. As long as you know your rights and stay calm, there is no reason to fear the police at your protest.
Hopefully, I’ve provided you with a basic overview of what it takes to organize a protest. For a more detailed look at the steps you need to take, I recommend this checklist produced by PETA. Even though PETA is an animal rights organization, the steps in their document can be followed to produce a successful demonstration for any cause. I know how scary organizing your very first protest can be, but chances are that it is a lot easier than you think. With a little preparation, you too will be a “protest-planning pro” in no time!