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Planning a Protest

Before you even decide what kind of demonstration to have, you need to consider the “why.” Ponder these questions:

      • Why do you want to demonstrate?
      • What are the goals of the demonstration (media attention, getting a specific legislator’s attention, passing a bill, standing in solidarity, etc)?
      • Who is the target of your action? A.k.a. who can give you what you want?
      • How will you know you’ve succeeded?



There are many different ways to do a public demonstration. Here are some ideas and questions to ask yourself:

Types of Events:
      • Rally – Protest event where people gather in large numbers to make a statement.
      • March – Protest event where a gathering of people walks together en masse.
      • Vigil – Most vigils have banners, placards, or leaflets so that people passing by, despite silence from participants, can be informed about the purpose of the vigil.
      • Picket – The modal activity is picketing; there may be references to a picket line, informational picketing, or holding signs; “carrying signs and walking around in a circle”. Holding signs, placards, or banners is not the defining criteria; rather, it is holding or carrying those items and walking a circular route, a phrase sometimes surprisingly found in the permit application.
      • Civil Disobedience – Explicit protest that involves deliberately breaking laws deemed unjust in order to protest them; crossing barricades, prohibited use of segregated facilities (such as lunch-counters or restrooms), voter registration drives (to earn non-eligible people the right to vote), or tying up phone lines.
      • Ceremony – These celebrate or protest status transitions ranging from birth and death dates of individuals, organizations or nations; seasons; re-enlistment or commissioning of military personnel; or to anniversaries of any of the above. These are sometimes referenced by presenting flowers or wreaths commemorating, dedicating, or celebrating status transitions or their anniversary; e.g., an annual merchant marine memorial service, celebrating Chanukah or Easter, or celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.
      • Motorcade – Vehicular procession (electoral campaigns or other issues).
      • Information Distribution – Tabling/petition gathering, lobbying, letter-writing campaigns, or teach-ins.
      • Symbolic Display – e.g., graffiti, sign, or standing display.
      • Strike – A work stoppage, caused by the mass refusal of employees to work. A strike usually takes place in response to employee grievances. 
      • Boycott – Organized refusal to buy or use a product or service. Examples: rent strikes, Montgomery bus boycotts.
      • Prayer Walk – A prayer walk is an activity that consists of walking and praying at the same time.
      • Burma Shave – Holding signs by the side of a busy road with a message that people will read as they drive by.
      • Street Theater – Acting out a scene or dramatic interpretation in public.
      • Flash Mob – Showing up with many others in a public place at a designated time and doing a choreographed dance or song or action together, then quickly dispersing.
      • Banner Drop – Hanging and dropping a banner with your message from a prominent or symbolic place.
      • Blockade – Denying access to a building/place/street by putting many bodies in front of it and locking arms.
      • Guerrilla Action – Any kind of unconventional method (including flash mobs and street theater) used to disrupt the status quo or promote an activist message.
Questions to Consider:
      • How many people do you expect to participate? That may change what the most effective type of demonstration may be. An organized Burma shave with five people on a busy street can be very impactful compared to five people rallying in a park. A demonstration with 100 attendees is better suited to a rally or march.
      • Is there a strategic reason to hold a type of demonstration? For example, if you are participating in a national day of action and your smaller rally will be one of the hundreds across the world, it makes sense to rally (even with a smaller group of attendees).
      • Is there a symbolic reason to hold a type of demonstration? For example, if you are protesting the murder of a Black trans woman, you might do a silent vigil at the place where it occurred.



Who is directly impacted by the issue you’re protesting for? Who will be your allies? What kinds of groups and organizations and individuals should you reach out to? Who will definitely come? Who do you need to engage?

As you’re considering the who, also consider that you are centering people who are directly impacted, especially if you are an ally to the cause. It can be easy to get wrapped up in good intentions as an ally and forget that we must amplify others’ voices, speaking up but not over.



Now that you’re clear on why and what and who, it’s time to figure out where you’re going to hold your demonstration. If getting media attention is important, you need to be in a high-traffic area or a highly symbolic place that you can invite the media to. Should it be in the morning or early afternoon to get the most media attention before press time for TV news stations? The evening or late at night? A 24-hour vigil or camp-out/sit-in? On a weekend or a workday? Do you want to coincide with a holiday like International Women’s Day or Refugees Rights Day or Labor Day?

Here are some examples of a thoughtful location:
      • If you’re protesting at a specific organization or company, it might make sense to have the demonstration at a time that’s disruptive to their business hours.
      • If you’re demonstrating support for a bill, it would make sense to have it when legislators are in session, in a place where you will be visible to them.
      • If you’re protesting the Trump administration, it would make sense to be in front of the White House or at the federal building in your nearest city.
      • If your main goal is to get on the evening news, you should have your demonstration early enough that the media will make it before the final cut for the evening show and you should send out press releases aggressively.
      • If you are protesting police brutality, you should consider protesting at the police station or at a symbolic place where an incident of brutality took place.



For a large demonstration, you’re going to need help. Here are some volunteer roles that people can play. (One person may play multiple roles.):

      • Decision Maker(s) / Lead Organizer(s) – Folks who make the big decisions on the demonstration and take the lead role in organizing.
      • Peace Keepers or Marshals – Folks who will look out for fellow protestors and try to keep the peace between law enforcement and demonstrators during the march, usually wearing armbands or a certain color of clothing or something to visibly mark them as marshals.
      • Police Liaison – Person who will coordinate communication between the organizers and law enforcement, will introduce themselves to law enforcement and communicate directly throughout the demonstration.
      • MCs and Speakers – Folks who are scheduled to speak (if there’s a speaking opportunity at your demonstration).
      • Media Spokespersons – Person or persons who will be prepared to speak to the media on behalf of the group/organizers.
      • Other Roles: Accessibility monitor, street medic, outreach team, filmer or videographer.


You can use project management software like Trello to assign tasks and keep organized. Also, you may want to communicate privately with encrypted phone apps like Signal.



Don’t underestimate the power of social media (FB, Twitter, Tumblr), especially for spontaneous actions that are organized quickly and need an immediate turn-out. Here’s some other ways to get the word out:



Powerful symbols emerge from protest movements. Think of the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” or “I Can’t Breathe” signs and images and chants that are prominent in the Black Lives Matter protests. The pink hats (whether you love them or hate them) at the Women’s March on Washington. The “Silence = Death” banners held by ACT UP activists during the AIDS epidemic.

What will your symbols and chants and slogans be? Will you have a common hashtag for the event? How will you make the event meaningful?

If you have specific messages or slogans you want to highlight, it helps to make and bring a bunch of your own signs. People will often bring their own signs to rallies and demonstrations, but many come empty-handed and are happy to hold one of your pre-made or pre-printed signs.

Tweet out and share updates on social media as they’re happening with the hashtag, directly at targets and media contacts if you can.



Finally, there are some important things to consider when it comes to protecting yourself and your fellow protestors.

Permits and Laws

You don’t need a permit to hold a demonstration on public property or in a “free speech zone” like on a sidewalk or in a public park or the plaza in front of a government building. However, you may want to get one anyway to ensure you will have space or to ensure that counter-demonstrators don’t have an equal right to be in the area in which you’re demonstrating. There are less likely to be unlawful arrests at a permitted protest, which may be important if people are coming who are likely to be targeted by police.

You do need a permit to march in the street. Technically, marching in the street without a permit is not clearly Constitutionally protected (in the United States) and you can be arrested. Blocking traffic on the street or the sidewalk without a permit is considered unlawful. There may be other local ordinances that impact protest. For example, it is illegal to carry a sign on a wooden stick in New York City.

Civil Disobedience

Some protest tactics involved planned civil disobedience. For example, sit-ins or die-ins, where protestors sit or lay on the floor/ground, often blocking traffic or access to a building, sometimes on private property. Any protest on private property is not Constitutionally protected free speech and you can be arrested for trespass among other charges.

Civil disobedience can be a powerful protest. I really urge you, though, to communicate to others what their rights are so that people know the risks of participating and consent to them willingly. Some people can’t afford to be arrested if they are on probation or parole, are undocumented, or have jobs that would fire them if they were arrested. Also, some people may be more likely to be targeted by law enforcement during a demonstration based on their perceived race or ethnicity, gender, or religion. Take that into consideration when planning a demonstration during which people expect to be arrested and/or to break the law.

If you are planning civil disobedience, expect that you may be arrested and prepare attendees for potentially being arrested. I’d recommend carrying a government-issued photo ID on you so you can identify yourself after you’re arrested (or else you may be stuck in jail until you can ID yourself), as well as emergency contact numbers and the number for the National Lawyers Guild in your area written in permanent marker on your inner arm or upper thigh. Read up on your rights before you go and have a plan for when you get arrested including knowing how you’ll pay your bail (cash is usually the best and fastest option).

You can also plan ahead who is willing to be arrested and have others who are not willing to be arrested observe those folks from a legal distance and be on-call to post bail for them, provide support, etc. after the arrest.

Safety Precautions

You may consider inviting legal observers to monitor your protest, to document any interactions between law enforcement and protestors and to protect your rights. Should there be an arrest or issue, legal observer records can be used in court to help support protestors’ rights.

You could also consider having a permit for part of your demonstration and civil disobedience during another part, letting people know when the shift is happening so they can make informed choices about participating.

You can have levels of participation (Red, Yellow, Green, or 1, 2, 3) that involve different levels of risk and let people know what those are ahead of time and at the beginning of the protest.



After the demonstration is over, you will hopefully have a group of engaged folks who want to keep taking action. If you collected email addresses or contact info from attendees, follow up with folks by thanking them for coming and letting them know what the next action will be or how they can stay involved. Keep them engaged.

Think about how you can keep the pressure on your targets and devise other organizing strategies and tactics to get you there. Perhaps a whole campaign plan is in order if you don’t already have one.