McCormack Speaks

Seven Tips on How to Organize a Peaceful Protest

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by Charla M. Burnett
Global Governance and Human Security PhD student

Non violepeaceful protest imagent protest is a cornerstone of democracy. Whether you are protesting the need to raise the minimum wage or to promote inclusion in divided societies, the persuasiveness of non violent demonstration can dramatically change public policy.

Studies by Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth indicate that major non violent campaigns have “achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent of violent resistance campaigns,” yet the implementation process of organizing a peaceful protest isn’t entirely well understood.

As a community organizer, activist, and PhD student focusing on social inclusion, I suggest these seven tips on how to organize a peaceful protest.

1.      Start now!

Many non violent movements question when the best time to start non violent protest is or where to begin. The answers to these questions are hinged to the issue of scaling-up non violent action and are subject to the temporal environment in which communities find themselves. The majority of successful non violent movements did not spring up overnight. Most often there were root connections established far before a specific event sparking mass interest and action. Even when it seems that your movement is running out of steam, you will be surprised when a specific event happens and a thousand people show up to your rally. You can’t let low participation rates deter the movement from its goals. Many times it will be the connections you made that make the difference when an event sparks critical mass.

2.     Identify Strong and Courageous Leadership

The leadership must be willing to break barriers and to discuss sensitive issues, particularly in regards to asymmetric relationships of power that are present in society. Due to the nature of these topics, I would suggest reaching for books like Taking about Structural Inequalities in Everyday Life by Information Age Publishing or Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race by Derald Wing Sue. It’s important to remember that having a sensitivity to social injustice isn’t just something you’re born with but need to cultivate through experience and active listening. Some members of the group will be more efficient at breaking down barriers than others. Try to identify these members and have them target social tensions throughout the entire movement’s processes.

3.      Build Momentum (and Don’t Give Up)

Don’t wait until the issue is discussed on the state or national stage to start making social connections and building community programs. It’s these foundations that make successful campaigns possible.

Organizing a peaceful protest, in a broad sense non violent action more generally, starts with a small group of like-minded individuals with similar goals, and who are willing to take action regardless of the consequences. In the age of instant fundraising campaigns and volunteerism, many people are saturated with opportunities to assist in social change. Finding those special individuals that are willing to take action with you will take more than a few flyers or Facebook groups. So, don’t be discouraged if you’re the only one at the first meeting.

Scaling up- or building momentum-is a complex phenomena. Membership size, community outreach, social networking, and framing are foundational to scaling-up but are only minor internal mechanisms. External mechanisms are just as important. This includes proportionality (knowing when to act with how much force based on environmental factors), constructive programming (building alternative institutions, such as schools, news papers, and community programs), and building coalitions/partnerships (while maintaining autonomy).

      4.      Diversify and Build Consensus

To ensure accountability and consensus, a movement must diversify its membership along intersecting lines of class, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age. Finding membership across social hierarchal lines ensures that all people within society participate in creating change. This is key to the sustainability of any community project.

Also, diversifying membership strengthens the fabric of society by encouraging dialogue and conflict transformation. The social change that occurs in only a fraction of society limits the movement’s ability to alter the root causes of structural inequality and social injustice.

To diversify and build consensus, marginalized community members must be brought to the decision-making table, such as women, LGBTQ, elderly, young, people of color, and immigrants/refugees. It’s possible for a nonviolent movement to sustain itself without specific portions of the community but success will take much longer and divisions are often polarized within the community. Consensus building is a conflict-resolution technique that is used to settle complex disputes between multiple parties. Consensus building is often difficult for more individualist cultures because it forces participants to recognize and acknowledge the needs of the group as a whole. Empowering those who use it, consensus building can transform community values and ones’ sense of self.

     5.       Create Strategic Goals

The diversification of ideas and perspectives gives way to new strategies and access to key resources.

Together, think about your vision and mission statements, objectives, strategies, and action plan. The Community Tool Box offers an excellent resource for strategic planning.

Once the group decides on its goals and objectives and chooses to organize a peaceful protest, they must assign specific roles for each action.

     6.       Address Logistics

Showing up with picket signs and mega phones is simply not enough to create mass attention, let alone keep a protest “peaceful.”

There must be someone to scout out the area and monitor demonstrations and police. This also means that you must apply for a demonstration permit to legitimize the action.

Demonstrators may need refreshments, umbrellas or rain ponchos, maybe even masks or tear gas rinse solutions.

In addition, someone must work with the press, design flyers, press releases, and be available at all times for an interview.

There must be assigned peacekeepers and representatives to talk to the police and public.

Furthermore, there should be a legal monitor and someone who is trained in legal aid to assist those who may be arrested. Preparation is as important as the action of demonstrating.

     7.       Maintain your composure

Participants must be willing to make sacrifices for the collective cause. Members must believe in the power of non violent action and resist violence. Although certain sections of society have attempted to delegitimize non violent protest as pacifist or weak, the reality is that nonviolence is not a natural reaction when faced with oppressive and violent situations. Maintaining composure and control over ones’ body takes immense strength in the face of physical and mental abuse. Non-violence is psychological and economic resistance that can break the systems of power that seek to oppress and harms us.

Non violent protest is about reading the signs and knowing when to react and take action against the power of violent structures and governments. These institutions are only as powerful as we allow them to be. They cannot survive without our complacency. It only takes the determination of the people to end any form of economic, social, and political violence.

Got conflict? Learn more about our graduate programs in conflict resolution.

Charla Burnett (MA, School of International Training) is studying in the PhD Program in Global Governance and Human Security at UMass Boston’s John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. Her research interests include migration and refugee policy, international development ethics, and restorative justice and reconciliation.

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