Text by Martina Orlea
The right to protest is a fundamental right, stated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Arts. 19 and 20). Throughout history, people from all over the world have made use of their right to peaceful assembly and free speech by organising marches, protests, sit-ins and other collective forms of civic activism. Such actions have drawn the attention of politicians, succeeding in changing political regimes, empowering civil rights movements, and improving public services.
In the last decade, globalisation and social media have been the driving engines of protests, since it’s easier to reach and engage a larger number of people. This has sometimes resulted in national protests becoming international, as was the case for the Czarny protest in 2016. More than 150.000 people from all over the world participated in protests against abortion abolishment in Poland. There were marches in Poland, the Nordic countries, Iceland and many others showed support on social media, under the hashtags #cazrnyprotest and #blackprotest. The movement was successful, stopping the Polish government from banning abortions.
Youth, especially represented by NGOs, student organisations and associations, have always been involved in mass civic movements. Some notable examples are the 2014 Umbrella Protests, in Hong Kong and the 2006 youth protests in France against changing the labor laws. This article, therefore, is focused on how you can prepare for a protest, while ensuring a safe interaction with the authorities.
Participating in a protest
- Research who is organising the protest – see if they have a history of violent protests, what other causes they’re supporting and make sure the protest is based on facts, not on fake news or manipulative information.
- Make sure the protest is legal – even though freedom of assembly is guaranteed by democratic Constitutions, in most cases, a public authorisation is needed for large protests. Get informed about your rights and obligations.
- Know why you are there – most effective protests have a specific and clearly stated mission (ex: protecting abortion rights, increase funding for education, preventing the construction of an oil pipe). If all participants are not united for the same cause, the protest loses significance, which one of the most important success factors.
- Have your ID with you and place it safely.
- Dress appropriately – wear comfortable shoes (in case the protest turns into a long one), have a hoodie and a zippered backpack. Try to only bring necessities as water, snacks and your ID. If it gets crowded or you need to move fast, a heavy backpack is a burden.
- Signs – probably the most fun and creative part of protests are signs. If the protesters have compelling placards, it is easier to get media attention and reach more people. From baby Trump to the Women Marches, signs have been a central piece of protesting. Vice publication wrote a guide for building creative signs.
2. During the protest
- Listen to the police – even though it might be very tempting to scream at the policemen and disobey their orders, they are there to ensure that you and other protesters are safe. Stay in the area they tell you to and do not get into a conflict with them. In case conflict appears, show them your ID (the law obliges you) and make sure you know your rights and obligations. Many NGOs have guides on how to interact with officers and guidelines differ from country to country. Here you can find a pamphlet for interacting with the British police.
- Pay attention to pickpockets – however strange this might sound, a protest is the perfect place for small thievery: it’s crowded, chaotic and people are not focused on their surroundings. Make sure you don’t bring any valuables with you and if you do, place them somewhere safe.
- Check out who is leading the protest – most protests have some leaders (usually the organisers). You can easily identify them by looking out for the megaphones or the microphones. Make sure those people are representative for the cause and are not seeing it as a public image exercise. If at some point you do not empathise with their requests and their discourse, you can leave, or you can speak up.
- Fight for change – after all, protests happen because people want to influence how their state/society is ruled. Go out there and make sure you fight as much as you can (respecting the law) for change.
- Social Media – Social media has completely changed the way protests are organised and fought. The Black Lives Matter movement started with a hashtag that drew major international attention and then evolved into marches. The Arab Spring protest started and was ran on Facebook, gaining a lot of international attention. Social Media is an effective tool for reaching many people, setting a time and location for the protest (it is fast and easy to create a Facebook event for example) and to report what is happening at the protest (for breaking news, most media outlets use content from protesters’ personal accounts, especially from Twitter).
- Creative protesting – as for signs, there are many ways to protest, some incredibly creative. Here are some examples: animal rights activists protesting in Pamplona, Greenpeace in Paris, refugee rights in Slovenia and Croatia. Here you can find a list of other creative gatherings.
- Small or individual protests – sometimes you do not need to organise a mass protest to change someone’s life. Individual action is also important. Rosa Parks sitting in the bus is a good example for this, as is the Swedish girl who did not sit down in a plane until a refugee who was supposed to be deported did not get off.
When participating in or organising a protest two things are of utmost importance: don’t forget why you are there and be safe. The whole goal of protesting is to create a political moment that people in power cannot ignore and that can be achieved by: involving many people, stating clearly your protest reason and what are your solutions for the problem are (if you found any), protesting for a longer period of time, being non-violent and trying to involve politicians as well (either politicians from the opposition or calling and petitioning your local representatives).