Activism 101:
or How To Get Out on the Streets and Feel You Belong There

President George W. Bush has done wonders for the activist movement. Since he was elected (selected?), folks have poured out onto the streets in protest. Protest of what? Just about everything. But it is his decision to attack Iraq preemptively that has really put the anti-war movement on the map. We're now seeing high school students, retirees, lawyers, housewives, secretaries, teachers, union auto workers, truck drivers, civic leaders, nurses, the unemployed, university professors, CPAs, mechanics, politicians, young families--just about everybody except Bush's inner circle--out on the streets saying NO WAR ON IRAQ!...NO BLOOD FOR OIL! I personally have received countless emails from visitors to my web site asking for advice on how, when, where to join a protest demonstration against this war. For that reason, I have decided to put up a simple "Activism 101" web page that would, hopefully, help newcomers to the movement feel comfortable when they attend their first anti-war demonstration. I will present it in a Q & A format. If you have a question that I didn't think of, please email me and I'll add it...if I know the answer, that is!

1. How do I find out when and where an anti-war demonstration is going to be held?

This might be the trickiest question of all. For those of us who have been active in the movement for years, we are on so many political listserves and have so many activist friends that it would be hard to plan an event without our hearing about it. But I have some ideas. You can do a  Google search online and type in "anti-war demonstrations--your city." You can go to a local coffeehouse or food co-op and look at the fliers posted there. Your local bookstore might be another resource for such information. Hey, even the newspaper might give you advance warning of an upcoming anti-war event. You can call their city desk and ask. If you live near a college or university, go to the student union and check out their bulletin boards. Or call the university switchboard and ask for the names and contact information of student political organizations. Often the best idea is simply to ask around. You might be surprised at who knows where anti-war demos are going to happen. Once you get to your first demo, ask who organized it and let them know you want to receive notice of future demonstrations, teach-ins and meetings. Of course, the best way to know what's going on is to join the planning committee yourself, but that might come later.

2. Can I go by myself or do I need to hook up with a group?

Of course, it'll be easier to go with a friend or in a group, but maybe you don't know anyone else who is ready to walk this path. I went to my first demo by myself and I'll ever forget it. It was the spring of 1988 and the demonstration was being held to protest US aggression and funding/training of the Contras in Nicaragua. It was held at Detroit's Federal Building downtown, that, of course, I had never been to before. It was scheduled to start at noon and parking was a real problem. I finally found a place on the street several blocks away and arrived late. When I got there,  it felt as though I were walking into a country that had an unfamiliar language and culture. And it looked like everyone but me knew what was expected. They marched in a circle like dancers who had long practiced together. Folks kept saying "hi" to each other as though they were all members of one family. Do you know that feeling? But people were friendly enough and smiled at me as I marched with my sign. It went on until it was done, and again everyone else knew when that was. Not me--I kept on marching in a circle until I looked around and saw there were only a few of us left. It is because of that experience that I'm writing this 15 years later. I would have loved to have had some idea of what to expect before I got there. Hopefully, that is what I will give you here.

3. Should I bring my own sign, and, if so, how do I make it and what should it say?

It's almost always a good idea to bring your own sign, but don't let it stop you if you don't have time to make one. Often there will be a pile of pre-made signs that you can use. Just be sure to give them back before you leave. It's very easy to make a sign. A large black magic marker is the best thing to write with, and you can use the side of a cardboard box, or the poster board that is sold at the drugstore for the sign itself. I recommend writing your message first in pencil before going over it in marker. I can't tell you how many times I've either misspelled a word or ended up at the edge with more letters than I could fit in!  Not fun if you've already written it in permanent magic marker. In terms of your message, keep it short and punchy. I've seen so many beautiful signs that no one could read because there were too many words. The point is for folks driving by in cars to be able to read your sign. A limit of six words is best if you can do it. At recent demos I've seen lots signs that say No Blood For Oil, No War!, Not In My Name, Regime Change Begins At Home. You don't need to be an artist, just make it easy to read. You can either carry your sign in your hands, or attach it to a stick (a wooden yardstick works well). If you put it on a stick, it's cool to have two signs, front and back. To attach it, you can use a staple gun or tiny nails. Some people have their signs laminated in case of rain or snow. But that's only if you want to use it again.

4. What if I have to come late and/or leave early?

Just come late and leave early. No one keeps track of who comes on time or stays until the end. It's a pretty free flowing crowd.

5. How should I dress?

Comfortable shoes and/or boots to start. Remember, you're going to be on your feet the whole time. Occasionally there are benches nearby, but not always.  If it's winter, dress very, very warmly. Lots of layers, several pairs of socks, a couple pairs of mittens or gloves, but mittens are best. A hat, even if you never wear hats, and a muffler tied around your neck. On January 18, 2003 in Washington, DC when the thermometer never got above +24º F, lots of us stayed toasty with hand and boot warmers, the best invention since the toothbrush. They are small plastic packets of iron and other heat generating chemicals that you place on your palms between two pairs of mittens and under your toes between your socks and boots. My friends bought them at a sports store and a large retail outlet. If it looks like rain, bring a poncho or plastic raincoat and hat. By the way, demos go on no matter what the weather! Definitely not for the faint-of-heart. If you bring an umbrella, remember you'll be carrying your sign too. If it's hot, please, please, please wear sunblock and a hat. An activist's sunburn may look cute but it doesn't feel very good.

6. What about bathrooms?

Ah yes, the call of nature. Well. This is definitely an issue and one that can be of great concern to an activist. If it's a mammoth march like the national ones in Washington, DC, San Francisco or New York City, they usually have porta-potties. But never enough. I wear Depends diapers anyway because of my disability, so I'm OK, but for you able-bodied folks things can get a bit chancy. Actually, my able-bodied friend borrowed one of my adult diapers for the Washington, DC march on January 18, and even though she didn't end up needing to use it, she said it gave her great comfort. You can certainly take preventive measures like no coffee or tea ahead of time, no pop or any other liquid that you know has a short-term rental. But if you take little water on the day of the demonstration, be sure to drink lots the day before and the day after. Don't want anyone to get dehydrated on my advice! By the way, nearby restaurants, shops and even the building in front of which you're marching, might have bathrooms you can use...but not always. Yes, a good strong bladder is an activist's friend!

7. Am I going to be arrested, pelted with tear gas and pepper spray? Am I doing anything illegal?

Of course, there are no guarantees of anything in life, but it's pretty unlikely that you will be arrested or attacked by the police unless you consciously choose to put yourself in a situation where it might happen. Usually, arrests are made of people who are committing civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is the nonviolent resistance technique used by persons like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. In our movement, anyone who chooses civil disobedience has been trained for it ahead of time, and are members of an affinity group that will decide things by consensus and support one another in any action that is taken. It is also called "direct action." Those who are planning to perform such actions have their own place in the demonstration. You will not "get caught" in such an action unless you choose to stay with those who are putting themselves on the line in this way. At least for now, anti-war demonstrations are legal and safe. It's when activism gets into the global justice arena--or what the media call anti-globalization protests--that "security" forces can look pretty damn scary and be very unpredictable. Especially if delegates to the WTO or G8 or the World Bank are in town, then things can go bad very quickly. There are a lot of tales of terror told by activists who got caught during such protests, even if they were not planning civil disobedience or were nowhere near the "action." But, as I say, anti-war demos are even safe for the kids. Lots of parents bring their little ones along. In most cases, the organizers have gotten a permit for the march and rally, meaning we often march in the street with police holding up the traffic for us.  Sometimes it isn't possible to get a permit ahead of time, in which case, you will be clearly instructed where to walk and where not to walk. Even then, you're not doing anything illegal.

8. What's the difference between a demonstration, a rally, a march and a picket line?

As I use the word, "demonstration" is a generic term to describe any gathering of persons with a shared message to proclaim. At a  "rally", people are asked to stand around a platform or spot on the sidewalk where speakers, singers and such are going to use either a microphone or a bullhorn to say or sing their message of solidarity. By the way, "solidarity" means to be together as one. A "march" is when you physically walk either in a circle or from one place to another. Usually marchers carry signs and banners and chant slogans as they march. A picket line is a union action designed to shut down the work of the company or business by standing at the entrances holding signs and not letting workers through.

9. Should I go to an anti-war rally or march that is organized by a group that holds political beliefs different from my own?

This can be a stumbling block for a lot of folks, but it isn't one that really concerns me. If we agree on the main purpose of the rally/march--ie., no war on Iraq--I'm happy to join with almost anyone. I mean, of course, anyone who is respectful of differences and not using this demonstration as a platform to proselytize their own personal ideology. You'll need to use your own judgment here, but figure it this way: you can try it and if they go off the deep end, you can always leave.

10. Does this kind of demonstrating make any difference in the long run?

Oh, I was afraid you were going to ask me that! You mean, will George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld change their minds and not attack Iraq because I and 500,000 other folks travelled hundreds, and in many cases, thousands of miles, to freeze our tails off on the streets of Washington, DC on January 18 as we cried out in the loudest voices we could muster: NO WAR ON IRAQ!!! Will our cry be heard and acted upon? Who knows. But if I got out there on the streets only when I thought my doing so would change the outcome of things, I would have stopped doing this long ago. I get out there because I HAVE to. Within myself, I must know that I have done everything in my power to bring peace and justice to the world. I wouldn't be able to live with myself otherwise, especially when those bombs start raining down on the people of Baghdad. IF they rain down on the people of Baghdad. ( This is being written on January 26, 2003). I am responsible for my own attitudes and actions and George, Dick and Donald are responsible for theirs. I cannot make the decision for them any more than they can make it for me. But I sure can stand strong and say what I need to say. And that is why I'm out there.

©2003 Patricia Lay-Dorsey. Please use with attribution.

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