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Lessons Learned from Protesting


Tim Danahey, Coffee Party USA Director of Public and Member Relations

Two weeks ago, my neighbor told me about a “Not My President” protest rally scheduled in my hometown.  The theme of the protest is not one I wholeheartedly support but I understood the underlying concerns for civil liberties, racism, and opportunity for all.  I decided to go.

This was my first protest except for a rally against Citizens United in Denver years ago.  I didn't know what to expect.  What I found was fascinating, frightening, and encouraging.  Let me tell you what happened.

First of all, I discovered this protest was officially canceled because people called the police and threatened gun violence against the “Not My President” protesters.  However, the protesters came anyway.

When I arrived, there were about a hundred “Not My President” protesters gathered on the corner of town square.  They were cheering the car horns honking to support them, chanting various slogans, and remaining totally positive.   Most of the protestors were just standing around chatting.  A couple people were gathering email addresses for future activities.  It was a nice crowd.

Across the street, there were about twenty-five pro-Trump supporters.  They were waving American flags and shouting that I needed to get a job, get off welfare, and stop being a communist.  For the record, I am a profitable entrepreneur, I have never received a dime from a government program even though I once qualified, and I know ideological extremes like communism are doomed to fail.  Nonetheless, the pro-Trump supporters were angry and shouting.  One guy wore a “Make America Great Again” cap, dark sunglasses, and a red bandana to cover his face like a wild west bank robber.  He was the angriest.

One pro-Trump supporter carried a sign, “Trump Won.  Get Over It.  It's Called Democracy”.  I wanted to cross the street, shake his hand, say I understand and let him know why I was on the opposite corner.  However, a police presence on the periphery discouraged physical interaction.  Several times a pro-Trump supporter would cross the street, approach us, and yell menacingly at our side.  This is when it was cool.  When the guy was furious and baiting us, our side spontaneously began to chant, “When they go low, we go high”.  The pro-Trump street crossers were totally shut down by a lack of direct engagement and the inability to provoke a verbal or physical response.  They would storm back to their corner.

Most of the protest was just a matter of showing up. We talked with some people, admired their passion for civic engagement, and eventually left to continue our day.  The victory wasn't a matter of making a sign, shouting slogans, or standing in the front lines.  I didn't do any of that.  The victory was simply being part of the official count.

I learned to overcome the inertia of sitting at home and being supportive of others' efforts.  I learned that most of the protesting is milling about the back lines.  I learned that I must do this many more times.

While we are facing uncertain times ahead of us, it will be increasingly important that you and I overcome the inertia of comfort and become peacefully involved – no matter what the issue and our points of view.    We do need to learn the realities of peaceful protesting and be ready for them.

First of all, no matter what, the protest must be one hundred percent peaceful and respectful.  No anger, no disrespect, no bad language, and no blocking of public rights of way.  If anyone violates those rules, stay away from them, isolate them, and treat them like a bad virus.  Someone will take a picture of them, post it, and misrepresent the whole protest movement.  Peaceful protests can grow organically if people are unafraid to join and support the causes.  Violence will even turn away the supporters.

That being said, understand the forces opposing populist movements are sophisticated and will do anything to undermine sympathy for protesters and their causes.  The most common tactic is to seed the protesters with hooligans to provoke police, create violent visuals to discourage participation and allow the media to portray the protesters as outliers.  This is why any untoward behavior must be isolated.

Peacefully protesting is surprisingly easy and actually fun.  I like people who are engaged with issues and government.  They are a new community in which I feel very comfortable and want to develop more activities with them.  I hope it leads to coffee shop conversations, finding people to run for local elections, and raising public awareness.  Good stuff.  I'll be back.