The purpose of this post is to offer some reflections on organizing protests and other acts of dissent in St. John’s, NL. I offer these reflections as someone who organized or co-organized dozens of protests and related events in St. John’s. All my organizing was out of the grassroots, and not for political parties or through formal political structures, and so it is grassroots contentious politics that informs the observations below. This is not a precise program or blueprint as such, and I expect that others will take whatever is useful and leave the rest.
- Practice, practice, practice — There is little point waiting until some issue arises to begin organizing and mobilizing. It took us a number of attempts at marches before we were able to get people to march in the street, rather than on the sidewalk. This is because there were practical considerations we didn’t initially understand (such as how to hold intersections so our crowd could cross, how to keep the back of the march safe from irate drivers, how to keep the whole march together, etc.). There needs to be some sort of march at least once a month, to keep up the skills and to keep people comfortable with taking the street. Then, when issues arise, a march can be a spark to enable further protests and dissent. In some ways, creating a culture of resistance by practicing and by being active on many fronts is the best way to be prepared.
- Every protest doesn’t need to be at Confederation Building — Confederation Building is the seat of government, but it is also a terrible space to hold a protest. It is wide open and expansive, and unless there are thousands of people it always makes a demo look small. Consider holding demos downtown. Part of the point is that even a hundred people fills the street and looks impressive, and part of the point is also that a protest downtown is seen by lots of people, as a spectacle and a demonstration of resistance. A demo downtown is speaking to the people themselves as much as to government. It still puts pressure on government, so long as the point of the protest is to convey some view to government. Likewise, demos can happen on the weekend (Saturday is often a good day) and still convey the intended message, and generally more people are available on the weekend. The point here is to be willing to consider alternate places and times.
- It’s okay to start small — Related to the first point about practicing, it’s not enough to just call a demo and assume thousands of people will show up. There will always be a core group of people that can be counted on to show up, but large masses of people don’t just spontaneously appear in St. John’s unless a culture of resistance is created and maintained. I often tried to imagine how a protest would be viewed by the average, moderate kinds of people that live in the suburbs. Even though they may sympathize with a particular cause, they have kids, jobs, and a web of social connections whose opinions they worry about. Right or wrong, many people worry that attending a protest will mean they are branded as malcontents (and other such concerns). A broader culture of resistance acts as a kind of cover, and as a protest movement gains momentum these moderate folks may feel further empowered to attend demos. [An example: in April 2016, we organized a march in downtown St. John’s about the Budget. We actually planned the march before the budget was even released. We had been holding similar marches downtown for years (on a variety of issues as they came up). Our first Budget march was fairly well attended, but more importantly it was loud and energetic. I am not claiming that we single-handedly made the 2016 Budget Revolt happen, but we were practiced and prepared, and I think we helped spark further actions that built up to that massive demo at Confederation Building weeks later. Here is an overview, for those interested.]
- You can’t control everything — I always considered that my role as an organizer was to create a platform or a space in which others could express themselves. But I never figured my role was to control precisely what other people would express. Of course, a demo is on a particular issue, the overall frame. But people will make of it what they will. Some people will show up with protest signs that say inflammatory things. Some people will spout off in front of cameras. All kinds of things can happen in that regard. The media has a tendency to focus on the trees and not the forest, and sometimes there can be some negative spin. Likewise, people participating in the demo can sometimes be unhappy about the messaging or about what others say or do. Much of this is inevitable, and there’s little that can be done about it. Organizers can only hope that the overall momentum of a protest movement carries things forward. In my opinion, it is important to set up a framework for a demo and its general messaging, but to not be strict about precisely what happens inside that framework (of course, there are hateful views that we must never allow in the demo, but the occurrence of such things is quite rare in St. John’s).
- Don’t ask permission — In this country, we have the right to assemble and demonstrate our views. You don’t need to get permission from the police or any branch of government to have a demo. Just do it. It is possible that the police may show up, declare a demo illegal, and order it to disperse. But up to that point, we are perfectly within our rights to demonstrate as we please. The RNC has never made such a call at any demo I organized and I have seldom seen the police at our demos at all. Our plan was always that if they showed up and declared the demo illegal, we would simply disperse.
- Keep the energy high and the speeches short — One of the best ways to build a culture of resistance is to make sure the demo is active, moving, loud, and fun. Of course, the issues themselves can be quite serious, and the point is not to diminish the seriousness of the issue. But people are more likely to come to the next demo if they feel good when they leave the first one. People want to feel like they did something, even if that something is going from point A to point B. It’s also a good reason to always try to take the street with a march, because there is a little hint of transgression in doing that. Be sure the demo has chants, and practice the chants before starting out. Along with the obligatory banners and protest signs, be sure to have whistles, bullhorns, drums, anything to make noise. Sometimes people are a little uncomfortable raising their voice at first, and to get the demo loud and everyone involved requires that there is enough of a din that the voice of the uncomfortable person combines with the voices and the noise of others. At the same time, one of the worst things, in my view, is a demo with long drawn-out speeches. People aren’t coming to demos to get information. They are coming to express dissent. Keep the speeches to a minimum (also, if you get a decent crowd, basically no one can hear the speeches anyways). Likewise, unless it’s a monster demo at Confederation Building (which again doesn’t just happen on its own) it’s a good idea to make sure the demo isn’t stationary. I like marching, but there’s other things to do that can keep people moving as well.
These are the main points that immediately come to mind. The most important one, in my opinion, is the first, because it essentially included the others. I’m not saying that massive numbers of people can’t spontaneously show up, just that it’s not my experience of how things go in St. John’s. If any other points occur to me, I’ll add them later as edits. Likewise, any thoughts or comments are most welcome in the comments below.
Downtown Demo Samples
People’s Assembly (Muskrat Falls) 2012
Budget 2016 First Demo
Climate March 2014
Solidarity with Gaza 2014
Refugees Welcome Demo 2015: CBC News Story
Bill C-51 Demo 2015: CBC News Story