Protests: Sites for Education and Organizing

Student protest in Washington, D.C. following the election in November, 2016. By Allison Fletcher Acosta.

Our colleague Bruce Hartford, a veteran of the southern freedom struggle who manages the invaluable website, wrote about how to do education and outreach at protests. He has given us permission to share this useful advice.

By Bruce Hartford

I’ve recently participated in several protests aimed at building resistance to Trump and Trumpism. But from what I could see, there appeared to be little conscious effort to use those demonstrations as organizing tools in effective ways that were second nature to us back in the bad old days. So I would like to suggest two techniques that I think would be effective today:

1. Flankers

At rallies, marches, sit-ins, and picket lines we used to assign two or three or more people familiar with the issues and the organization to hand out flyers to folk watching the protest from across the street or nearby, to explain to them what it was all about, and to personally invite sympathizers to come over and join us (leading them by the hand if necessary).

People across a wide street or down the block usually can’t make out the words of speeches or chants even if they’re amplified, signs are hard to read at a distance particularly at night or when people are marching, and what information observers can actually discern is quite limited in scope. So bystanders see there’s a protest going on, but don’t learn much about it. That’s where an explanatory flyer handed out by someone willing to have a conversation is invaluable. And the psychological truth is that even sympathetic and supportive people who happen upon a demonstration are reluctant to cross the street to join the rally or step off the sidewalk and begin marching without someone personally inviting them.

Obviously, activists assigned to flanker duty need to be knowledgeable, friendly, outgoing, and willing to talk to strangers. Since they may encounter opponents, they should have some experience or training in nonviolent de-escalation techniques or be otherwise adept at handling adversarial confrontations. And if hostile adversaries are likely, flankers should work in pairs for mutual support. In some cases where the danger from hostile opponents is extreme, as it was in Alabama and Mississippi in the 1960s, flankers can’t be used. But in most places today I believe they can be used effectively.

2. Organizers

Two or three activists from the sponsoring group should also be assigned to systematically meet, greet, welcome, and talk with people who are already participating in the march or rally or sit-in or whatever. “Hi, I’m with <sponsoring group>, thanks for coming today. How did you hear about …”

The goal is to make sure that people who cared enough to show up feel welcome and appreciated and that the sponsoring organization has contact info for them, to invite them to participate in meetings and committee work and outreach efforts, and to encourage them to be involved in more than just marching or rallying. Which means that one or more a follow-up activities that people can be invited to engage in should already be set up and scheduled before the protest (and also announced by the speakers).

In other words, we should be using our protests to organize and more deeply involve those who show up to participate. That’s one way mass organizations are built, one person at a time, face-to-face, not just by Facebook and Twitter. We used to carry clipboards with sign-in sheets to note down peoples’ contact info and interests, but now we can (and should) use all this modern smart-phone technology for organizing not just mobilizing.

For more thoughts on why protests should be treated as organizing opportunities please see “The Onion Theory of Nonviolent Protest.”

Bruce Hartford is webspinner of the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website ( During the 1960s, he was a civil rights worker in Alabama and Mississippi for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Later he was a student activist with SDS at San Francisco State College, and then a freelance journalist covering military affairs during the Vietnam War era.