Detail Oriented Activism

As the weather changes here in New England and the feet of snow dropped on us this Winter begins to melt, the thoughts of many may turn toward causes that have lain dormant, hibernating through the cold months or only visible online as we huddled for warmth inside.

With Spring likely comes new Moral Monday protests.  And, as the 2016 campaign season begins, there will likely be fuel from both sides of the aisle to feed the flames of activism.  Even events of these past few months are likely to result in some work, for example the budgets by various governors slash eduction funding in their state which hits close to home considering I work in higher education within one of them, not to mention the continuing work that people are doing throughout the nation regarding race and law enforcement.

As we begin to get involved, don’t forget that the devil’s in the details.  When one works to fight authority, authority fights back, and it does so with all the bureaucratic might at its disposal.  To deal with that requires that at least some part of your organization work within the system.

Debra shared a story with us in her last post about her experience at a Moral Monday protest in Connecticut.  In it she describes how the protest was eventually shut down because they were using a bullhorn without a permit violating noise ordinance.

While I’m not personally familiar with the noise ordinances in her area, my father is in local government and I know that noise ordinances are dense and extremely nuanced.  I recall that he told me the story of a noise ordinance based confrontation over the ringing of church bells in my hometown.  While, in this case, the situation was not one of protest, one can’t help but consider this:  if citizens will fight to reduce the volume of church bells, they’ll certainly go to the mat when activists protest in the streets!

Permits are a touchy subject.  I had a conversation with two activists recently where one claimed that you should always contact the local government and get the necessary permits while the other said to do so was effectively colluding with a corrupt system.  While I philosophically agree with the latter point of view, I can’t help but see the practicality of the former.  Why give authority figures — law enforcement, media, local governments, etc. — more ammunition to use against us when these attacks can be disarmed with some paperwork and a few filing fees?

It is in our best interests to go over the details of our planned protest with the authorities.  In my experience, which is both limited and privileged, the authorities have supported–in some cases enthusiastically–my work and were relieved when I could present to them an agenda or outline of the event and what we intended to do.  Admittedly, with the exception of a few fur protests years ago in Pennsylvania, my work has largely included local religious officials and that very likely helps to smooth what would otherwise be a bumpy road.

Similarly, law enforcement usually enjoys a heads-up regarding your plans; at least provide them with a date and time and maybe a reminder in case the details get lost.  If nothing else, they’ll know what’s going on if citizens begin to complain about your activities.  At worst, they’ll need to have officers available, perhaps for your own protection depending on what, specifically, it is that you’re planning to do.

And, though often the target of our derision (jokingly or otherwise), lawyers are a necessary, if pricy, tool to help work within the system.  If you’re working with a non-profit, maybe see if a lawyer’s billable hours could become a tax deduction of some sort.  Or, if there’s a lawyer involved within your protest, perhaps their services could be provided pro bono?  And, in the end, you might just need to get your facts straight and your agenda set and then try to keep those billable hours to a minimum if you need some legal assistance.

In the end, even if your I’s are dotted and your T’s are crossed, the permitting process can still drag on for some time.  The only way to deal with this is to start early.  Don’t wait until the eleventh hour to try to complete your paperwork.  Bureaucracy is a slow beast and cannot often be rushed.  When it can be prompted to move quickly, expect that your fees will likely increase proportionally to the speed at which you wish it to move!  And, even when you do provide enough time, sometimes delaying tactics are all that an authority has left to try to keep you from protesting.  An annual peace parade in Boston was recently canceled even though organizers were trying to work with the city for a year!

Bureaucracy is a powerful tool, and unfortunately, it’s implemented, controlled, and sometimes amended in real-time by the very authorities that we so often fight against to try to adapt to a changed field of play.  An awareness of the local, state, and federal statutes related to assembly and protest is necessary to us as we do our work.  Even though it can be distasteful or feel like busy work to fight through the mountain of paperwork, complete all the phone calls, and pay all the fees, in the end if you want your protest to take place, some times it becomes necessary to take a deep breath and appease the bureaucratic monster.

1 thought on “Detail Oriented Activism

  1. Debra

    Thank for this very thoughtful and timely post. I often go back and forth in my assessment of the wisdom of alerting the authorities prior to an event. I must make one minor correction to your article… our protest wasn’t actually shut down over the use of the bull horn. Rather, the police showed up while we were marching and the man using the bull horn elected to stop using it. The police then arrived at the church where we ended the march to talk to the leader who was also previously using a bull horn. No charges were filed but they said that in the future, PD should be notified ahead of planned events. The response was something akin to “not likely!”
    My personal experience with the rallies and marches I’ve helped to organize and in which I’ve used a bull horn is that I’ve never been stopped, harassed or in any way hampered by the police. I am a white, 63 year old woman. Had I been a black male, chances are it wouldn’t have been so easy.
    I would love to see the conversation on whether or not to notify the authorities in advance of events continue. My guess is there is a lot of wisdom on both sides of the question.

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