Many, many people are hitting the streets in recent weeks in the United States. For most of them, my guess is they're doing it for the first time. I say this because every time I go to a major protest, I ask lots of random people if they have been to many other such protests. Most people, young and old, tell me this is their first one.
Since the recent upsurge in protest activity, a lot of long-time activist types have been writing helpful things about what kind of movement we need, and which way forward. Other people have been writing distinctly unhelpful things. And then whether their perspective is helpful or not, it can easily run the risk of seeming patronizing.
Those of us who have been involved with different social movements for a long time who have learned anything from the experience probably have a universal desire not to see mistakes we have made many times before get repeated again. Of course we know that many of these mistakes will be made again, and to no small extent we are now watching that happen -- and we're preaching condescendingly about it in some cases, or participating more usefully in ongoing developments in other cases (or some of both).
I do have a lot of opinions on what kind of movement we need to take on Trump and his cabinet of xenophobes, racists, and former Goldman Sachs employees. Namely, the same kind of movement we would have needed to take on the last cabinet full of former Goldman Sachs employees. The kind of movement that has brought governments and corporations to their knees in the past -- big, inclusive, militant, with lots of very frequent bouts of mass civil disobedience, which can take different forms at different points in history and in different societies.
But as a professional performer who specializes in singing at protest rallies for the past 25 years or so, I feel like the most useful thing for me to focus on in terms of any advice involves the nitty gritty -- the logistics of pulling off that oft-maligned aspect of pretty much all social movements known as the protest rally or demonstration.
I'll be the first to say that effective movements always involve a lot more than just holding rallies in some public square for an afternoon and then everybody goes home. If such rallies are all that a movement involves, you can be sure it won't go anywhere.
But as a part of a broader social movement, the spectacle of the protest rally can play an important role in movement-building, if it's done right. If not done right, it can have exactly the opposite effect, and play an important role in movement-killing. In the interest of building the movement rather than killing it, I offer the following thoughts.
First a question: in the act of holding a protest rally, exactly what are we trying to achieve? And then the obvious followup: how do we achieve that?
Well, there may be many things we're trying to achieve through having a protest rally -- and some of them may be at cross-currents with each other. We often must prioritize one thing over another.
For example, one goal may be to have a really big demo. Another may be to use the occasion to educate the public about the issues at hand. Another may be to make sure we have an occasion where someone from every organization that came together to make the rally happen gets a chance to address the crowd.
While these are all sensible goals, they all risk losing the forest for the trees. It seems to me that the over-riding goal of this particular, small element of a social movement -- the protest rally -- should be to build the movement.
So the real question is, out of all the different strategies a social movement can employ to build itself, what role can a protest rally play in that?
My answer: it can foster a sense of community -- and with that, a sense of optimism. Optimism is the oxygen of social movements (and perhaps, to extend the metaphor, repression is the nitrogen). A social movement that is inclusive rather than cliquish, inspirational rather than preachy -- a movement with a culture, rather than an ad hoc collection of otherwise unrelated organizations coming together for a little while.
Most people attending the rally are already familiar with the situation. They don't need more people to tell them about it. That's depressing. They want people to talk about what plans they have for the near future in terms of future actions, protests, acts of civil disobedience, strikes, whatever is coming up.
Different people and organizations involved with the protest can find lots of ways of identifying themselves and their groups aside from taking up time on the stage telling us about their organizations. We need a movement that sees beyond that, and demonstrates this vision in many ways, including on the stages at the rallies, by prioritizing movement-building over station identification.
If movement-building requires optimism, and optimism requires a sense of inclusive community, then culture is the appropriate medium for the message. This can include really good speeches -- as long as the speakers are well aware that what they are doing, fundamentally, is theatrical in nature.
But it is music, poetry, skits, street theater, public art, giant puppets, marching bands that produce the oxygen at a rally.
These things don't all have to be political, but as long as the quality is there, it's usually better to prioritize politically relevant performers over performers who may be professional, or perhaps even really famous, but who don't have a powerful message that is related to the situation at hand.
The artists, musicians, comedians, actors, etc., are out there in huge numbers, all around you. If you don't know where to find them, where to connect with them, how to involve them in the rally you're organizing, then find out. Don't give up -- just go outside of your normal social circles and look in that cultural sphere. They'll be excited once you meet them -- they're already looking for you. They just don't know where to look for a protest organizer any more than you know where to find a horn player.
A bonus of protest organizers becoming well-connected with the cultural spheres is that stage hands know how to set up stages, musicians often know people who own sound systems, and they can teach you good microphone technique, which is essential for any speaker who wants to be taken seriously (and be heard).
In order to make this work well (that is, work), you need to think about things like whether you need to hire a sound company to run the stage (which obviously requires a budget of some kind), or whether this is something people with bits of equipment can cobble together themselves. If you're expecting crowds in the thousands, you'll definitely need to have a budget of at least a few hundred dollars to hire a sound company. If you're organizing something smaller than that, you may be able to easily cultivate the connections within the music scene that come with sound equipment.
In terms of attracting this kind of talent to your protests, you should know that what the artists who can make the protest an inspiring, worthwhile occasion want from you is to be taken seriously. That's all, really. Taking an artist seriously means understanding that they have needs in this situation. They need a sound system that is adequate for whatever they're doing -- which can vary wildly depending on whether we're talking about a 10-piece band or a singer with a guitar -- and they need an audience. So don't put the band on before the rally starts or after it ends. Put them on during the rally. Ideally with great frequency, and for long periods of time.
Keep your rally short. Leave them wanting more. This is theater, and all performers know these maxims. You need to, too. Two hours is a good maximum. Even that is long. All rallies, in my humble opinion, should be mostly music and other forms of culture, in terms of what happens on the stage. This is doubly true of any rally that's longer than two hours. If you're doing something like that, then you should look at it more as a festival than a rally. Which, really, is equally appropriate for the shorter rallies, as well.
If a rally is really good, well-timed, well-executed, and mostly cultural in nature, it shouldn't lose people as it goes. It may even grow in size as it goes on. This is a sign that there is an energy being created by the confluence of successful factors you have brought together that day. The kind of energy that makes people want more, want to come back.
If you are losing lots of people as the rally is going, you need to face the reality that you have failed to organize a good rally. You need to ask yourself what went wrong -- because, to be sure, something did. If you lost half the crowd over the course of your two-hour rally, something went very wrong.
Maybe people in the back couldn't hear anything because the sound system was too small. Maybe the speakers were preachy. Maybe there were too many speakers. Maybe they didn't know how to use microphones and couldn't be heard, even though the sound system was adequate. Maybe they were reading their speeches from pieces of paper that they couldn't see very well. Maybe there was barely any music, or the music that you had wasn't any good, or lacked sufficient mass appeal. Maybe you were focusing too much on letting everybody say something, rather than focusing on how the overall rally should flow.
I have attended a few rallies like that very recently, in the interest of full disclosure, which is really what inspired me to write this, as a form of self-therapy. I feel a little better now. If anybody reads this, shares it with their friends and tells me they found something useful in it, I will feel even more better.
See you on the streets.