Sojourner's Blog

May 24, 2011

Re-Imagining Campus Protest Rallies

Now that the school year is winding down, it’s a good time to  look back, evaluate, and start laying plans for the Fall.

The campus protest rally with a handful of fiery speakers and  some mass chanting is a staple of protest  politics — a traditional method of expressing  opposition and anger. But as we’ve seen this past year, when it’s  repeated over and over with the same speakers, the same rhetoric,  the and same slogans its effectiveness diminishes and the number  of participants declines.

It’s now clear that the campaign to defend and reform public  higher education is going to be a long hard road. A struggle that  can only be won by building a broad-based mass movement. Mass  movements don’t just happen, they are built by committed activists. But as a general rule, most people don’t become  politically active from listening to speeches, reading websites &  leaflets, or receiving emails & tweets. Organizations and  movements are built by conversations and involving people in  activities — activities that are more substantive  than listening to rally speakers or shouting slogans in a group  chant.

Creativity is a pillar of nonviolent direct action. We  need to apply some creative thinking to the traditional campus  protest rally so as to more effectively involve people in active  participation. For example:

Speak-Out Circles. One technique that proved useful  during the long student strike at S.F. State in 1968 was to  occasionally replace the noon rally with speak-out circles.  Instead of making the usual speeches, we called on people to form  small circles of 6-12 where everyone was encouraged to discuss  the issues. Pre-assigned circle-leaders spread out, raised their  hands, and shouted “form a circle on me.” When folk gathered  around, the leader asked: “Well, what do you think about  [whatever]?” and encouraged dialog. Dialog and discussion were  the keys, not the typical “I’m-the-expert-you-listen-to-me” mode  of speakers/teachers to passive audiences & classes. When done  successfully, speak-out circles allowed strike supporters to  discuss and debate with uninvolved students and opponents.

Inevitably, some circles didn’t jell and dissipated, but  others became lively, loud, and argumentative and attracted more  and more people to gather around. (Yes, encouraging those who  disagreed with us to speak was part of the method.) When a lively  circle became too large, and people were becoming frustrated  because they wanted to contribute their opinions and weren’t  getting an opportunity, a new leader pulled some away to start a  new circle — “Let’s start a new circle over  here!” On our best day, we once built up from an initial 3 to  eventually 11 circles all going at once. The entire lawn in front  of the cafeteria (now the student union) was a bubbling ferment  of ideas and passion and involvement.

Speak-out circles were most effective when something  particularly controversial had just occurred (usually by us) and  people were already buzzing, but they could be used at any time.  More students were moved to support the strike from their  participation in the ferment of those circles than from our  typical we-speak-you-listen rallies. And organizers used them to  spot potential activists for longer conversations, personal  invitations to committee meetings, and so on.

Big Post-Its Campaign. Today we can buy pads of easel- size Post-Its made from newsprint paper. They’re used at meetings  where ideas are written down large and stuck up on the walls.  Instead of a typical noon protest rally, how about bringing out  some big Post-It pads and a bucket of Sharpies and ask people to  write down their own ideas on the issues and post them up on the  walls and glass of nearby buildings. Have cadre prepared to start  it off with some well thought out provocative statements and be  the first to post them up. Be sure to date each statement,  photograph them, and put them up on the internet to share with  other schools (that way they won’t be lost if the administration  orders them torn down).

Use rolls of Blue Tape to reinforce the paper’s sticky back so  that the Post-Its stay up even on concrete walls (brick walls  usually won’t work even with tape). Using Blue Tape is important  because it’s designed to not damage underlying surfaces. Our core  message is that the power-elites are trying to destroy public  higher-education and we don’t want to make it easy for them to  divert the discussion by accusing us of vandalizing school  buildings.

(For those of you with an interest in ancient history, look up  “Big Character Posters” which were powerfully used in the Chinese  Democracy Movement of the mid-1970s until the government  suppressed them.)

We used to say “If you don’t like the history they’re teaching  you, go out and make some of your own.” If these ideas from an  old geezer find no favor in your eyes, create some of your own,  because we all need to start thinking out of the box.

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