by Lisa Fithian
In the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency, grassroots organizers held a staggering 25,000 protests — some huge, some small — all around the country. It’s never a bad idea to display dissent against terrible governance and terrible policies, but protests should be more than a way to vent outrage; they should fit into a larger strategic plan.
Few organizers have planned as many different kinds of actions and campaigns as longtime movement trainer and strategist Lisa Fithian. A well-executed protest action should not only communicate a strong message and place pressure on a target. It should be designed as part of a longer-term strategy to win — whatever winning means in context — and to build the power and scope of a movement. This list of questions, compiled by Fithian, are designed to help you think through not only how to plan a protest, but how to think of each action as a step in a larger plan to achieve your goals.
Many elements go into making your action successful. Take the time at the front end to be clear, really clear, about what you are trying to do and why. It can make all the difference.
If your plans are good, if you have a realistic assessment of your numbers and your resources, and if the people working on it are accountable, the only thing to be worried about is the weather. And this is no small matter. Sitting on a street in January in Michigan is not going to quickly move people to stronger actions. So be smart about what you are asking people to do.
Start with the basics
What is the problem, and what are you trying to accomplish?
Who is your target — the person or institution who has the power to decide?
What is your message? Can it be summed up in a slogan or soundbite?
Do the message and target fit together in a way that is easily understandable?
How does your action site relate to your target? Is it one and the same? If you are considering multiple action sites, which one best communicates your message and will best accommodate your action? (Some things to consider in choosing an action site are size, visibility, access, proximity to roads, cell service, fences, security, sidewalks.)
Does the action scenario communicate your message without words? A picture tells the story!
Is the action symbolic or disruptive? Is it public or secret?
How many people do you need for the action? Where will they come from?
How will you change the plan if you don’t have enough people?
What time are you planning the action? Are you planning arrests? If so, is the action early, to minimize the possibility of people staying in jail overnight?
Do you have all the legal information you need? Are lawyers on call?
Who are the stakeholders in the fight, and who are your allies?
What is your strategy for attracting media attention?
Refine the strategy
What is your intention? What is your vision for the future? How do you define “winning”?
What stage is your campaign in? Do you need to escalate, draw attention, educate the media? What story are you trying to tell?
What is your strategy to win? Are other groups or organizations using different strategies? How do you or your group fit into or complement them?
Action Goals (Public)
What are you trying to achieve by taking action at this point? To gain leverage for negotiation? Sound the general alarm? Prevent greater harm from occurring? Does this action fit into a larger campaign or more long-term strategy?
Action Goals (Private)
Possibilities include: Build the movement. Inspire others by showing them that individuals can make a difference. Empower yourself and your friends. Boost morale.
Who are the decision-makers as well as secondary or tertiary targets — the people who can influence the primary decision-maker? Who is the target of the action? What do you want them to do?
What are your short-term demands? What are your long-term demands? How can you escalate if they’re not met?
Timing and Political Climate
How soon do you need to take action? Why now? Is there a more strategic date? What makes that day special? Is it special only to you, your organization or movement? Is it a culturally important date? What is the political climate? What has happened recently? How is your campaign relevant to people in your community/state/country? How is it compelling and timely? Have you considered a calendar of actions to roll out that escalate to create a sense of crisis for your target?
Who is your audience? Who are you trying to affect and move? If you have more then one, are your messages tailored to their interests?
How can you enlist non-traditional communities for this action? Will your action build or foster new relationships and community support for your campaign? Will the tactic you’ve chosen alienate or interest the general public?
What resources do you have in terms of people, time, money, equipment, skills?
What could you try that has never been tried before? What could you do differently? How could you involve artists or musicians in this action?
What does the problem/solution look like? Can you translate that into words, picture or movements? What compelling image(s) will accompany your action and reach your audience? What image would you like to see in the newspaper?
What symbols can you use to simplify and streamline your message to the audience? Could you exploit your opponent’s symbols or slogans against them?
What is the angle? What makes it newsworthy? What is new about the action? What makes this significant?