Resistance 101: Basics of Community Organizing for SF/F Creators & Consumers, Volume One: Protest Tips and Tricks

This is really happening.

The bullies won. And the bullying will commence. And it will be rough. No one is going to save us. We will have to save ourselves.

The good news for science fiction and fantasy fans and creators who are frightened of what political nightmares 2017 will bring: we are already revolutionaries. We reject the unacceptable constraints of reality, of a world where people cannot fly, where we’re alone in the universe, where magic and monsters aren’t real. We forsake this world on a regular basis for books and movies and video games where these things, like justice, exist.

“Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there,” said Samuel R. Delany. “It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently.”

As we confront a new political moment, as the reins of government are seized by people who made hate the centerpieces of their campaign, many of us are eager to take our fear and our anger and transform it into something positive. To fight back, as these people begin to honor their terrifying campaign promises.

I’ve been a community organizer for fifteen years. I’ve helped organize hundreds of direct actions, ranging from tame sidewalk rallies to occupations of government office building lobbies to tent cities on vacant bank-owned properties. I’ve gotten arrested in Central Park at a midnight protest; I’ve been illegally barred from public legislative hearings; I was detained by the Secret Service while protesting outside the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Here’s the thing, though. I’m not some badass fearless radical fuck-the-man kinda dude. I am the exact opposite. Abusive cop encounters as a kid scarred me for life. I started out just making signs for protests, because I like to draw. I was scared shitless the first time I stared down a line of police officers. But that only lasted a minute. Because there were a lot of us, and we were fighting something evil. That’s the first lesson: you don’t need to be brave on your own, because you will be brave together.

So I thought I’d share some further lessons from my work. From the ridiculous to the sublime, the ideologically abstract to the gritty and practical, here are some Protest Basics. With the caveat that there’s no one way to do any of this, and you may have completely different approaches, and that’s fine, because what’s important here isn’t how we fight, but simply that we fight.

Protests shouldn’t happen in a vacuum—you should connect your direct action to other things that build a resistance movement, and I’ll talk about how to do that a little bit later, but for now I wanna focus on the very simple things you can do to hit the streets and fight like hell against the hate.

Bring water, and snacks. Don’t go overboard—you gotta carry all this stuff around, after all—but it’s good to have a Go Bag at the ready. Oreos are excellent because you can share.

Talk to people. Make friends. Possibly with Oreos! Protest is less about convincing enemies than about building power and relationships with friends, and bringing new people into the work.

Charge your devices before leaving. Bring an external battery if possible. Turn off your phone when the battery falls to 10 percent, so you save something for emergencies.

Check the weather beforehand. Prepare for temperature extremes.

Carry small bills so that if necessary, you or your comrades can step into a nearby establishment and get a hot beverage, a bottle of water, use the bathroom, or make a phone call. Some places will welcome you, thank you for protesting, give you free stuff, but you can’t depend on that, so it’s good to be able to be a paying customer.

Make flyers ahead of time! Onlookers ask, “What’s this about?” and I’m like “Uh… A lot?” It’s good to have concise messaging with links and images, ready to share.

Understand: police response to a protest depends on where you are. Some places it’s chill and hands off. Elsewhere it is NOT. Privilege is, as always, a factor; cops often extend more courtesy and understanding to white protesters than people of color. Ask around to figure out how your local cops respond to direct action.

There are always vocal sideline jerks. Be careful engaging. You won’t convince them, and it can be super stressful and demoralizing. You’re not there for them. You’re there to galvanize the people who do care; to offer others an opportunity to step up and get involved.

Document and share widely, possibly with pictures, cool chants, or funny/powerful overheard quotes. Your social media community wants to rally with you.

Be realistic about what you wanna get out of a protest. Immediate total victory is unlikely. But every action is a vital step—the point is to educate and activate. So many times I’ve worked on a direct action that didn’t achieve its primary goal—the politician we were dogging didn’t show up; the bill we were trying to block passed—but at each of them I saw at least one person transform from quiet and passive to vocal and active. Actions are how people become activists, and how activists become leaders.

Balance doing what feels good and safe with what might involve stepping outside your comfort zone. Honor both. Stepping off the sidewalk (where you can march without a permit) and into the street (where you can’t) is frightening, but it’s also incredibly liberating.

Chant. Yelling in public feels weird, especially if you’re an introvert, but it’s empowering and makes onlookers take it more seriously. Plus the photos in the paper look better if you’re all yelling as one, versus a line of grim mouths.

Creativity matters. Sidewalk marches and press conferences only do so much. Messaging, props, and locale should be edgy and fun and fresh! Go where they don’t expect you. When a politician was blocking a bill we wanted, we didn’t just protest outside his office. We went to his house to talk to his neighbors. We went to a restaurant while he was having a party for campaign donors, and all his rich friends got an earful. And when another politician was “waffling” on a campaign promise she made, we went to her office with a whole bunch of frozen waffles (and giant cardboard ones… and journalists).

Sometimes protest is scary. That’s OK. We’re fighting powerful foes who do not want to change. Push the issue; push yourself.

Organizing means supporting people trying new things and taking on new roles, so push your comrades to step outside their comfort zone, but understand that there are lots of reasons why people can’t attend a direct action, especially if there’s a risk of police interaction. Parole, immigration status, disability, child care needs, inflexible work schedules—there’s no shame in any of that. There’s lots of work to do behind the scenes, and the people supporting a protest are every bit as important as the people holding up signs in the streets.

Here are some of the important roles that don’t involve physically attending a protest: Signal boosting for friends who are out there; phone banking to mobilize your network; writing press releases; placing media calls on the day of the action; conducting location research (Where are the nearest bathrooms? Parking spots? Public transit stops? When is foot traffic at its heaviest?); hosting sign-making parties; writing chants; or calling legislators. One of the things I adore about the film Selma is how much of the unglamorous behind-the-scenes work of organizing it shows—the women and men who cooked and provided legal counsel and critiqued early drafts of famous speeches. Everyone knows who Martin Luther King Jr. was, but movements aren’t made of one person. Tens of thousands fought alongside him, and their work was as important as his.

Don’t stress out about every detail. I forget half this shit every single time. You’ll have a great action no matter what.

If you’re planning civil disobedience, ONLY discuss it with people you 100 percent trust, and only in person.

Learn about security culture basics. Surveillance and infiltration are real. You can start here: http://freepacifica.savegrassrootsradio.org/aia/sec_basics.html.

Read history. Learn how the US government tried so hard to destroy the Black Panthers and discredit Civil Rights Movement leaders; how the British exploited division to destabilize the Indian independence movement; how the leadership of marginalized groups is often minimized in the narratives and histories of resistance, like the role of trans women of color at Stonewall being erased in the movie version.

Finally: go deeper.

Isolated protests on their own don’t change things. To make the kinds of changes we want to see, we’ll need a movement. We’ll need to organize. We’ll need to deepen our relationships, and our analysis, and support each other in tough times, and applaud each other when we win things, and hold each other accountable when we mess up. The good news is that science fiction and fantasy fans are good at building community. For many of us it was an essential survival skill: spotting the people who think like us, and bonding over our shared passions. That’s all organizing is. Community-building is the foundation of good activism. In the next issue, I’ll focus on how we connect individual activism to issue-based, intersectional community organizing.

For now I’ll leave you with a chant from NYC anti-Trump protests, and a reminder that nothing is a foregone conclusion:

WE WON’T LET HATRED WIN!

THIS IS WHERE THE FIGHT BEGINS!

Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller is a writer and a community organizer. His fiction has appeared in Uncanny, Lightspeed, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Apex, Strange Horizons, and The Minnesota Review, among others. His debut novel The Art of Starving (YA/SF) will be published by HarperCollins in July, 2017, followed by Blackfish City from Ecco Press in 2018. His stories have been nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards, and he’s a winner of the Shirley Jackson Award. He lives in New York City, and at www.samjmiller.com.

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