Advice on how to protest well
January 5, 2008 11:02 PM   Subscribe

Advice on protesting Alberto Gonzalez speaking at my campus.

It looks like Alberto Gonzalez will be speaking at my college this semester. I've talked with some friends about doing a protest and was looking for some advice.

At the moment, we are considering getting some orange jump suits and reenacting some of the the torture techniques (waterboarding, stress positions, cold temperatures, etc.) approved by the administration and him. We would also have quarter sheet fliers explaining what we're doing, a little bit about why Gonzalez is so evil, and directing people to a website for more information.

Any ideas on how to do this well? Anything we might not realize that we should know? Advice from people with more experience doing these types of protests?

Any and all information is appreciated.
posted by davidstandaford to Law & Government (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: How much time do you have to organize? I've always enjoyed those "turn your back on the scumfuck" protests. I would forgo the jumpsuits and instead see if you can gather the numbers to swarm the hall where he'll speak and gobble up the first several rows. Then, as soon as that weasel opens his mouth, stand up as one and turn your back to him. For bonus points, wear shirts that read "I do not recall" printed on the back, and make sure the whole mess makes it to YouTube.

Such a move stands a chance of being duplicated by fellow skeptics at the talk. If you do enough recruiting beforehand, you may well do some secondary recruiting by sheer force of numbers. The torture play sounds like a fine plan, but the smaller your numbers, the more likely you are to be arrested or carted off. Plus, you might not get very close to Gonzales if campus security sees you approaching in orange. The more numbers you have, the tougher your demonstration will be to stop.

If there's gonna be a meet & greet at the end, that's your best time to distribute fliers - from as close as possible to Alby.
posted by EatTheWeek at 11:19 PM on January 5, 2008 [4 favorites]

Foremost, get permission to protest from the Univ. administration. Get it in writing and do it ahead of time in case you need to appeal their decision. If you get permission, you may as well notify the local PD to let them know you will be staging a nonviolent protest on university property.

Take caution when you do faux torture on people, because even though it isn't done with malice, the "victim" can still go into panic (especially with waterboarding, I hear).
posted by skwillz at 11:20 PM on January 5, 2008

Oh, and if you go with the t-shirts, make sure they're covered until you make your move. This works best if it's an ambush.
posted by EatTheWeek at 11:24 PM on January 5, 2008

Make sure you have bail money ready to go.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:29 PM on January 5, 2008

Best answer: an abu ghraib-style butt pyramid next to the front door would get people to talking.
posted by bruce at 11:42 PM on January 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Definitely check with your school's administration on procedures for assemblies/protests. Some schools have "free speech zones" and the like. Private universities may outlaw protests altogether. Try looking up how your school fares in free speech-related issues at The Fire.
posted by roomwithaview at 12:07 AM on January 6, 2008

You can try to prevent him from speaking, such as by focusing on the money being spent or who the sponsor is. Make Fredo a hot potato.
posted by rhizome at 12:14 AM on January 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Think about your goals for the protest -- who are you trying to communicate to?:
- Raise awareness among students on your campus? (Awareness of what specifically?)
- Give a message to Gonzalez himself? (What message specifically?)
- Shame the administration for bringing him in to speak? (This is a tricky goal, and requires you to think a bit about: What's your general position on free exchange of ideas in a university setting?)
Secondary goals might include:
- Get on local TV?
- Have some good video to post to YouTube?

Decide on one primary goal for the protest.
Your protest action should be well-designed to achieve that goal. Especially, you want to avoid doing protest actions (like shouting over his speech) that just make your group look like assholes.

Will there be a Q&A at the talk? Depending on your goal, it might work to raise very dificult questions for him during the Q&A. (I suspect there won't be a Q&A, or that he will be prepared to brush off questions.)
Would any faculty members be interested in doing a "teach-in" in preparation for his visit?
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:28 AM on January 6, 2008 [5 favorites]

Don't forget to have people with clipboards handing out pens, paper, and stamped, adressed envelopes for the local politicians and opinion makers: local paper, state paper, board of regents, representative, senator, and so on. That, and flyers with email adresses of the same.

Along with that, hand out flyers with a list of suggestions : volunteer for the local amnesty international branch, hound their congresscritters,join moveon, and so on.

If you want to bring about meaninful change, there's a step that comes after "conciousness raising", and that's organization and action. Tell them what they need to do for that next step.

What about poster-size enlargments of the Abu Ghraib photos?
Appended at the bottom: "My judgment, this new paradigm" -- referring to the war on terrorism -- "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners." (etc.)
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:54 AM on January 6, 2008

I like the idea of getting the administration's permission before hand, but I actually think you can achieve your goal without a protest. See if you can get some of your faculty members on your side. Start with a petition. What you might do, is circulate some fliers with a catchy phrase or bit of information about Gonzalez and your web address (I bet a mefite can help come up with something). Get everybody to your website where they can learn more about your initiative. Get as many faculty and student signatures as you can. Bring this to the administration and let them know that you, and all the people on this list, would like Gonzalez's invitation recalled. Let them know that if they do not recall the invitation, your next move will be a nonviolent protest.

The petition allows you to get the word out in a peaceful manor and gather the support you need to make yourself heard when you approach the administration. I honestly think you can educate you peers and obtain your goal without ever lifting a picket.

Good luck.
posted by B(oYo)BIES at 1:49 AM on January 6, 2008

You could unfurl a banner inside. You would need to separate the banner into several pieces, each to be held by a different person, and rehearse beforehand. Disrupting the speech by chanting at the same time would be good. If you do that, you will be quickly escorted out by security and possibly detained (or worse) by law enforcement. A good defense against this would be to include in your contingent some Iraq war veterans, so that the authorities are more likely to just let you go. Don't get tazed. (...bro.)
posted by univac at 2:10 AM on January 6, 2008

And let us know how it works out... (probably by a most to metatalk...)
posted by DreamerFi at 2:46 AM on January 6, 2008

I like B(oYo)BIES's suggestion. What you're going to find is that the more theatricality you introduce (orange jumpsuits, waterboarding, pyramids, turning your backs, and the like), the more your actual message gets obscured by your antics. I see this happen every month with folks in my town who are demonstrating against our friendly local nuclear plant by means of giant puppets, die-ins, and the like. While they have a lot of fun, it's the tactics, not the message, that get the coverage in the news. Then they complain that the media are not taking them seriously, but the fact is, they're not being serious themselves.
posted by beagle at 4:52 AM on January 6, 2008

Best answer: I imagine your local College Democrats group, among others, are already protesting and probably in a more effective and serious manner. You should just consider joining them. I hate to see protests where there's obviously a lot of balkanization and each group trying to "looney lefty freak out against the man" each other. No one has ever cared for puppets and fake blood. It screams hot button and identity politics.

There's nothing wrong with an old fashioned picket. No need to throw feces.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:01 AM on January 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

In my experience protests end in the protestors looking shrill, and the protested not really giving a shit.

My advice: stage a counter event to overshadow Gonzo. Ideally it would be loud and accross the street. Maybe a make your voices heard rally? Most importanly, let the fucker speak, because taking away people's voices is what what Gonzales is all about.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 6:14 AM on January 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Any ideas on how to do this well?

If you actually want to stop the talk rather than creating a uselessly dramatic scene, track down major donors to your college (easy to do -- most colleges publish an annual report) and ask them to let the development folks know where they stand on hosting Gonzales. Most colleges would welcome the PR from a student-organized protest and care little about the opinion of employees.
posted by backupjesus at 6:21 AM on January 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

P.S. Mock adulation is also great. At my college we all turned ourselves into the police for having practiced sodomy, and thanked the police for saving us from our beastial cravings. (NOTE: we were careful to have more people than there were cells by a factor of two)

If you can get to the talk you could clap loudly and chant 'Go Fredo' while tearing up copies of the Bill of Rights.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 6:22 AM on January 6, 2008

Seconding "avoid histrionics." A group of students at Penn State were protesting sweatshop labor while I was there* by walking around campus wearing nothing but signs. They then demanded an audience with the president of the university, who denied them the opportunity, citing the fact that they looked like idiots who were more interested in getting on the front page of the university's newspaper (they did) than actually making a difference of any sort (they didn't).

Be calm and rational, and demonstrate through your actions that your notion of liberalism is rooted in calm rationality instead of theatrical identity politics. You'll notice that the black rights movement, with peaceful sit-ins and simply not following unfair laws, was generally negatively affected by the more violent factions, at least in the public eye.

In other words, keep your discourse to a position where you appear, for all the world, to be the better person, rather than some knee-jerk stimulus-response crazy.

*To be fair, I don't really oppose it, inasmuch as the alternative is even less employment in extremely poor nations.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:26 AM on January 6, 2008

Think very seriously and carefully of the single most inevitably damning question possible. Something that's not a tirade loaded into a question, but just a short question with no survivable answer. Something that moderates would be swayed by. I'd go with something along the lines of "To what extent and for how long do you think it is acceptable for the Administration to violate the law without notifying Congress that the law needs to be changed?"
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:46 AM on January 6, 2008

Have something better prepared than "Don't tase me, bro."

And there's always the slow sarcastic clap.
posted by spec80 at 8:20 AM on January 6, 2008

If you do go with reenactments of torture, keep this guy in mind. I'm with those who are suggesting a calm, measured, adult response - leave the puppets & street theater at home. Make sure you're aware of the local regulations on assemblies (campus and/or town rules) - you may decide they're unfair and should be disregarded, but you'll want to know what everyone is getting themselves into, and exactly what you can do before the police are allowed to shut you down.

If you decided to protest inside, in front of Gonzales, *please* don't try to prevent him from speaking - the bad press generated by such protests tends to completely overwhelm whatever point the protesters are trying to make, and discredits everyone else on that side of the issue in question.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 8:49 AM on January 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ringing cell phones. Get as many people to leave their phones on, and have them ring often. The message is that he isn't important enough to silence your cell phone.

Or, you could simply vomit during his talk. Organize a 'vomit-in', just make sure you bring your toothbrush ok?
posted by fuq at 9:08 AM on January 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't understand why some posters here think that there must be a choice between theater-style protests and petition-and-letters-to-the-editor-style protests. Especially in the context of Gonzales and the topic of torture. To me, the theater-style protests are especially needed and critical for Gonzales (and all of the other torture people from OLC).

For the written information, there's some great articles, for example in the New Yorker, with damning detailed information reviewing how Gonzales and Yoo (both lawyers, for fuck's sake, and working in the highest governmental offices purportedly to uphold the Constitution) knowingly violated domestic and international to permit and encourage torture (!!) in the name of war (doesn't that make them war criminals?). I'll look for a few examples to post here. I think it would be awesome if the same people who executed the on-the-scene visual theater protest had the best and most accurate materials setting out the prosecutor's case for this person.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:00 AM on January 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

It generally turns me off when protesters are just rude and disruptive. I like the ideas of contacting the school's major donors and complaining, and contacting media and so forth, and handing out flyers.

I really like a robot made out of meat's idea. Except it can't just be you. Get as many people as possible involved. At many events, it seems no one wants to ask the first question, which leaves you an awesome opportunity to get a lot of people asking questions. And the advice to make sure it's "not a tirade loaded into a question" is excellent.

College--and America in general, but especially colleges--is about the free exchange of ideas, and just freedom of speech. So let him come and speak, and make sure to be a very attentive audience asking lots of questions. Just don't be the disruptive jerks that squander their chance to make a point by doing nothing but irritating people.
posted by fogster at 10:03 AM on January 6, 2008

I think you should combine a few of the suggestions above:

Let him get a few moments into it and then start unfurling gigantic banners that are really gigantic photos of Abu Ghraib .

Imagine it. "Blah Blah the pursuit of liberty...blah blah, and then those enormous pictures start telling the real truth.

Think about it: you get a thousand words worth out of each one.
posted by 4ster at 10:24 AM on January 6, 2008

I think it needs to be visually interesting without being disruptive, e.g. in an auditorium, blocking other people's view, or yelling, is disruptive, but, for example, all wearing the same color shirt with a consistent message in the front rows has a visual impact. I would also encourage you to be consistent and focused per LobsterMitten's note.
posted by idb at 10:55 AM on January 6, 2008

So let him come and speak, and make sure to be a very attentive audience asking lots of questions.

If you can't stop the speech, I think the second-best thing to do is to deny Gonzales an audience. He's had his chance to express his ideas, and there are no indications that he'll say anything unique once he reaches this particular college. (That's why I think the first priority is to have him disinvited; the college has no compelling interest in sponsoring such an information-free event.) The criticism against Gonzales has also been fully aired at this point, and graphically restating the case isn't going to change anyone's minds. Any form of protest, either inside or outside the hall, is just going to make the story Gonzales and his supporters vs. his detractors. If there are no detractors, there's no story, except perhaps the low attendance at the speech.

(Poor attendance will also hurt financially whatever groups are sponsoring the speech, since Gonzales is not doing this for free. If the college is kicking in money, it will have to answer questions from donors about why it sponsored such a money loser.)
posted by backupjesus at 11:07 AM on January 6, 2008

If nobody's mentioned a press release yet, write one. If the protest is going to be visual, get the college paper to send a photographer, and you could try local TV, too. Whether anyone covers it will be partially determined by the protest and partially determined by what else is happening in the news that day.
posted by salvia at 11:31 AM on January 6, 2008

I do not in any way support Gonzales or the Bush administration. I think their actions are reprehensible. However, I would be very interested in hearing Gonzales speak if the opportunity were presented to me. If a person or group disrupted that opportunity, either by getting the speech canceled or by interrupting it as it was taking place, I would think very negatively of that person or group and would consider them to be disrupting legitimate political discourse. And I bet that people who are less liberal than I am would spin wild accusations about "the real truth the loony left is conspiring to prevent you from hearing," or some such. Stopping the speech can only hurt you.

If you disrupt the speech itself, you run a very real risk of alienating moderates (or indeed, anyone who doesn't already agree with everything you believe). If your goal is to change anyone's mind or educate anyone, you must avoid being disruptive or appearing hysterical. I understand that you're angry and upset, and there are good reasons to be. But Gonzales will speak in calm, reasonable-sounding tones. You need to out-reasonable him.

I would suggest putting together the best flier you can listing a few key things that the administration has done to which you object. Don't try to list everything; focus on 3-5 key points. Get a graphic designer to look it over to make it look good. Don't include a lot of graphic photos or over-the-top accusations. Just state facts. Include a website URL that leads readers to more information about how they can get involved with campus pro-peace or anti-administration groups, again with moderate, reasonable language and tone. Print it on non-neon colored paper. Hand it out at the event. Do not scream and yell. Do not stage mock torture. Above all else, do not disrupt the speech. You need to look like the more reasonable party you are, and disrupting the speech or yelling or staging a scene will not help you do that.
posted by decathecting at 11:34 AM on January 6, 2008

Seconding all those who are advocating flyering, being on good behavior and staying on message. No one listens to a bunch of dirty hippies with giant puppets in bondage gear.
posted by electroboy at 2:25 PM on January 6, 2008

Go the Billionaires for Bush route and do some mock adulation (as suggested above). Billionaires love torturing the weak! Get your tux on and your shoes shined!
posted by zpousman at 4:22 PM on January 6, 2008

decathecting: ...I would think very negatively of that person or group and would consider them to be disrupting legitimate political discourse.

Reasonable people can disagree whether Gonzales repeating the same talking points again and answering only filtered questions constitutes political discourse. A speech for hire, though, is entertainment, and it's quite reasonable for a college's administration to reject certain types of entertainment as inapporpriate use of the college's funds and/or resources.

Interrupting entertainment one knows one will dislike is immature and rude, though, so I concur that in-the-hall-type protests are a poor idea.
posted by backupjesus at 5:10 PM on January 6, 2008

Best answer: What school is this at the Gonzales is going to speak? At Pomona we considered getting Gonzales but ended up deciding against it

As to effective protesting some things that did and didn't work for protesting John Yoo and later illegal-immigration opponent Marvin Stewart

Raise awareness before among the student body. Fliers work well for this. Get people to sign some type of petition saying that they don't think that its an appropriate use of school funds. This approach got my school not to bring Gonzales to campus, won't necessarily change anything, but a strong reaction might cause the school to avoid offensive speakers in the future.

Counter programming is another good option. Don't necessarily run at the same time, but have another event that week with a professor/well informed student providing counterpoints to Gonzales.

Silently facing away in large numbers.
Choosing someone to ask a well framed difficult question
Yelling/chanting/being disrespectful and annoying.
Ranting disguised as a question.
Big showy spectacles like dressing up as anything.

At John Yoo a group came in dressed as prisoners from Abu garib chanting with a big sign they unfurled. Their sign was illegible. Their yelling was annoying to the crowd. The generally very liberal audience booed the protesters. Give us well formed substance arguing your point. How do you listen to more clowns in costumes or people intelligently arguing their case.
posted by vegetableagony at 7:27 PM on January 6, 2008

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