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Some Extremely Effective Grassroots Protest Methods & Exactly Why They Work

A post by Jamie


Last week, I wrote about an annoyingly pervasive blight of unchecked male privilege at grassroots protests, which is actually angry-making when the protest concerns an attack against women’s rights. But when that attack against women’s rights involves multiple layers of outright racism on top of that (racialized women’s rights being particularly vulnerable already, due to the effects of systemic racism on the upholding/deprivation of justice for women of colour), it’s enough to make me utterly livid. I am referring to men walking up to either a pro-life demonstration being attended by a grassroots pro-choice counter-protest, or to an isolated pro-choice demonstration, and playing the Devil’s advocate on one or both sides (but usually just the pro-life side) for hours and hours of mental masturbation. I call them Philosophy Dudebros and for several reasons, they just don’t mix with grassroots. This post is about (some of) what the grassroots are doing for pro-choice demonstrations and counter-protests, and exactly why they are doing it. Understanding effective pro-choice tactics and the reasons why they work, in addition to an understanding of intersectional influences (such as the effects of racism or colonialism in the dialogue on both sides of the issue), one can easily apply that knowledge to their activism on other social justice issues.

Keyboard Warrior Warning: Cut the shit, Sonny. I don’t have time for another three days of your dudebro-ing. This post is about actual activism. In fact, I don’t think anyone does, and that rather generously includes you too.

Tone Police Warning: I’m not apologizing for profanity, for the manner in which I’ve characterized different groups of people with egregiously harmful political leanings, or how aggressive my tactics are as an activist. Get used to it. Maybe grow a backbone in the interim.

1. Differential Appearances

When there is just myself — or myself plus one or two other people — at a grassroots protest, an absolutely critical component of the success of our actions is how well distinguished we are from the people we are counter-picketing. I have come to the conclusion that this is largely due to the fact that the general public tends to see us there first and read our signs momentarily after the fact, and if we too closely resemble the people we are counter-picketing, we will be mistaken for one of them on sight alone. The monumental feat of successfully differentiating our appearances is especially difficult to overcome in either bad weather (i.e., I’m not going to freeze my tits off by standing in a downpour topless) or when I’m alone or accompanied by just one or two other people. I have tended towards using various costumes, props, and other accessories, and sometimes even public toplessness, to make myself stand apart from the people I’m picketing. Again, this is especially important when I’m all alone out there and standing right next to them (which I have even done topless as well — and perhaps most remarkably, in the rain). All of these tactics have been met with hostility from my opponents, but in all seriousness, they will hurl insults, rape apologetics, bad intentions, blatant lies, and general hostility towards anyone who stands up against them, no matter what they look like doing it. So I just try to make it harder for them to keep that up. Sometimes it’s a clown nose. Sometimes it’s a clown horn, and I honk it until their lips stop moving while yelling “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over all this noise I’m deliberately making!” And sometimes it’s my uniquely beautiful body (which is covered in black and grey tattoos of bats, spiders, skulls, and pentagrams, among other artwork). It won’t stop them from being disgusting hypocrites, but at least I’m having fun making them look like even bigger assholes than they already appear to be.

Other ways that pro-choicers have been successful in distinguishing themselves from the pro-lifers they are counter-picketing is by linking arms (assuming there are enough people present), standing in front of pro-life signs (we’ve done this topless, too), and singing or chanting. And ohhh, the singing really gets under pro-lifers’ skin, in case you were wondering whether or not it’s anatomically possible for anything to get under there. One of my songbird friends once dropped by the site of a weekly counter-demonstration to sing “Keep Your Jesus Off My Penis & Your Bible Off My Balls!” until the pro-lifers left. And it seemed to make the “genocide awareness” group reach the point of flipping their fucking gourds when a group of young women started clapping and singing to the tune of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”. Other groups have successfully managed to erect blank banners all the way around the displays in previous years, inviting people from all over the campus to paint messages of solidarity and support for women’s rights. It’s very similar to an anti-Westboro-Baptist-Church tactic called “angel action“, which involves appearing where ever the Westboro Baptist Church is expected, wearing white robes that have been modified to obscure the multiple signs held by each WBC picketer. They link arms or hold hands with their backs to the WBC picketers, and stand in silence until the event is over and the grieving families have returned home. I am also reminded of similar mass-sheet-paintings, which take place every year on February 14th in a “public airing of dirty laundry” as part of a feminist consciousness-raising effort to counter systemic violence against women.

2. Further On Appearances: Identity-Ambiguity And Identity Concealment

Sometimes, knowing that you are going to be filmed and your picture will be taken repeatedly by strangers and other people who won’t ask first and won’t tell you where your picture will appear, you just don’t want your picture to be useful for the opposition, while still being useful for your friendly neighbourhood support. So sometimes, you do things to cover your face or make your identity sufficiently ambiguous that you can continue to appear in these radical grassroots protests without the expectation of future problems in public places long after the fact. Or even in the short term, such as the time I picketed a pro-life group alone, and was stalked by them for a block and into a public washroom (more on that momentarily). One of the ways I have made my identity ambiguous is by presenting as very female-bodied at (some) protests, in sharp contrast to my everyday gender presentation, which is more often than not read variably as androgynous, masculine, or increasingly, male, rather than female or feminine in any way (except sometimes in private). Not everyone can do this, and I am by no means suggesting that cisgendered men start deploying drag as a tactic, because that would be both malappropriative and revolting (unless you are a drag queen, in which case, all the power to you if you should start using this shape-shifting superpower in protests).

A well-known tactic for concealing your identity during a protest is called a Black Bloc. Along with being well-known, this tactic also has a really terrible reputation, thanks to extremist groups such as Earth Liberation Front (i.e., using it while vandalizing public property, burning down major industrial hubs—and thus significantly disrupting the socioeconomic stability of the workers who depended on the income from those jobs—and generally keeping bad company). Vandals and rioters also deployed themselves as a Black Bloc during the city-wide grassroots counter-protest to the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle in 1999. But not every group moving about as a Black Bloc is the kind that this tactic is reputed for. Sometimes it’s a temporary strategy being used to gain access to a particular goal or targeted location, as there is a lot more to the Black Bloc than merely dressing in a balaclava and black clothes. For example, a Black Bloc will generally maintain a block formation (hello, namesake!) while generally moving swiftly through dense crowds. This gives them an advantage against police, because they can’t be physically isolated and handcuffed one at a time if they are disciplined in this aspect of their tactic. (Now you know why they aren’t just called anarchists.) Black Blocs also usually carry black flags, which are used to cover camera lenses in multiple directions in order to prevent filming or photographing of what little of their faces is showing. I happen to know people who, to the best of my knowledge, recently used the Black Bloc tactic to move through a flash mob outside a building before being arrested in plain clothes with their faces uncovered and their arms linked together in front of a hearing panel for a proposed pipeline. Now, obviously you wouldn’t cover your face to appear at a community teach-in or to pass out condoms to people in public, but sometimes you need to conceal yourself in grassroots demonstrations. Sometimes other people feel the need to while you don’t. It’s not about cowardice or shit-disturbing. Certainly my gender-ambiguity and identity-concealment has prevented me from losing all reasonable expectations of privacy in between anti-extremist protests.

3. Picking Your Battles

Knowing which battles to engage in, which ones to avoid, and when to walk away is one of the most effective strategies you can ever possibly arm yourself with. With the notable exception of when you should have walked away but didn’t, nothing is as dis-spiriting and demoralising as pouring your personal energy reserves into a battle you don’t know how to fight. Anything that makes you feel like you’re there to start or win a yelling match is a good example of a battle you should stay away from. Aside from the obvious fact that you can actually injure yourself or put yourself at significantly increased risk of antagonizing the wrong person by yelling (if your voice doesn’t wear out before the fight is over), nothing good can be accomplished from just a bunch of shouting. For example, at pro-choice demonstrations, we often pass out free condoms and samples of water-based lube. It actually took some time one day for me to figure out that people feel really uncomfortable taking condoms and lube from anyone who is calling attention to the fact that they are passing out free condoms and lube by shouting it out at top volume. This is true even if that person is clearly identifiable as pro-sex, pro-queer, and pro-choice, and thus, not a source of shame. Then there was yelling at Genocide Awareness Project, which feels great to do, but yelling “abortion isn’t genocide!” actually sounds like “abortion is genocide!” when it’s being shouted. We were already occasionally being mistaken for pro-lifers at that point, partly because there were very few of us, and we just looked like a part of the “minority among minorities”, as one guy put it at yelling volume to their faces later that same day. (P.S. I still hate that word and that argument.)

Sometimes, silence is your most effective weapon. Just as you have the right to freedom of speech, you also have a right to silence. Pro-lifers seem to either “forget” this or expect you to. When confronting pro-lifers as a solitary demonstrator or to expose them as a hate group equivalent to the Westboro Baptist Church, my silence has been more effective than any argument I could possibly come up with. The pro-life movement is exactly like virtually every other major hate movement, in that their entire purpose, strategy, and goal is to emotionally antagonize, traumatize, and viscerally offend as many people as inhumanely as possible. Apart from their shock tactics, their only other available tactic is getting you to talk and then twisting your words against you. If you don’t talk, they are powerless. Also, if you don’t talk, it gives you astronomically more time to think and observe everything going on around you (such as when pro-lifers start lurking around the pro-choicers, or an anti-abortion extremist walks up and starts taking everyone’s pictures).

I had an experience with how terrifying a silent opponent is for them when I first used this tactic in a public demonstration in which I was alone and my identity was both ambiguous and unknowable. I was wearing my checkered spandex (see the top of this post) and they were terribly confused about my gender. They showed up late for their own picket, and asked me if I was demonstrating there. The only words they heard me say the entire evening were “No, I’m just here waiting for someone.” I have the distinct advantage of sounding like a dude but not being shaped quite like one (while more and more, not being shaped quite like a woman either). I chose a spot to stand on, and when their first sign came out, so did mine. They went apeshit about it, called me a coward, got mad at me when I kept moving closer to them until the last sign was packed up, and then stalked me into a public washroom a block away, where none of them could guess which washroom I was in (and thus, missed any opportunity to figure out who I was by the time I radically changed my appearance). I brought friends the next time I counter-picketed this same group, and one of my friends was also completely silent and unidentifiable to them. It completely destabilized one pro-lifer, who spent the entire evening yelling and in a complete panic after one of his usually disciplined fellow picketers left him physically isolated next to me. It also left the rest of them completely fucking outraged. They were still furious three months later, at the end of their latest demonstration, where they asked me why I cover my face “all the time” and if I’m “scared”. With my face still covered, I merrily antagonized the short little fucker by getting right up in his face and shouting “OoooOOOoooh! You’re the boogey man!” (See picture below.)

Sometimes the real grassroots wear a fucking mask. And before you challenge my use of the word "real" here, sometimes there actually are fake grassroots.

Sometimes the real grassroots wear a fucking mask. And before anyone challenges my use of the word “real” here, yes, sometimes there actually are fake “grassroots”. It’s called infiltration and it happens in every movement. Often on both sides (e.g., cops).

4. Further On Battle-Picking: Clustering And Collective Decompressing

For all intents and purposes here, clustering is what happens while the picket is still taking place, and collective decompressing is the process of sitting down after the picket is over, letting your façade down if you were using one (e.g., I now treat these pickets more often than not as a sort of stage performance) and venting your frustrations about everything that happened or was said while the picket was still taking place. I mentioned last week that unlike Philosophy Dudebros, when women engage pro-lifers, they tend to cluster around them in groups, and that this is just one of several ways in which pro-choice women differentiate themselves strategically from the lone cisgendered men doing something similar (and who are really only pretending to be their allies for feminist points or a metaphorical cumshot). One of the effects of clustering is that it completely disables that particular pro-lifer from handing out pamphlets, wrangling in one of their “complete strangers” for a pretend conversation in which they air their propaganda unchallenged, calling for help from a fellow picketer, being heard beyond the group clustered around them, or even being seen by passersby — especially those who would take no issue whatsoever in inserting themselves into a conversation between two people in physical isolation (this happens most often when one of the two happens to be visibly identifiable as female). Clustering effectively disables one picketer, and with enough women to cluster around pro-lifers at one of these demonstrations, it can completely disable the entire demonstration (with the notable exception of their abhorrent signs).

But another really, really important effect of clustering is that it becomes a collective teaching and learning exchange for everyone involved on the pro-choice side of the issue. This is of special importance for men, who are not as directly impacted as women are by the mere prospect of stripping away women’s rights. Collective decompressing is equally important, for the same reason. Both are an excellent opportunity for more seasoned activists to listen in while a relatively new (and perhaps even naive) activist gives their very delicately composed argument. A more seasoned activist can momentarily take the reigns while everyone is clustering, to teach them a new manner of giving their argument, or to steer a meandering and pointless debate back to a salient point in the relatively new activist’s argument. It is an equally valuable opportunity for relatively new activists to listen in and learn from the ways in which seasoned activists are engaging the issue and the manner in which they are being engaged. While a new activist may be very attached to a particular argument, they can pick up an entire new collection of additional things to address in a very short time through clustering. And while a seasoned activist is listening, they too can learn about some of the tactics pro-lifers are using to try and take back what little advantage they think they have. A particularly astute listener will be able to exploit this at the right moment, or recognize it next time and exploit it then. These are also the sorts of conversations that take place while people decompress as a collective afterwards. I’ve learned the most about what other people were experiencing while participating in a collective decompression after the fact, because I tend to get very caught up in my own strategies while the picket is ongoing — whether that is taking up the very edge of the sidewalk, watching everyone around me at all times and inserting myself between people who appear to be on the verge of a conflict, or focusing as much as I can on maintaining a silent composure while listening to exactly what is being said so that I can better understand the opposition’s tactics and protocol.

5. Actively Engaging In Anti-Colonial Resistance

I learned a few new things about actively engaging in anti-colonial resistance on the second day of the “genocide awareness” counter-picket. For starters, I learned that on another university campus, an Aboriginal students’ union promised to host a round dance around the GAP displays when a booking was made for the campaign. The pro-lifers responded to this by cancelling their booking. And in case you weren’t sure what exactly a round dance is, it’s also called the friendship dance. It is a tradition from the Plains Nations and some points East. Hand drummers congregate in the middle and sing songs of friendship, harmony, and unity of all peoples, while dancers join hands and side-step in a clockwise motion around them. Anyone who is close enough to observe is encouraged to join in the celebration. In Vancouver, some round dances have taken up entire intersections, and songs specifically celebrating warrior women, women’s strength, and respect for women have been used as well. Sometimes round dances get so large that several concentric circles form around the hand-drummers. So now, if you ever see one or hear about it, you know it’s not only OK to join in, but actively encouraged. A round dance is also an active form of anti-colonial resistance, in that it was once criminalized on account of its relationship to indigenous nationhood, sovereignty, and spirituality — every song and every dance is a prayer, and different nations used different songs, drum beats, and so on. But indigenous people don’t pray to an invisible sky Daddy, and so their spirituality was (and in some respects still is) seen as inferior to the (already long-ago corrupted) religious traditions of Western colonizers. Thus, while round dances clearly were and still are a way of celebrating cultural traditions and one’s ties to them, they are also now an increasingly important way of taking a powerful sense of sovereignty back from a history of systemic oppression and attempted genocide (e.g., a round dance was held on Stephen Harper’s front lawn towards the end of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike).

One pro-choice picketer also approached the scene of an increasingly distressed pro-choice woman trying to wrap her head around the layers upon layers of bigotry endorsed by a pro-lifer, on the second day of the “genocide awareness” campaign. After engaging in a discussion about who exactly is “doing the genocide” if abortion can be described as one, and reaching an impasse with the pro-lifer, said pro-lifer told this (second) pro-choice picketer that she’ll pray for her. The pro-choice picketer, being of Aboriginal descent herself, and thus actually a survivor of genocide (for real), said “I’ll pray for you too.” The pro-lifer lit up and asked if she is Christian, to which the pro-choice picketer said no. The pro-lifer enquired into whether or not she believed in God, and she said no. The pro-lifer’s eyes grew wide as she asked “Then who taught you to pray?” But what this pro-lifer doesn’t understand is what exactly Aboriginal prayer is. It’s not an externalization and personification of a higher power, to which this Aboriginal pro-choicer prays. She may pray to her ancestors, who she may or may not consider immediately among us either in spirit or whenever eagles are circling overhead (as they were multiple times that day), or when spiders weave their webs nearby. She may pray to all of nature (not necessarily personified or anthropomorphized at all), who she may or may not directly identify with as being no different from her. She may pray to the Earth, who she may or may not consider her literal mother, for as much as her blood mother gave birth to her, she is equally as dependent upon the Earth to keep warm and to feed from as all of nature is. In fact, when she prays, she may very well be doing all of these things at once. When we understand how vastly different this form of prayer is from Westernized, colonial notions of prayer, it suddenly brings the power of dancing and singing into a radically expanded conception.

Finally, another pro-choice picketer brought sage to smudge with on the second day of the “genocide awareness” campaign. There are multiple things going on with this practice, not the first of which is the perception on the part of the pro-lifers that this is some sort of Satanic ritual — a manifestation of their completely false narratives about what Satanism is and looks like. Prior to colonization, for instance, many cultures  across the world practised a form of smudging. Generally speaking, it is regarded as a form of spiritual cleansing. But people of the Plains Nations also practised smudging. It is a form of prayer as complex as what I have just finished describing, as well as a form of spiritual cleansing. The goal of the cleansing is to see, hear, and speak in a good way as a result of washing away negative energies, thoughts, or feelings with the smoke of the burning medicines. When one smudges another, it is a symbol of wishing no ill will or harm upon them, of holding no grudges against them, and being together or parting with them in a good way. But nothing freaked the pro-lifers out as much as being smudged at the end of that second day. Their ideas are diametrically opposed to everything that is represented by the act of smudging, whether or not you put any stock into its efficacy or respect into its relationship to a spirituality that holds no distinction between the material and spiritual worlds (which are both believed to exist at the same time). Their ideas are also explicitly colonial, and thus, virtually all of the most effective methods of countering them are going to be rooted in an anti-colonial framework. Under an anti-colonial framework, all oppressions are interdependent and connected. It is to our immediate and long-term benefit to gain a deeper understanding of colonialism and the ways in which it has systemically corrupted a great deal of Western knowledge (and thus, our education, and the perpetuation and evolution of our culture as well). For if we cannot recognize and challenge colonialist structures within our own politics as well as within others’, we are acting complicit with it, and we stand to lose important allies for our choices.

This really isn’t anywhere near a complete list of tactics employed by grassroots, but they are a few of the most important and easily the most effective methods. You may also have noticed that all of these tactics are about non-violent resistance. Violence is a major component of this entire issue, as the pro-life side literally fetishizes it while many on the pro-choice side either take a firm stand against it (and against defining abortion as an act of violence against a fetus) or become completely caught up in competing subjectivities (i.e., whether or not the fetus is capable of subjectivity versus the individual mothers’ rights). It is hardly a coincidence that the pro-life side has such a selective and narrow interpretation of violence that women are for all intents and purposes disposable fetal incubators in their rhetoric, while at the same time, it’s perfectly acceptable to print out propaganda pamphlets made of non-recycled and non-recyclable paper (i.e., perpetrating multiple successions of violent acts against the Earth). I really strongly encourage anyone reading this post to think long and deep about what little of Aboriginal worldviews are described in general terms above, and how even if it is all taken entirely metaphorically, it still means that the pro-life movement explicitly promotes violence against women and the Earth alike. This is the kind of thinking exercise that is involved in decolonizing one’s politics (and thus, making oneself a more effective long-term activist).

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