How to Run a Protest - Basics

How to Run a Protest - Basics
By Susan Basko, esq.

See Also:  Counter-Protesters and Counter-Demonstrators
See Also: High School Protest Rights

At least once a week, I get a query from someone wanting to run their first protest. There's a lot of protests happening these days.  That's a good thing, since it means people worldwide are exercising their rights to seek redress of grievances by calling public attention to the matter.  The basic list I am giving here is for the U.S. Please understand that what is legal in the U.S. may not be so elsewhere.  In fact, in some nations, protesters have been put to death.  This is also a reminder that if you are in the U.S., to cherish and value out rights to protest.  If you see a protest, rather than think of it as an annoyance, think of it as a refreshing and valuable exercise of our U.S. Constitution.   Even if you don't agree with the protesters, be proud of the freedom that gives them the right to protest.


1.  CHOOSE YOUR TOPIC. Your protest must have a topic.  The protest can be for something, against something, or generally educational or rallying.   Some topics can be wide: for example, against racism, against police brutality, for reproductive rights. Or a topic can be narrow: a protest because a particular police officer was not indicted for police brutality, a protest against a particular expansion of a pipeline, etc. 

2. CHOOSE YOUR FORMAT.  There are many kinds of formats for protests, including a march, a rally,  camping in tents, a sit-in or holding a space, attending a public meeting and possibly raising a ruckus, street theater such as performance, a flash mob of singing or dancing, projection of pictures or video, holding a group bike ride, candlelight vigil, etc.  Some protest formats are low commitment, such as a rally and march, and some are high commitment, such as camping, a sit-in, or holding a space.

The most common forms of protest are a rally and a march.  A rally takes place in one large public location, such as park or plaza.  A march moves as a line or parade along a sidewalk or street.

3. PICK A LOCATION.  PERMITS: THE GENERAL RULES.  In most locations in the U.S., the general rule is that you do not need a permit to protest, unless you are going to be blocking the street or interfering with pedestrian, car, or bike traffic.  

The other general rule is that it is legal to hold a protest in a PUBLIC space such as a government plaza or park, unless it is specifically designated as being for some other purpose such as art displays or music concerts.  The PUBLIC sidewalk is a legal place to hold a protest march, but you must leave enough space for others who also want to use the sidewalk.  Conversely, it is generally illegal to hold a protest in on PRIVATE property. Some examples of private property are a shopping mall or a private plaza or private sidewalk. 

If you want to close down the street and want to do it legally, you need a permit. If that is your plan, you are best to get a local lawyer to assist you.  Many will do this for free.

For a BASIC protest, let's say you are going to meet in a public location and then go on a sidewalk march. Let's say you expect a group of anywhere from 20 to 200 people to attend.

Try to pick a location that relates to the topic of the protest or to the intended audience.  For example, if you want to show your support or disapproval of a certain act of government, you may want to stand with signs by the side of a busy road during rush hour and ask people to honk their car horns in agreement.  If you want to protest something the federal government is doing, show up at a federal plaza or building.  If you want to protest what a mayor is doing, protest at City Hall.  If you don't like what a certain company is doing, protest outside their headquarters or nearby location.  If no location is applicable or convenient, then pick any general public plaza or sidewalk.  

4. SET YOUR DATE AND TIME.  Most cities, when giving permits for a protest, allot time slots of 2 hours.  If this is your first protest, stick to the 2-hour window.  That keeps it compact and manageable.  As you get more experienced and have a group you can trust, you can move on to more elaborate plans.

Choose the date, day of the week and time slot when your people can attend.  For a successful first protest, it is best to choose a time when students and workers can attend without problems, which is usually after school or work or on a weekend.  Check what is happening at the place you plan to hold the protest. For example, if you plan to hold your protest in a city plaza, but if at that same time there will be a band concert or a holiday event in the plaza, you are best off choosing a different time or place.    

5. NOISE: When setting your date and time, be sure you are not interfering with religious services that are held near your chosen location.  In many cities, it is illegal to make noise outside a place of religious worship during services.  It may also be illegal to hold a noisy protest near a hospital, school, or nursing home.  It is also illegal to interfere with a clinic or with patients or medical personnel coming and going.

6. FORMAT/ SCHEDULE.  You have chosen your topic, your format, your place, your date and 2-hour time slot.  Now, figure out how you will spend your 2 hours.  Usually this will be divided into gathering, holding the protest, and breaking up/ clean-up.  The typical events include people holding signs, speakers, chants, singing, music, dance, drumming.  

One of the most effective protests I ever saw was a simple march down a sidewalk in a very busy area in a major city, where each of the marchers held a yellow helium-filled balloon on a string.  They had a drummer.  They had a few signs to explain what they were protesting.  They had information people to talk with the public.  They also had printed flyers they would hand to people who showed an interest.  

7. GATHER YOUR GROUP.  Publicity. Commitment.  Dividing Responsibility.

8. WILL YOU BE ARRESTED?  The main thing that gets protesters arrested is blocking the streets.  It is as simple, and as complicated, as that.  See other posts here for more info.