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Demonstrations & Protests

Demonstrations & Protests

Or, Not-so-Nice Ways to Make Change

"Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict." - Saul Alinsky

Society, unfortunately, has an indulgent attitude towards the unreasonable. Encouraging religious bigotry, discrimination against nonbelievers, and promoting harmful pseudoscience, even when not supported by the mainstream, are rarely criticized the way they should be. One of the great things your group can do is show your communities the absurd, dangerous thinking in their midst. There's almost no limit to what you can stand up and shout about! This list is intended to get you thinking about what needs to change in our society, and how nonbelievers can emphasize and work towards those changes. You should also subscribe to the Secular Coalition's action alerts here. This system will notify you by e-mail to contact legislators on key votes, and also has a handy scorecard of Congressional votes on secular issues.

For more ideas, activities, and pointers, take a look at SSA's archive of activist resources.

Note: Many campuses require prior notice and approval for demonstrations, and restrict the place, time, and manner that they can be conducted in - which would seem to go against the whole free-speech thing, but, oh well. Look at your school's policies before planning something, and consider alternative ways of promoting your message. Concerns about unduly restrictive policies can be referred to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and, of course, Secular Student Alliance.

Protest Methods

  1. Protest marching & picketing: Both of these forms of protest refer to nonviolent demonstrations which mass people in a particular area; marches proceed from one place to another, whereas pickets remain in one area. Generally these feature signs, banners, songs and chants, and other ways that draw attention to one's cause.
  2. Sit-in: This has many variations, including the bed-in, but essentially refers to nonviolent occupation of an area. Ideally, the area you choose should be symbolic and highly visible. However, don't make your presence disruptive - blocking the entrance to the administrative office is more likely to get you arrested than noticed.
  3. Teach-in:
    1. Unlike a seminar or lecture, teach-ins are explicitly geared to activating people around issues. Unlike a regular lecture, they are designed to be very interactive, and include the opportunity to take action right then and there (e.g. through a petition or letter-writing campaign). See if a professor or distinguished community member is interested in speaking on campus in a public and visible space. Your event can also include music, art, and free-form discussion.
    2. A fairly useful guide to putting on a teach is available from Amnesty Internationa: Some resources and useful information on running a teach-in are available here; while that site focuses on global warming issues, the model teach-in can be easily adapted to revolve around freethought and state-church issues.
  4. Soapboxing:
    1. Refers to any impromptu public speaking to raise awareness and passion about a topic of social importance. If done in a bold, striking, and attention-grabbing manner, it can very effectively rally support for a cause. See if your university has an area dedicated to free public speech, or see about designating such an area.
    2. Attempts to shut down soapboxers have generally expanded into much larger protests for free speech, and can draw wider public attention to your cause. The Free Speech Movement of the 1960s began as a protest for the right to soapbox at UC Berkeley.
  5. Vigil: Not just for theists! A vigil is a great way to commemorate and draw attention to a very serious incident; it can either be silent, or it can include statements from the participants (such as reading a list of names). It can be a great opportunity to include diverse communities, even faith-based groups. More ideas and information on vigils can be found  here.
  6. Banner Drop: About as simple as it sounds - drop a banner from a high place. Generally this is a very eye-catching, particularly if the location is symbolic, so it's very good for announcing a provocative new campaign. Campus and local media may be interested, so try and contact them beforehand. This may get you in trouble, though, so be careful!
  7. Balancing something bad with something positive: Perhaps the most direct way to combat ugliness in the world. For instance, holding a blood drive on the National Day of Prayer highlights the uselessness of talking to imaginary friends. Distributing condoms outside a purity ball promotes safe sex, and confronts the controlling attitude towards teenage sexuality that such events rely on.
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