Recipe for A Nonviolent Protest/Legal Picket without A Permit

Yield:  Democracy, public awareness, visibility, and the opportunity for social change

Under the First Amendment, we have a constitutionally protected right to protest.  While not all speech/activities are protected in all circumstances, controversial issues and speech are protected under the law.  Generally, expression is protected in traditional “public forums” such as streets, sidewalks, and parks.  In addition, protest is permitted in public places, such as plazas in front of government buildings.

This is a recipe for a legal picket, and not a rally with speakers – for which a permit is usually required.  Permits require us to hand over information to the police, including the date and time of our demonstration, and how many people will attend.  A permit usually requires us to name the organizers.  A permit is required for any sound system, including any bullhorn or amplification device.   The police can refuse to grant us a permit on the date and time we want, at the location of our choice.

Organizing legal protests without permits exercises our right to assemble publicly and give oppositional voice without asking for permission to do so.  Legal, unpermitted protests  also reduce speechifying and unnecessary contact with law enforcement.  Instead, we save our breath for direct action meetings and community teach-ins to inform ourselves and our allies about the issues.

Legal protest includes: 1) a moving picket on a sidewalk, with chanting and posters.  2) a march on a sidewalk, with chanting and posters.

  •      1 vital issue of any size
  •      At least 1 symbolic target: the sidewalk outside the target where your protest is visible to the public
  •      A working understanding of your right to assemble peacefully under the first amendment
  •      10 or more people
  •      100 Fact sheets and/or several press releases
  •      Handfuls of signs, and chants
  •      Endless belief in your cause
  •      A dash of courage
  1.     Gather your affinity group and thoroughly discuss your issue, including the best site for a protest; consensus is a great method for coming to agreement in a group, for arriving at a plan that makes sense to everyone and includes different points of view and abilities.
  2.     Make sure your demands are coherent – and not just by those familiar with the issues.  Decide who will draft a fact sheet and who will create a press release; plan to hold a poster-party for making signs and a banner.
  3.     Visit the site of the proposed action a few days before the action, at around the same time of day as the action is called for to look for pedestrian and traffic flow.  Will there be room for everyone to gather and protest?  Are there physical obstacles at the site, or is construction underway?  If you have an overflow crowd, can you move some people to the opposite sidewalk?
  4.     Marshals should be trained to provide information to protest participants and run interference with the police.  They should be willing to be on site 15 minutes before protesters arrive, and to stay until after the demonstration concludes – at the time predetermined by the organizers – so that everyone leaves safely.
  5.     Alert the public!
Directions for the Day of an Action:

Depending on the issue, the temperature should be merry, determined, and loud.

Assemble near the target; when there’s critical mass (25+ people), marshals should establish the parameters of a moving legal picket – a long circle of people walking with signs, chanting on approximately half the sidewalk, while allowing for the unobstructed passage of pedestrians, and the free flow of movement in and out of doorways.  Handing out printed information is legal, as long as pedestrians have room to pass.

Marshals do not do the job of the police.

  • make sure that the demonstration goes as planned, and doesn’t get derailed by folks who want to up the ante.
  • keep the moving picket orderly and well-spaced, asking people to slow down or pick up the pace, to avoid bunching.
  • watch the edges of the action, to make sure leafletters and people arriving to or leaving from the demonstration aren’t hassled.
  • are prepared to intervene, calmly and nonviolently, to de-escalate tension when counter-demonstrators get in people’s faces or police challenge protesters.

This recipe creates an action that is well-received by freedom-lovers on any occasion. Store your posters flat for future use!  

Repeat as often as necessary.

Alexis Danzig is a direct action organizer and nonviolent civil disobedience trainer in NYC, presently working with Rise And Resist. When she’s not working with ACT UP comrades to provide trainings, Alexis is writing grants for nonprofit social justice organizations, helping to start NYC’s first bicycle co-op, Mechanical Gardens, and taking the occasional house painting job. If you’re interested in a free nonviolent direct action training for your community or extended friendship circle, please call Alexis at (212) 810-7400.

One Reply to “Recipe for A Nonviolent Protest/Legal Picket without A Permit”

  1. This is really helpful information Alexis. I will pass it along. We need more of these kinds of instructions also around how to organize a visit or sit in at a representatives office and so on.
    Thank you.

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