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Recipe for a protest

Capitol Police arrest protesters outside the office of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Politics

Recipe for a protest

Organized protests are nothing new or sinister, but ramping up the anger can backfire

WASHINGTONWaiting in line on Capitol Hill to get into the Senate hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Peggy Nienaber of the ministry Faith & Action saw organizers prepping protesters. Organizers had them sign civil disobedience forms if they planned to get arrested, held their belongings for them—which police would otherwise confiscate after an arrest—provided them meals, and handed them $50 in envelopes for bail.

One woman in line asked Nienaber if she planned to sign the forms. When she declined, the woman asked what Nienaber would be doing to get arrested. “Actually, I will not be doing anything to get arrested,” Nienaber said. “I’ll be praying very quietly.”

Accusations that activists were paying protesters stole much media attention during the ultimately successful nomination of Kavanaugh, but organizers working around the clock—and protesters straddling the line of organizers—were more there to enable the action than to pay for it.

Both sides of the political aisle have such organizers, and the anti-Kavanaugh protests offer lessons in the benefits—and potential drawbacks—to organized protesting.

Planned Parenthood, the Women’s March, UltraViolet, the Center for Popular Democracy, and others sent representatives to the Kavanaugh hearings. These organizers outfitted protesters with logo-plastered T-shirts, held training sessions on what protesters should expect if arrested, practiced chants, coached protesters on how to “bird-dog” lawmakers, and emailed them talking points for when they netted one.

Alethea Torrelles Shapiro, a protester from Long Island and mother of four, became a sort of ad hoc organizer. When the Kavanaugh confirmation came up, she thought, “I have to go. I have to be a part of history.” Once the Senate set the Sept. 27 date to hear from professor Christine Blasey Ford, she booked a flight to Washington, D.C. Her 10-year-old daughter pleaded, “Mom, please do not get arrested. I will not be able to walk into my lunchroom.”

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Capitol Police arrest protesters on the steps of the Capitol. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Shapiro soon found other protesters who, like her, hadn’t come with a particular organization. “I kind of took over the lead,” she said, and they soon had a group chat going. Conscious of her promise to her daughter, she avoided arrest and instead filmed sit-ins at senators’ offices, chants, and demonstrations.

The group chat merged into a Facebook page, WMN2DC. When Shapiro found out many of the protesters wanted to stay longer in Washington but couldn’t afford it, she hit up her network and started a GoFundMe campaign. She raised $8,000 that she used to book rooms for about 50 protesters, paying for three nights and some meals.

Shapiro insisted she was never paid to protest. She admitted organizers trained her on how to get lawmakers’ attention but said she doesn’t think that was wrong: “I’m not going to apologize for anything we did. It’s a new tool in our box.”

She’s stating what organizers on both sides of the aisle know: It takes a variety of tools to pull off a successful protest. Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin has helped organize her share of protests, including the 2009 Tax Day protests that had over 1.5 million participants.

She listed the key ingredients. A protest must be organized and timely, have a focused message, and capture media (or social media) attention.

Martin cautions against discounting protests or assuming all protesters are “hired outrage”: “It’s insulting to the people who are not paid,” she said. She works full time at Tea Party Patriots and told me she doesn’t believe employed organizers pushing the action behind the scenes make a protest illegitimate.

There’s one other thing a protest needs, Martin said. A protest needs anger.

But this is where organizers can harm a protest’s effectiveness: Get the dosage of anger wrong, and the concoction might blow up in your face. Tom McClusky with the March for Life said, “Anger is a good motivator—but it gets you nowhere when you’re trying to talk to people.”

He explained that effective lobbying is not just about winning over lawmakers. It’s also about winning over everyone else who is watching. “Violence or disruption tends to sour your audience,” McClusky said.

It could also sour your sisterhood.

While others inside the Senate Hart building were getting arrested en masse for singing and chanting during the Kavanaugh hearing, one protester sat outside. “They’re doing it so wrong,” 23-year-old Rachel Shehy said. “You have to get attention—I get it—you need to get your face out there.” But she asked why not focus on intellectual discussions “instead of chanting and singing songs and nonsense?”

Shehy came up to participate in her first protest because she hoped “Congress would realize there’s normal people like me willing to come to D.C. to say, hey, I don’t support [Kavanaugh].” However, she found herself embarrassed, not empowered.

Melanie Blanchard, a 30-year-old Californian who became swept up in Shapiro’s group, also grew disillusioned. I spoke with her a week after the protests ended. She told me even after the confirmation was over, the WMN2DC Facebook page still lit up as members posted links to news articles or videos with their faces or quotes.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Protesters outside the Supreme Court. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Looking back, Blanchard said what scared her most was how quickly she ended up doing whatever the organizers asked. “Not even questioning,” she said.

One moment that stands out to her is the day of Ford’s testimony, Sept. 27. Organizers came equipped with T-shirts, duct tape, and Sharpies.

A Women’s March protester asked if Blanchard wanted to get some tape. Blanchard asked what the tape was for. The girl responded, “Um, I guess we tape our mouths.”

“Suddenly every woman had tape on her mouth,” Blanchard said. “It’s counterintuitive. You’re supposed to exercise your First Amendment right—and the whole point is to be listened to. And you’re shutting your mouth.” Later, she saw a cartoon of Kavanaugh covering Ford’s mouth and realized what the tape signified. She felt grossed out.

Blanchard said she quickly found that she could easily spot organizers by the way they carried themselves, “their energy, their confidence,” giving Women’s March founder Linda Sarsour as an example.

“There’s no doubt in them,” she said. “They never had tape on their mouths either. They were passing out the tape.” 

But after nominee Kavanaugh became Justice Kavanaugh, some organizers were still gambling that they could help their cause by keeping the anger burning. In an Oct. 6 Facebook live video on the Women’s March page, Sarsour pressed followers to stay angry—and to vote: “I want you to be outraged.”