March on DC with your own protest message, not one dictated by NGOs. Yes, you’ll need a banner and poles.

Denver Womens March 2012Organizers of the post-inaugural WOMEN’S MARCH in Washington DC this weekend are telling participants not to bring poles for signs or flags, or even knapsacks. Ha ha ha. As you travel across the country to march, remember who’s making the real sacrifice. The march coordinators are paid. You are spending the time and expense because you have something to express. Bring it. The only reason organizers want you unequipped is so your [rogue] message won’t stray from theirs. Does that sound democratic? They also have a different goal than you. Their mission is to pull off a smooth event. Yours is to make history.

As a veteran of countless protest marches, national, regional and international, I encourage newcomers to stick to their nonconformist inclinations. Independent critical thinking is what led you to take action in the first place.

To begin, THIS IS YOUR MARCH.
Washington DC belongs to you. Inauguration Day and its aftermath belong to you. Just because someone squats a Facebook event on a day conducive to public gathering doesn’t give them dibs to call the shots. A stand-alone call to arms, such as MLK’s Million Man March or CodePink’s A Billion Rising, is another matter. Spontaneous uprisings against historic events are no one organization’s to control or temper. Especially if they begin with capitulations to the state.

Here’s the usual pattern. After a FB event goes viral, nonprofit activist groups jump in to offer their expertise, resources and manpower. The nonprofits thus dominate the details and the event originators have little ground to object. Thrilled to see “their” event succeed, these new-to-the-spotlight activists don’t know that street protest is anathema to nonprofits whose existential foundation is not to disrupt politics as usual. Falling into the trap of coordinating ineffective demonstrations is often blamed on newbie error, but in Washington DC, newbies making the newbie mistakes are employees of nonprofits seeded to pretend the event had a grassroots origin. What the NGOs are really doing is setting a prescribed burn, or backfire.

Backfire: a fire set intentionally to arrest the progress of an approaching fire by creating a burned area in its path, thus depriving the fire of fuel.

Bastards! Fortunately backfire has a further meaning, probably not unrelated to the sketchy forestry strategem.

Backfire: rebound adversely on the originator; have the opposite effect to what was intended.

Just as DC lobbyists monopolize your representatives, professional activists have staked out the capitol and squatted on what is the public’s only access to speak to power. Accept their invitation to come to DC. Thank them for their legal support, their logistics and water bottles, but you’ll handle your messaging thank you.

NOTES FOR NEXT TIME
(If you’d prefer not to dwell on criticism, please skip to the section on RULES. For me, these counterproductive “mistakes” set us back every time we give them a pass.)

1. Telling participants they can’t bring stuff like food or chairs! The event’s duration is being throttled to what can be endured between meals, without a pause for rest. Do you go to meetings without chairs? In the cold outdoors one can’t even sit on the ground.

2. Hiring private security contractors, “some identifiable, some undercover”. WTF? DC’s cops, National Guard, Secret Service, and “Shadow Teams” aren’t enough?

3. Coordinating with police. What? What?! To whom Black Lives Can’t Even Matter? Sorry no.

4. Stifling expression with limits on how to carry signs. Without sticks. “Flags but without poles.” Restricting marchers to signs reinforced with only cardboard tubing. Viewed from a perspective to show the numbers, the march will bear no legible message at all.

5. Telling marchers they must handcarry small bags. You’d think they don’t want marchers’ hands free to carry signs at all.

6. Stooping to a permit, as an excuse to self-police and make participants feel honor bound to unecessary concessions (the permit terms). You don’t need a permit for First Amendment activities. NGOs use permits to effectively reserve public areas and restrict their concurrent use by others. It’s a means to control public space.

7. Scheduling the march on the day after the main event, in time to disrupt nothing. Diluting the inherent outcry, expending from everyone’s discretionary resources to converge on DC. As a result we’ll have two mobilizations. Both massive, hopefully, intead of one which could have TIPPED THE SCALE.

RULES ARE
Meant to be broken. Permit holders can enforce rules within the confines of their event area, with the assistance of authorities if needed, but not outside it. Organizer “rules” can’t be enforced on Metro, or on public streets, or along march route. DC police may pretend they have that authority but they don’t. Cops lie. Know your rights.

To hold a sign where it’s visible in a march, and big enough to where it can be seen among multitudes, you need poles.

BRING POLES.
There is no safety reason whatsoever, in Washington DC, for forbidding the use of sign poles. We’ve seen pole restrictions attempted at national conventions, in close-in urban areas with vulnerable storefront windows, but Washington’s boulevards and setbacked facades evolved with political marches. Demonstrations, parades and motorcades are everyday for DC. Your sign poles pose zero threat and you don’t have to relinquish them. Not Post-911, nor in the Age of Trump. If an NGO-deputized cop won’t allow your entry to their rally, their privatized-park, have someone wait with the contraband outside its bounds. Banners are best seen on the edges of rallies anyway. When attendance numbers reach overload, you’re golden. Move with the numbers. Otherwise wait and join in as the march departs from the rally.

What’s best for poles? Lengths of bamboo from garden nurseries. Bamboo is stiff, light, and utterly non-threatening. Eight footers will hold a banner above marchers’ heads while still allowing you to rest the poles on the ground when the march lags. Six foot lengths give you adequate leverage to keep the banner taut but are more work. Either are cheap and expendable. Bring extra. Bamboo are thin enough to hold reserve pieces bundled. You can grasp a bundle of three as readily as a single pole. Those extra poles can be allocated as you see other marchers in need.

Let’s rule out pipe, lumber and dowels for being too heavy. Broom handles are expensive. Wooden stakes are uncomfortable and too short, and apparently, too “pointy”.

Various widths of PVC are rigid enough to about eight feet. Steel electrical conduit can give you ten feet. Both are cheaply available at neighborhood hardware stores. The baggage holds of charter buses can’t accommodate pieces over eight feet.

Alternatives to fixed lengths poles would be telescoping poles such as hiking sticks or monopods. Usually these do not extend beyond five feet. Longer telescoping tool handles used for painting for example extend but won’t contract to shorter than five feet or so.

Sectional poles such as geodesic tent poles can be folded to different length permutations. Depending on the weight of your banner material, multiple tent poles may be required to provide sufficient stiffness.

The benefit of collapsible poles is that you can conceal them until you are ready. Provided you have a BAG.

BRING A BAG
There are plenty of ordinary reasons to need a bag. Lunch. Extra layers of clothing. Hat, sunglasses, bandana. Extra gloves, hand warmers, snacks, literature to share, stuff handed you at the rally.

As a banner holder you’ll need supplies like duct tape, markers and string to fix signs, and those aforementioned extra tent poles. Maybe a backup banner or gag props for an alternative photo op.

We bring bags to work, school and play. Who expects that a day traversing DC doesn’t call for a bag?

Don’t be fooled into believing that for safety reasons all bags must be clear plastic. DC surveillance can spot the excess heft of dangerous materials such as explosives or weapons, without having to see them. What they’re really looking for are items like ropes, carabiners, harnesses, goggles, which activists can use for nonviolent fun, to mix things up and entertain, provide media moments and get attention.

Besides which, clear bags will make for unsightly messy photos. Neither does your bag need to be restricted in size. Bring a backpack or knapsack. Leave your hands free to carry that sign!

The best reason for you to shoulder an ordinary opaque knapsack is to give cover for others to bring bags with necessities you overlooked. Cameras, accessories, extra socks, bullhorns, batteries, umbrellas etc.

There’s nothing so heartbreaking as a mass of people who’ve come from across the country to participate in a march that goes nowhere. An uneventful demonstration garners no press, wins no recruits, and only burns out those who thought they came to DC to effect change.

I watched half a million hispanic Americans assemble on the National Mall for Immigrant Rights. Many of those half million took a great risk marching in DC. It’s possible many as a result were deported. They could only follow the rules of course, received no media coverage, and accomplished fuck-all.

BRING CHAIRS
Come to DC with a demand, but bring more than the leverage of numbers. Carry with you the potential that you might LINGER. That’s the pressure the media can’t ignore.

Chairs, umbrellas, canopies, tents, enhance your stamina and protect you from the elements. The longer your protest runs, the more time there will be for latecomers to join in. That’s the momentum the state is worried about. Project that.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” – Frederick Douglass

Douglass also said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Your march organizers have promised their DC colleagues a toothless beast. It’s not what they tell their donors, nor how they phrased their invitation to you. You brought your physical body to DC to support the cause. Is it theirs to squander?

Eric Verlo

About Eric Verlo

On sabbatical
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