5 Lessons for Effective Public Protest

By Shane Claiborne 2-16-2017 | Series:
Protesters held signs with names of people who have been executed. Photo by JP Keenan / Sojourners

On Jan. 17, 18 of us went to jail in one of the largest protests against the death penalty in recent history. Among the 18 arrested, there were family members of the murdered and family members of the executed, a man wrongfully convicted who spent 20 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, and several clergy members. After we unfurled a 30-foot banner that read “STOP EXECUTIONS,” we were arrested and held for over 30 hours, fully shackled with chains on our hands, ankles, and waists. We resisted — and we still face the possibility of jail time, fines, and community service.

Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned planning events like this one over the years. I hope you can use them as you continue to resist unjust policies.

1. Those directly affected need to be in the forefront.

Too often we talk about being a “voice for the voiceless” when in reality we really need to amplify the voices that are not being heard. Great movements don’t just stand for people, but they stand with people, and put the spotlight on those who have been most affected by injustice. One of the things that made the Jan.17 action so powerful is that we had families of the murdered and families of the executed standing side by side as they declared together that violence is the disease and not the cure. They held a banner that read: “Remember the victims, but not with more killing.” It counteracted the notion that folks who are against the death penalty do not care about the victims of violence, or that there should be no consequences to violent crime.

2. We need to put a human face on the “issue.”

We have to make injustice personal. It was powerful to see the names of all those executed over the past 40 years, and to read the names, one by one, of those who are facing execution in 2017. People care about issues because they care about people. Issues needs to have a name and a face. That is what the movement for black lives has done so well: Make injustice personal – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice …

People do not get argued into the movement; they get “storied” into the movement. We’ve got to tell the stories of injustice that move people in their hearts – whether we are organizing around healthcare, education, immigration, drone warfare, or any of the issues we care about — stories move people to action.

3. Events build momentum over time.

One of the things that helped our witness on Jan. 17 is that this same event has been happening regularly over the past 20 years. Each summer there is a vigil on the steps of the Supreme Court during the week the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty. And every five years, there has been a direct action involving arrests, on the anniversary of that first modern-era execution in 1977. Anniversaries help build momentum, and organizing events that can recur each year can help snowball energy over the years. They give us a way to mark our calendars, and each year we can build on what we’ve learned in previous years. Most great movements, like “Moral Mondays” in North Carolina, have some regularity, allowing them to build momentum.

4. Good protest is a type of public art and liturgy.

Emma Goldman once said, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.” Good protest is public art, street theater. I’ve helped organize a Good Friday service in front of the gun shop in our neighborhood. We’ve had Stations of the Cross at sites where folks have been murdered. Friends of mine held worship services along the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and even served communion by throwing bread over the wall. There is something powerful that happens when liturgy is performed in the streets.

In our event at the Supreme Court, there was a fusion of worship, song, prayer, testimony, and street theater, as we carried the posters and roses, and tolled a bell 40 times (one for each year). It is always powerful to be arrested as you kneel in prayer. Our job is to expose injustice so that it becomes so uncomfortable that folks can’t help but respond.

5. We can’t just protest – we’ve got to protestify.

Gandhi had much to say about how we need a constructive program – we can’t just stand against something, but we also have to stand for something. Inspired by the vision of beating swords into plows presented by the prophets Micah and Isaiah, we’ve started organizing public events where we literally take guns and melt them down into garden tools. It’s been a powerful movement. And during our event in January, we took a gun like the one Utah’s firing squad used to kill Gary Gilmore in 1977, and we transformed it into a plow. We invited both families of the executed and of the murdered to participate, and we made a connection between gun violence and state violence. We also donated the plow we made to Randy Gardner, whose brother was the last person executed by firing squad in the U.S. – in 2010.

Something powerful happens as we point toward the world we all dream of – that’s why good protest also protestifies, because it is proclaiming how the world could be made right.

Faith in Action is a monthly compilation of articles that empower people of faith to draw from a deep well and boldly advocate for a more just world. Subscribers receive monthly resources for prophetic preaching, practical insights for organizing, and reflections on spiritual leadership delivered to their e-mail. Subscribe here.

Shane Claiborne is a Red Letter Christian and a founding partner of The Simple Way community, a radical faith community in Philadelphia. His newest book is Executing Grace: Why It is Time to Put the Death Penalty to Death.

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