In this new era of protest, what are the lessons to be learned from those who are on the front lines?
Meryl Neiman did not expect to find herself in jail.
Arrested, sure. She knew that might be a possibility when she went to Sen. Rob Portman’s office in June to protest the U.S. government’s new policy of separating immigrant parents from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border. Neiman, a parent herself, had gone to Portman’s office in Downtown Columbus with three other moms, outraged over the policy. They wanted Portman to sign a bill that would have outlawed family separations in all but very extreme cases that provided reason to believe the child was in danger of being trafficked or abused.
But when Columbus police showed up and locked handcuffs over her wrists, then took her to Jackson Pike—shorthand for the Franklin County Correctional Facility—she was caught off guard.
It was a lesson learned in activism, for a woman who has been an activist for more than 30 years. The arrest, she says, prompted her and other protestors to think about the list of things people might consider before they embark on an act of civil disobedience. Among them: Be prepared to spend the night in jail.
Neiman and the other women that day were charged with criminal trespass. All four pleaded guilty to lesser charges. That night was the only one they spent at the jail.
Neiman says it was worth it—their arrests made headlines and drew even more attention to the families who were being separated. Even though Portman didn’t sign that bill, he made statements afterwards promising to keep families together.
Looking back, civil disobedience was the right action for that moment, says Neiman.
“We applied pressure at a time when pressure was needed, and it made people—Portman included—take notice,” Neiman says. “That’s what you have to do—apply sufficient pressure that the threat from the attention [to an elected official] outweighs the money, the donors, the power structures.
“I used to think you should handle social problems through government—and through neighbors and churches,” she says. “But now, I think that certain politicians make decisions based on donors and pleasing their party.”
Making the news through acts of civil disobedience, she says, could make donors rethink their commitments. Neiman’s first foray into activism happened in the 1980s, when she was a student at Brown University protesting the nuclear arms race between the United States and the then-Soviet Union. She later became a lawyer and a mom, and when the school her kids went to in Pittsburgh needed a new playground, she lobbied the local school board, set about fundraising and navigated the unwieldy approvals process to get the playground built.
Her family moved to Columbus five years ago and, though she had not previously been shy about speaking up for what she thought was right, when Donald Trump was elected president, she took a second to grieve, then dove back into life as an activist. Now she leads Indivisible Columbus District 3, an organizing effort for progressive candidates and policies in Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District, currently represented by Joyce Beatty, a Democrat.
“Just participating in the democracy helps save it,” Neiman says when I ask her why she believes in the type of activism she deploys. “Just by doing anything, you’re standing up. Don’t think you don’t have the right to do that. You absolutely have the right.”
She is right.
The ability to advocate for the kind of society we want to live in is one of the most fundamental rights bestowed upon us by the U.S. Constitution. The nation’s forefathers might not have foreseen the 24-hour news cycle, hostile foreign powers influencing elections via social media or TV personalities-turned-politicians, but they certainly believed in the ability to fight for a democracy. We know that because in 1789 they gave us the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, which prevents Congress from abridging freedom of speech, the right of the people to peaceably assemble and the right of the people to petition their government for “a redress of grievances.”
But how does one go about speaking freely, or peaceably assembling or petitioning the government? No matter your politics, these fraught political times have upped our collective rage and made us more vocal about our respective beliefs, shouting from our own corners of the internet, pounding on our keyboards with righteous fury. But what if we want to get out from beneath the cover of our Twitter handles and influence the world around us in more concrete ways? Where would we even begin?
Know Your Goal
Chuck LaRosa, a Second Amendment advocate who sits on the board of directors of Ohioans for Concealed Carry, says step one is to know what you want to change—and to know the outcome you’re looking to achieve.
“If you’re not trying to get a result, you’re just wasting your time,” LaRosa says. “You have a goal, and you have a plan to achieve that goal. It could be as simple as getting crosswalks in your neighborhood— but you have a goal, and then you figure out how you’re going to do it.”
Once you know what you want to change, LaRosa says, look for others who also want to change it. Targeted searches on Google or Facebook should lead you to groups that already are working on the problem you want to address. Once you find these organizations, spend some time understanding what they do and what goals they are working toward.
“The question is—and it’s a very important one—are other organizations making the changes that you want?” he says. “If they are, join them and help them. But if they’re making changes you don’t want, that you’re not approving of—and there’s a lot of that in the gun community—then find the ones that you are approving of, and join up with them.”
Good organizations will be upfront about their agendas, LaRosa says. If you don’t find a group that aligns with your vision, create your own. Then, find people who agree with you who can help you.
Are Permits Necessary?
Protesting is a certain kind of activism, and one that, depending on what you intend to do and how you intend to do it, might need permits. Some protests don’t require permits at all. Walking down a city sidewalk with a sign, for example, is perfectly legal. But if you want to shut down a city street in Columbus or elsewhere, you’ll need to contact the local police department. If you want to rally on the lawn of the Ohio Statehouse, you’ll need to reach out to the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, where the permitting process involves a formal application submitted no less than 15 days before an event. There are also fees dependent on the size and scope of the event.
Also, be aware that if you’re at a public university, you may have rights to protest in public spaces that you don’t have at a private college, where property is privately held by the school.
Planning—strategically choosing a date, timing the rally and building a plan for pre- and post-event action—is critical, says Mark Schlater, CEO of Toward Independence, a nonprofit that serves developmentally disabled adults across Southwest Ohio. In late September, Toward Independence organized a rally at the Ohio Statehouse to raise awareness about the shortage of people who work with adults with developmental disabilities, and to set the stage to ask the state legislature for funding to address that shortage.
About 800 people attended the rally, including people who work with the developmentally disabled, family members and people with developmental disabilities themselves. Another 700 watched the rally on a live-stream on Facebook.
Consider Social Media
Utilizing social media and filming the rally were strategic choices, says John Silfies, director of marketing and advancement for Toward Independence.
“We could share that link so people who couldn’t be here could be a part of it,” he says. “And a year from now, they can go and watch it and be a part of it. And when we go to lobby the Statehouse, we’ll have that footage to pull from.”
Estimating the rally’s likely size was also essential, Silfies says.
“If you’re expecting 25 people, you don’t have it at a giant plaza—that takes away the power of the event,” he says.
Bigger rallies and protests can even shut down city streets.
When Vice President Mike Pence, who has vocally opposed LGBTQ rights, visited Columbus on the Friday of Pride Weekend last June, protestors threw a “Big LGBTQ Dance Party” on Gay Street outside the hotel where he was speaking, closing the street for hours. Throughout the day, supporters—and some naysayers—took to Twitter and Instagram to document the open-air gathering, posting photos and videos that drew the attention of local and national media outlets.
Last March, a month after a school shooting in Parkland, Florida killed 17 students and school staff, thousands of people joined the March for Our Lives rally in Downtown Columbus. They gathered just west of COSI before marching the streets toward the Statehouse, closing several of them.
Tell Authentic Stories
Erick Bellomy, whose father was shot and killed on the South Side in October 2017, helped organize the Columbus March for Our Lives and spoke at the rally. Bellomy had organized other protests and rallies in the past, but speaking about the loss of his father was difficult, emotional and necessary, he says. It was a reminder to him that the people who should speak at rallies and protests are the ones who are most affected by the issues the rally seeks to change.
“I was his family. I was his son,” he says. “I lived at the house that he was killed in. I felt obligated to let my dad’s story be known.”
Those stories have power, and amplifying them can help move people to make a difference.
Tammy Fournier Alsaada knows that better than almost anyone. Fournier Alsaada came into this world surrounded by activists. A child of the 1960s and born to a family that included organizers who worked with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Panther Party, Fournier Alsaada spent time in prison on charges related to drugs. She came home in 1995—more than 20 years ago—but still remembers that time with pain in her eyes. “I was away from my sons,” she says now, simply and sadly.
Her experiences led her to want to make the world around her better and stronger, especially for women, who have become the fastest-growing population in prison since Fournier Alsaada’s release.
Her activism has spanned the gamut—she worked on President Barack Obama’s campaign, spent three years working with an Ohio State University professor who studied gun violence in Columbus, then helped the Ohio Student Association register voters. She was the only activist appointed to a community review board established by Mayor Andrew Ginther to evaluate the Columbus police department’s policies, training and procedures.
She’s even written two books inspired by experiences she’s had.
“Organizing is rooted in the idea that ordinary people have the power and ability to make change,” Fournier Alsaada says. “At the core, it’s that we care and we want to do something for the greater good.”
Sometimes that means putting yourself in situations that feel uncomfortable—even unsafe. Fournier Alsaada recalls parking in a Downtown Columbus garage to attend a protest of the Christopher Columbus statue in 2017, after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia left one woman dead.
When she left her car, she saw a group of people wearing black from head to toe, with masks covering their faces. Racial tensions were high across the country, and Fournier Alsaada remembers being hyper-aware of her skin color. “I don’t get to take my blackness off,” she says. “I didn’t know what they were about, if they wanted to hurt me or what.”
She steeled herself, then walked to the elevator, where the masked people joined her. They turned out to be self-proclaimed members of antifa, a militant, leftist, anti-fascist group, who were there to protect her and the other protestors. For a moment she was scared, though that didn’t stop her from going to the protest.
Fournier Alsaada says protests, while useful for raising awareness, are primarily helpful because they gather like-minded people around a cause or a change. About 100 people showed up at the protest to take down the statue of Christopher Columbus. Protest organizers know that if someone cares enough to show up at a rally, they might care enough to work on the problem in question down the road.
“Action only exists to find you and invite you to organize,” Fournier Alsaada says. “I want to know: ‘Why did you come out?’ I want to find out what you care about and what you want to do about it.”
What you do about it matters. Rallies and protests only take you so far—to make real change, you need to influence the people who control whatever it is you want to transform.
It might involve money.
It takes money
Fundraising is, in itself, a form of activism, says Sally Crane Cox, one of the founders of The Matriots, a nonpartisan nonprofit that started after the 2016 presidential election to help women run for office. In less than two years, The Matriots have raised about $1.2 million.
Like it or not, money buys influence, Crane Cox says.
“It’s not just about the access for the PAC [political action committee] or the influence of the PAC, it’s about providing the access and influence to these candidates who step up to run for office,” she says. “It’s not just about the money, but the money obviously helps—and, sad but true, that’s the political world in which we live. We want to surround our candidates with all we can bring to that table, and that’s money, influence and support.”
LaRosa, the gun-rights activist, has another passion to which he devotes his free time: fundraising for research into inflammatory breast cancer, which is rare and aggressive, and which killed a friend of his when she was just 36 years old. Getting people to care enough that they will open their wallets and donate their hard-earned cash to research for a cure can be difficult.
So how do you get people on board?
“Any way you can think of,” LaRosa says with a laugh.
LaRosa has a thick handlebar mustache, and each year, he dyes it hot pink to raise money for the IBC Network Foundation, which provides grants to researchers who study inflammatory breast cancer. He shamelessly posts to his Facebook page to ask for contributions, and is bold about approaching strangers during fundraising efforts in public locations.
“You’ve gotta be passionate about what you’re doing,” he says. “And other people will feel that.”
In the weeks and months leading up to this Nov. 6 Election Day, canvassers on both sides of the political aisle have been knocking on doors and handing out literature about candidates running for offices ranging from school board to the Statehouse to the U.S. Senate.
On a recent weeknight, Mia Lewis, the lead organizer for Indivisible Columbus District 12, turned her living room into a canvassing war room. Flyers were piled on a coffee table. Canvassers came and went, grabbing materials and heading out into the community to knock on doors and talk about the candidates.
Lewis is tireless—organizing canvasses and other actions can be a full-time job. For this particular canvassing effort, political campaigns supplied the flyers that volunteers distributed, and provided a database of addresses so they knew where to knock on doors. Lewis has long been active in politics, and she says that since the 2016 presidential election, she has seen a groundswell of people who had never been involved before reach out and want to do something.
“Once you hook up with [a group you believe in], there are events [where] you can go and meet people—postcard parties where you can meet people, chat, share your motivations and actually get some work done as well,” Lewis says.
“Or helping out with local candidates. I’ve been learning this more and more over the years: Every race is important. Your senator, congressman, your governor is important, secretary of state, attorney general, auditor, treasurer, [those at the] Ohio Statehouse—those races are important as well. Judges are important,” she says. “And every single one of those candidates would love to have your help, to make some calls, to knock on doors, to hold a fundraiser for some friends. It doesn’t have to be just every four years when you get involved in politics. There’s always something going on. There are always great candidates, and they all need your help.”