I’ve said it multiple times that my focus reporting on the NYC protest scene isn’t just to take a temperature check and dip out. It’s to track and document how the scene is developing and changing over time, which necessitates being fully immersed in the scene and getting to know the textures of the environment. This often presents itself by buttoning action threads with an overview observation. One recent example:
The goal of these buttons (if you will) is to zoom out from the individual actions documented and attempt to identify possible patterns developing. But I’m not entirely consistent on this — sometimes there’s more to add! Plus, tweets happen and are easy to miss if you weren’t on social media much that day. Which brings us to this cute little post. It’s a warm-up on what to expect moving forward: Analyses that speak more broadly on the scene.
Without further adieu,
What To Expect When You’re Protesting
Everyone I’ve spoken with outside the protest scene always asks me “What’s it like?” which, quite frankly, is hard to say. It depends on what your goals are, what you’re comfortable doing, and what you want to get out of it. There’s a place for someone who wants to march in midday heat and then crumple in an exhausted pool of sweat in a park for four hours. There’s a place for someone who wants to connect with other protestors and enmesh themselves in a community. There’s a place for someone who wants to smash the window of an Apple store. And, sadly, there’s a place for grifters and aspiring Influencers who want to become The Face Of The Movement. What I’ve gathered within the scene is there’s an information gap to the outside world — leaving those outside the scene unsure of where to start. Hello, beautiful.
JusticeForGeorgeNYC is the go-to consolidator of protest actions in the city. It remains a surprisingly trustworthy resource for what’s happening and where. They just launched a calendar map of upcoming events and typically post the next day’s actions the night before. At the end of the day, they delete that day’s consolidated post (so people not checking dates on posts don’t show up to something that happened a few days ago) and post the next day’s. And they provide updates in their stories on actions currently happening. Useful if you’re trying to catch up or got lost!
If you don’t see an event on JFG, that doesn’t mean it’s one to avoid. They only promote events solely focused on BLM/police abolition. You likely won’t find housing justice, essential workers marches, or anarchist actions anywhere in the mix. This isn’t great for someone who’s trying to keep tabs on the whole scene (hello!) but useful for fairweather/weekend protestors.
A fairweather protestor — a weekender, if you will — with a cute little sign wearing sandals and a sundress is looking to go to an action where they can march around, take photos, and feel like they’ve done something meaningful. They might not want to show up to a black bloc action and they likely don’t know how to navigate being in a more confrontational atmosphere. That’s valid. Everyone enters the space with their own personal boundaries and goals and should have the opportunity to find what fits them. JusticeForGeorgeNYC takes measures to avoid promoting actions that fall beyond the ‘mainstream’ sphere of what a safe action looks like, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the organizers are bad or that the action is unsafe. Just that, you know, you don’t want two hundred people who don’t know opsec showing up to something where windows are getting smashed.
They’re also pretty receptive and empathetic: They’ll take down and untag themselves from actions being organized by groups known to collaborate with cops or deliberately put people in danger, and they’ve been known to reach out to activists who attended an action to ask what the vibe was like so they know in the future what the safety levels are. JFG also, to their endless credit, makes sure not to promote actions organized by groups that activists on the ground know are untrustworthy. It’s all a matter of safety. And unless you dive deeper into the scene, it’s not something you’re ever going to need to know about. But in the event it is something you need to know about, here’s some things I’ve found that help identify the difference between “safe” and “unsafe” organizers/actions:
Safe vs Unsafe
- If you see the phrase “Don’t police how others protest” on a flyer, odds are the action’s going to be a little hotter than your mama’s morning walk. It’s a note that you should expect some not-fully-legally things to happen — and you better not narc on them. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be unsafe. Just that you need to come extra prepared and practice stringent opsec. This is not synonymous with individual instigators who show up hoping to get arrested for clout — and I’m fairly confident anyone who tries that at one of these actions will get dealt with. For a “don’t police how others protest” action, you should expect some broken glass, maybe some spray paint, and the possibility of altercations with outside agitators. But it’s not “walk up to a police barricade and climb over it.” That’s not tactically advantageous. It’s just stupid.
- Black bloc/heavy PPE can be an intimidating sight and suggest that the people wearing it are there to fight anyone who looks at them wrong.
In reality, black bloc activists are frontline defenders. They (usually/ideally) have some tactical knowledge and are acting from a position of keeping the protestors safe. At the 24 Hour March, frontline bloc (also referred to as Shields) were kept ahead of the rest of the protest to prevent stragglers from getting grabbed. It keeps the group tight. An easy way to think of Shields is internal de-escalation and external defense: They’re there to keep things safe.
Bonus: They tend to attend a lot of actions so they’re very familiar with the whole scene. If you ever need help, there’s a good chance someone wearing head to toe soccer padding will be able to help or direct you to help. And if you don’t see Shields at an action, that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe! In fact it’s the opposite: A Shield-free action is likely so safe it doesn’t merit the gear. Although that’s no guarantee. I attended an action some Shields said they weren’t gearing up for that pushed us on to the West Side highway, which is an easy way to provoke police escalation. One photographer groaned that he didn’t bring any gear and another familiar face and I complained together that “this action was advertised as safe, there aren’t even any Shields here.” Not great, but speaks to the greenness of organizers more than anything else.
- No Legal Observers: LOs, seen in their bright green hats, are requested ahead of time for actions. If there’s a lot of actions happening at the same time or the request came in too late, sometimes an action won’t have any LOs. It happens! Typically there’s still media there and you’ll likely have your phone in the event something goes down. Sometimes the organizers literally don’t know they need to request LOs (since they seem to just always be around). This doesn’t mean you’re not going to have a safe time.
I will never stop complaining about megaphones. People often confuse a megaphone for an organizer — which is the intent. If you see someone with a megaphone, the assumption should not be that they’re the organizer or a voice to trust. They’re just loud until proven otherwise. Megaphone-havers, whether organizers or not, tend to split attention and get a little tipsy off the power flex of being louder than everyone else.
Megaphones help cops by acting as crowd control devices. It’s imperative that you critically engage with directives rather than ignorantly following whichever voice is loudest.
Megaphones are often seen in bigger/more mainstream actions. If you’re at an action with fewer than 75 people and there’s more than one megaphone, you better leave because I can guarantee some of those megaphones are not tactically minded and they are 100% looking to leech off an action for self promotion. If you’re at the tail-end of an action that had megaphones, you’ll likely hear calls to follow people on Instagram. Not a cute look and again speaks of self-promotion over movement building.
- Mic checks:
Mic checks (a call-and-response of the phrase “Mic check!” ahead of an announcement) should be used only to disseminate immediately important information. Usually, they’re not. Often, mic checks are used to promote unimportant info (like Instagram handles) or to simply give the mic check caller a quick rush of adrenaline because it’s fun being able to control a lot of people. This is a boss mentality, not a leader mentality.
The result of erroneous mic checks is people start tuning them out. I was at an action where organizers kept calling mic checks just to change the chant — at one point, it was something like seven megaphones all saying “mic check!” at each other, presumably just for the hell of it. It’s an easy Boy Who Cried Wolf set-up. The second you need to pass along actually important info, you can’t because you’ve already trained the crowd to associate ‘mic check’ with ‘unimportant yelling.’ I’ve been to two actions where ‘mic check’ was used correctly but my immediate response to hearing ‘mic check’ is so tainted at this point I find myself reflexively thinking “SHUT THE FUCK UP” and then going “Oh! Oh! Nice!!”
- Splitting The Crowd & Kettling:
The NYPD loooooooves to kettle. It’s their go-to in crowd control tactics (alongside wailing on people with batons). It’s why when an action takes a rest stop by the red steps in Times Square, I move my ass to the other side of the street to get out of that easy Sitting Duck set-up. Same with Foley Square. A lot of Manhattan is impossible to have any sort of action without being flanked by cop cars, and a lot of organizers who hold actions in Manhattan don’t seem to have any tactical knowledge on what a kettle situation looks like and how to avoid it.
You know what makes kettling super easy? Splitting up the crowd. Splitting the crowd seemed to happen a lot earlier on but the organizers who were the primary perpetrators (NYCMarchers) have been effectively kicked out of the protest scene (and are now teaming up with what multiple activists have called a literal cult). They drew harsh criticism for it and it’s not clear if they’ve learned or if people don’t show up to their actions anymore so there’s not enough people to split. In any case, the march needs to stay together no matter what’s going on. Splitting it only makes it easier for the NYPD (doing the ‘divide’ part of ‘divide and conquer’ for them!).
- Cops In The Perimeter
Oh man. I attended a Palestinian Resistance action in Bay Ridge that left people thoroughly baffled. Cops joined inside the perimeter and tried replicating what the bike brigade (volunteer bicyclists who work traffic control) was already doing. Organizers apparently did not invite them but also did not do anything to eject them from within the march. Bodes poorly for that space: Many prominent activists who show up to support sister actions are already on the NYPD radar and are putting themselves at risk to stand alongside these actions.
Cops trying to walk within or drive behind protests seem intent on hijacking the space, trying to turn a protest into a glorified parade. It’s unclear when organizers will recognize this co-option tactic and develop ways to effectively keep cops out, but it’s never a good sign when those tactics aren’t known by the people organizing the action.
- No medics.
The first thing I do at any action I attend is check the crowd for medics and LOs. Volunteer medics, like Legal Observers, have to be requested at an action. They’re a collective that works together to make sure there’s support at actions that might need it. Most of the time they end up just walking in the march or hanging on the perimeter of a rally, but their presence is a soothing assurance. The scene isn’t at a point where medics are able to do much, but they should always be there just in case.
- Tons of media
“But doctor Talia, you’re media!” Yes. I know. But I’m not snapping a thousand photos of faces and I’m not just stopping by for one day. I’m familiar with lots of support volunteers — medics, People’s Bodega, Saint Supper Collective, LOs, some Shields, bikes, and even organizers. They know I’m not here to sensationalize or put people in danger. When there’s a fuckton of photographers and film cameras, that tells me this action is promotional and lots of identifying features are going to be documented. If this isn’t a concern for you, then march your head off! But if you’re looking to stir shit up, doing so at a heavily-documented action is a one-way ticket to the feds dragging you out of bed.
It’s worth noting that not every unsafe act is deliberately done. Many organizers are very new to the scene and are coming at it from a quasi corporate organizing structure; They’re not necessarily experts on labor organizing or communitarianism — they’re people, doing their best and learning as they go and picking up boss-like behaviors because that’s what they know. It’s not always the case, but at this point if an action makes you feel kind of squidgy, it’s likely just growing pains and not something more nefarious.
Overall, the NYC protest scene is still very green. There’s fuckups and facepalms and a fair share of bosses, to be sure. But the scene is gradually learning and adapting. Factions are becoming more distinct (a topic for a separate post) and who to trust is becoming more apparent. The NYC scene is in the midst of purging clout chasers and grifters and cops. That takes time, and in the meantime I’m happy to help anyone unsure where to start find their vibe. For every action you attend, you learn a little bit more about your relationship to the scene and where your labor is best utilized.
So get out there already!
This was originally published 8/18/2020 on my Patreon, which you should support!