NB: This is a quick overview of a section from my Affinity Group Protest Tactics workshop. The full workshop covers stuff like assertive communication, boundary-setting and emotional grounding, intervention, and de-escalation, so the advice below is necessarily incomplete. Moreover, since conditions are changing so rapidly in American civic discourse, it’s hard to say which approach will work best in any given context. We’re all learning as we go, so take this as a starting point.
Assertive communication, rudeness, and civic protest
Assertive communication fosters a healthy balance of power in a relationship. In an everyday relationship, it’s often a warning sign when a person ignores your “No,” talks over you, or otherwise violates your boundaries—such behavior indicates the person does not respect you.
In public discourse, ideally, people with different opinions argue in good faith and respectfully listen to each other’s positions.
When we encounter people not arguing in good faith (trolling, sea-lioning, distracting, etc.), we may choose to set a boundary (blocking on social media, for example), or to foil our antagonist by other means (like mockery or sarcasm). Our choice may depend on what we want from the interaction, and what we want observers, if there are any, to notice/think about the interaction.
Talking to elected representatives is a special type of communication, which is vital to our culture and has some established norms:
- Citizens are expected to be respectful of government leaders.
- Leaders are expected to at least act respectful toward voters.
But elected officials have much more power than most individual citizens do, and some may use this power to silence and bully voters they disagree with. They may also allow or even encourage their supporters to silence others.
When elected officials repeatedly refuse to hear what their constituents are trying to tell them, they are acting disrespectfully and abusing the power we have granted them. An elected representative who refuses to listen is not holding up his or her end of the civic contract. They are seeking to take control a structure that is supposed to benefit all. We can think of that as theft, oppression, or violence. Whatever we call it, we have the right to resist it.
Some important points about non-violent protest (which is what you are doing if you disrupt a townhall meeting, congratulations!):
- A common goal of non-violent protest is to expose structural violence, including the latent violence of racism, misogyny, homophobia, economic violence, etc. This means that all TNV practitioners run some risk of violent treatment. And in practical terms, it is almost inevitable that some TNV practitioners will suffer violence of some kind. That includes verbal violence and threats.
- An audience is critical to successful nonviolent action. You are exposing violent, disrespectful behavior. People who have been unaware of that behavior, or willing to ignore it, need to see what is happening. Record everything, alert the press, take pictures, write down details. Remember, you can’t spell #Indivisible without “visible.”
- “Nonviolence” isn’t all one thing. Philosophical nonviolence means trying to love your enemies. Tactical nonviolence means you can feel any way you want about them, but you behave nonviolently. This doesn’t mean you are automatically polite, or that you don’t disrupt or inconvenience others. “Good manners” are one of the most powerful ways we normalize and enshrine the inequities in our society. A goal of nonviolent action is to expose the hypocrisy of those who commit violence while simultaneously calling for “civility.”
- Have an explicit agreement among your group that everyone is committed to nonviolent behavior during the action. This is not to say that nonviolent protest is the only way or the best way or a morally superior way of effecting change. The more immediate consideration is that if some of you believe you are acting nonviolently and others do not believe that, the people using nonviolent tactics will be placed at a huge, unexpected risk. Don’t do that to your allies.
Some Townhall Strategies
- Go in with a question. Share questions among your group, and decide who will ask each one. If the official refuses to answer the question from one person, another might ask it.
- Ask your question, even if they try to stop you. One option is to keep repeating it, like a broken record. You can rephrase it in small ways for variety if that helps you. (Here’s an example of Elizabeth Warren using this technique on Ben Carson: https://youtu.be/ihsF-bltgTU)
- Even if people tell you to stop or talk over you, you can keep talking. You might choose to raise your voice. But don’t assume you have to stop talking just because someone tells or asks you to. If you keep talking, there is always the chance that someone, somewhere will hear you—in a recording, through others who witness your efforts, etc. (here is an example of Senate Democrats using this technique in the middle-of-the-night vote on repeal of ACA; note especially Senators Franken, Heitkamp, and Duckworth: http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow/watch/senate-democrats-put-up-a-fight-on-obamacare-vote-853911619748 )
- If the official responds with generalities or tries to change the subject and doesn’t answer your question, interrupt to point this out: “You’re not answering my question.” Restate the question.
- Remind them: “It’s your job to answer our questions.”
- If the official or their staff or other audience members try to shut you down, allies can say things like:
- Answer her/him!
- Answer the question!
- Do your job and listen!
- We want an answer!
(Having small clusters of your people spaced throughout the venue will help make this more effective.)
- If they try to move on and steamroll you, you can shout and drown out the next thing if you choose.
- Have a plan for leaving, and make sure everyone in the group agrees to it in advance. Many political events these days take place on private property, and either the official or their “hosts” are likely to tell you to leave or be arrested. If they ask you to leave, how will you respond? How much security is there? How many are in your group, how many people in attendance are unhappy that you’re there? Remember that you can keep speaking as you leave.
- IMPORTANT: NO ONE LEAVES ALONE. Have enough people go out to keep the person safe. Film your exit.
Here are a few follow-up questions that are easy to remember and often very disconcerting, if you have a chance to ask them:
- Why not?
- Just give me one example (when they say it’s too broad a question).
- You are talking about your intentions. I am asking about your actions.
- I understand you are still deciding, but will you commit to . . .?
- Why should I vote for you if you . . .?
You might want to try roleplaying some questions before your event. Use questions you plan to ask, have someone stand in for the official, a few others as hostile attendees. Have the bulk of group your act as allies.