Five things to consider before participating in a protest

Black Lives Matter protest

Seven years ago this month, I moved to the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. I didn’t expect to like it. It didn’t take long, however, before I was enthralled with the region’s history. From the Native Americans who have lived here since before colonization, to the first settlers of Jamestown, right through to the Civil Right Movement and beyond, I became fascinated with the stories, events, and ethos that make Richmond what it is today. Richmond is literally swarming with history. But, it’s the Civil War history that dominates the culture here.

Black Lives Matter protest
Richmond Black Lives Matter Rally and March, Nov. 25, 2014

From massive monuments to Confederate military leaders, Sons of Confederate Veterans recruiting signs, and weekly protest by “the flaggers” who are upset that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts removed the battle flag from the Confederate chapel, it’s hard to avoid the reality that the Civil War is not over here. Indeed, it has devolved into a 150 year-old cold war that ebbs and flows depending on who’s feeling empowered at any given moment.

It’s no wonder, then, that those who claim allegiance to the Confederacy as an expression of Southern heritage would find Richmond an attractive gathering place to assert their beliefs. In fact, we expect that representatives from CSA II: The New Confederate States of America will converge on Richmond this coming Saturday, September 16, and, although, no one seems to know for sure, it’s probable that other pro-Confederacy, white supremacists, neo-Nazis groups will join them.

It’s up to those of us who are committed to fulfilling Martin Luther King, Jr. vision of Beloved Community to be accountable to this vision by showing up and making it clear that hate, racism, and discrimination will not be tolerated here any longer.

And yet, I know many people have never participated in a protest before. They saw the videos and heard the stories from the August 12th Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and are scared about what might happen. I was in Charlottesville that day and, although I’m a veteran activist, I can attest it was terrifying. Figuring out who was who, from the white supremacists and neo-Nazis, to the militia and Antifa, to the non-violence protesters and supporters, confounded even the most seasoned among us.

So how do those who are less experienced, who want to oppose hate, but who don’t know what to expect and are terrified of what might happen, find their place in answering the call of love?

As you evaluate your place in Richmond this weekend or wherever or whenever you decide you need to be part of a movement that aligns with your beliefs, the following five questions (and the related sub questions), organized and curated by Wendy DeGroat, will help guide what action is best suited to your personality and your goals:


  • What is the goal/message/purpose of this protest? Read up on the protest and make sure you understand what is being protested and the context(s) within which it is being protested.
  • Why do you want to participate? Reflect on your motivation. Do you feel strongly about the issue(s)? Do you believe protest is an effective way to raise awareness of the issue(s)? What other personal actions (e.g., donations, letter-writing) contribute to your commitment to influence change on the issue(s)?
  • If you are considering participation in a protest organized by an historically-marginalized group and you are not a member of that group, have the organizers asked for allies to join them, and if so, what role(s) are they asking allies to play? If allies are invited, are you comfortable serving in the role(s) expected? If those roles aren’t clear ahead of time, are you willing to take directions from the protest leaders if you attend?
2009 National Equality March
2009 National LGBT Equality March, Washington, DC


  • Who is organizing the protest? If a group is organizing it, what is the group’s larger message/purpose? As a protester, you’ll be supporting the message of the protest as well as the message/purpose of the organizing group(s). Are you comfortable with both? If so, and you have the means to do so, have you made a financial contribution to the organizing group(s) as well?
  • Who will be your protest buddy? Who is someone you trust who will go with you to the protest? It is safer to go to a protest with a buddy/group than alone.


  • Where is the protest being held? Consider what the location suggests about expected conflict.
  • Will the protest be on public or private property? This can impact your rights as a protester.
  • Does the organizing group have a permit, and if so, what are the permit’s parameters? Knowing these parameters can improve your planning and your ability to steer clear of trouble.


  • What kind of action(s) are planned? Are the protest organizers committed to non-violence? Are groups who advocate violence likely to show up as well? Is an act of civil disobedience planned? Know what’s anticipated and decide ahead of time what you’re comfortable with. If you choose to participate in civil disobedience, make sure you can attend any training the organizers offer in relation to that action.
  • What level of conflict is anticipated? Prepare accordingly (see Beginner’s Guide from Seattle Weekly), paying attention to any regulations about prohibited items and/or rules about signs, backpacks, etc.
  • What role(s) could you fill? Other than being on the front lines, there are often support roles that can enhance the protest’s effectiveness and the safety and wellbeing of participants and their loved ones.
2017 Women's March on Washington
2017 Women’s March on Washington


  • How prepared are you to be on the front lines of the protest and/or engage in civil disobedience?
    • Reflect deeply on what to expect and anticipate how you’re likely to react.
      • What is your level of physical, mental, and emotional readiness? Consider that protesters who are arrested and have medical or other needs may be put in isolation when in custody.
      • How do you handle loud, chaotic environments? Are you comfortable with uncertainty?
      • How do you respond to taunts, threats, hateful or degrading comments, or being spit on?
      • How will you likely respond if you witness violence or become a target of violence?
      • Consider how discrimination and/or implicit bias may influence how you are treated.
      • If you have a child with you, keep in mind that minors are processed separately by police.
    • Know your rights (as a protester; if rights violated) & PREPARE! (taking photos; tips from Colorlines)
    • If possible, attend a formal training session in your area about engaging in non-violent protest
    • Research possible ramifications of participation or arrest on your job, scholarship eligibility, and other statuses by checking policies about neutrality, conflict of interest, etc.
  • How can you BEST support the protest? In addition to being on the front lines, there are many ways to support a protest. Talk with the organizers and choose a role that leverages your strengths and the level of risk you’re willing to assume.
SB 1070 Protest, Phoenix AZ
SB 1070 Protest, Phoenix AZ, July 29, 2010

By carefully considering these questions before you find yourself participating in a protest, not only will you feel more confident in your decision, you will be a stronger, more reliable contributor to the overall effort.

The key is to believe in what you’re doing, engage in whatever level of risk you can reasonably handle, and push yourself to do just a little more each time. As you become a more experienced protester, you will find more ways to challenge the things you want to change, and one day, you might even find yourself organizing a protest of your own.

The time for resistance is now

Annette getting arrested in Phoenix

Seven years ago last month, I spent twenty-six hours in Sheriff Joe Arpaio‘s jail in Phoenix, Arizona. I engaged in civil disobedience to bring attention to Arpaio’s unabated abuse of power. I was arrested, along with a hundred other people, for allegedly blocking traffic in front of Joe Arpaio’s office in the Wells Fargo Building in downtown Phoenix.

In my brief stay in Arpaio’s jail, he didn’t require me to don one of his signature pink prison uniforms, but he stripped me of my dignity, nevertheless. There I witnessed everything I needed to know about Joe Arpaio through the fear and intimidation exacted by his deputies. I saw them beat a woman who looked at them the wrong way. I saw them order prisoners to mop up her blood and then use the same mop to swab the only floor a group of prisoners had on which to sleep. I saw them refuse medication to a person with a life-threatening medical condition and a blanket to a woman who had spent three days shivering in a cold cell. Later, I talked with another protester who they locked in a cell by herself with no ability to use the toilet because she dared ask for a wheelchair after growing faint standing for hours in the searing Arizona heat. Interestingly, she was the only black woman arrested with us – hard to believe it was a coincidence.

Joe Arpaio was convicted last month in a federal court for criminal contempt for refusing to comply with a court order to stop detaining undocumented immigrants. Although this is only a misdemeanor, it is something. At least someone is taking a stand to say that his actions are not tolerable in a civil society.

Tuesday night, in Phoenix, President Trump told an audience of his fans that Arpaio was just “doing his job,” and insinuated that he doesn’t deserve to be punished for it. He assured the audience that it is his “prediction” that “Sheriff Joe is going to be just fine.” In other words, he’s going to take care of his friend.

I am outraged at President Trump for even flaunting the idea of pardoning Joe Arpaio. A pardon by this President is patronage at its most egregious.

Trump and Arpaio are cut from the same white, nationalistic, racist, misogynistic, ableist, homo/transphophic cloth. In just one example, Joe Arpaio was a self-appointed investigator determined to prove that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. He conspired with Trump to perpetuate this racist lie, despite all evidence to the contrary.

What Trump was really saying in Phoenix on Tuesday night was that the law doesn’t matter as long as you’re on the side of making America great, er, white — I can’t say “again” here because America has never been the great country they seem to remember and it, certainly, was never the white country they fantasize about. Despite its stated aspirations, the United States of America was founded on colonization, extermination, enslavement, and domination. But even as millions of its people were enslaved, massacred, or forced from their lands into reservations, it has always been composed of a diverse population of people.

And from the very onset of colonization, people have resisted. Millions have worked to wrest power out of the clenched fists of white, heterosexual, cisgender men and it is their success that has brought us to where we are in 2017. Trump and Arpaio dream of returning to a time when men who looked like them controlled everything.

Joe Arpaio set and enforced policies in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office that promoted racial profiling and ignored court orders to stop illegal detentions, traffic stops, and raids. He was held liable in a civil contempt-of-court trial and, subsequently, convicted of criminal contempt in a prosecution by the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section. Arpaio repeatedly violated court orders and thumbed his nose at anyone who dared tell him he needed to rein in his illegal treatment of immigrant communities.

On July 29, 2010, the day that AZ SB 1070, often referred to as the “Papers, please” law, was set to be enacted, I joined with thousands of others who were, and continue to be, on the ground fighting every day for the rights guaranteed by our constitution and, in many cases, for their very lives. I chose to place myself in a position of potential arrest in Phoenix because I couldn’t sit back any longer and see families torn apart by Arpaio’s quest to rid Maricopa County of people with brown skin.


What I did, however, pales in significance to activists from NDLON (National Day Laborers Organization), Puente, and Mijente, to name just a few of the organizations dedicated to ensuring that the US protects the human and civil rights of all people within its borders.

Joe Arpaio cares nothing about the people in his former jurisdiction — only about his own nationalist agenda. And now, he has a collaborator in the White House who showers him with praise for trouncing on the rights of immigrants and citizens because they fit his definition of “the other.”

I have to admit that I rejoiced, this last November, when Joe Arpaio lost his bid to be re-elected to a sixth term as Maricopa County’s sheriff. In fact, it was one of only a few bright spots in an otherwise catastrophic election. I rejoiced again last month when a US District judge found him guilty of contempt – a small piece of justice served.

I know Arpaio probably won’t serve any jail time, but I also imagine that taking on the moniker of criminal is a lot harder for him than that of racist. He is used to being called a racist, but before now, and probably, even still today, Joe Arpaio believes he is above the law.

If the President follows through on his threat to pardon Apario,  I can’t say I will be surprised. We elected a kindred spirit in Donald Trump – Joe Apraio on steroids. I will say, however, that my work, and I hope yours, has never been more clear. We have cried “havoc and let slip the dogs of war.” It is up to us to contain them once again if we ever hope to grow into the country we dream about, one that, above all else, protects the human and civil rights of all its people.

It is up to us to rip open the cloth that is white supremacy and expose the evil behind it.

It is up to us to make the hate-filled language of today unacceptable in public dialogue.

It is up to us to end the violence directed at people who have been marginalized.

It is time to center the lives of people of color and other marginalized communities. 

It is up to us to demand that people, all people, be treated with dignity and respect.

Resistance: A Memoir of Civil Disobedience in Maricopa County CoverIn 2014, Skinner House published a book, Resistance: A Memoir of Civil Disobedience in Maricopa County, about my experiences in Joe Arpaio’s jail. In writing it, I wanted to draw attention to Joe Arpaio’s abuses, to the everyday experiences of people imprisoned by Joe Arpaio, and to explore my process, as a white, middle-class lesbian, for deciding to engage in civil disobedience.

Even after I made my decision to go, my doubts didn’t go away, as you can see from this passage, “Would I find the courage to stand up for my beliefs or would I keep pretending I was working for justice?  I knew the answer. I could feel it rise up in my body like the blinding sun as it peeks out from behind dark clouds after a storm. I had to do this if I was going to stay credible, even to myself. I had talked too long. It was time to do something real.”

Whether or not you believe that civil disobedience is your way, or even the right way, to do the work that must be done, you must find the thing you can contribute, the thing that is real for you, and do it. We have no time to waste unless we want to see more people like Donald Trump and Joe Arpaio feel emboldened to destroy the gains we’ve made. We have come too far and have too far to go to lose ground now. Will you join me?

Attitudes about gun control can change

An excellent article I found in the New Yorker (it was the one Fareed Zakaria plagiarized) presents some interesting history of gun control and our present day attitudes toward it:

Battleground America

One nation, under the gun.


Read more

What this says to me is that just as our attitudes toward gun control have changed, they could change again, if we make it happen.

I’d take away the guns

I’m sick of gun violence and I’m sick of our fear of talking about guns. We are more terrified of challenging the NRA than we are of the home-grown terrorists who are gunning-down innocent people year after year in this country.

According to Mother Jones, “Since 1982, there have been at least 60 mass murders  carried out with firearms across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii.” If you want to be reminded of this grizzly history, check out the story where they have mapped them, “including details on the shooters’ identities, the types of weapons they used, and the number of victims they injured and killed.”

And that doesn’t include “incidents” like the attack on Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, TN (July 27, 2008) because only two people actually died in that assault on a Sunday Morning worship service ( It takes killing at least four to qualify as a mass murder.

I no longer can sit idly by while students, elected officials, movie-goers, church members, and countless others are victimized by a gun lobby that continues to assert that guns have nothing to do with the violence. Yes, we have bigger societal problems to address before killing is stopped and yes, without access to legal weapons (75% of mass murders are committed with legally-obtained firearms), IEDs might become the weapons of choice, but we have to start with the obvious.

In Cheryl Wheelers’ 1987 anthem, “If It Were Up To Me,” which she wrote after the Jonesboro schoolyard shooting incident (, she posits,

Maybe it’s the movies, maybe it’s the books

Maybe it’s the bullets, maybe it’s the real crooks

Maybe it’s the drugs, maybe it’s the parents

Maybe it’s the colors everybody’s wearin

Maybe it’s the President, maybe it’s the last one

And the list goes on. But after all the possible causes, she ends with:

Maybe it’s the end, but I know one thing.

If it were up to me, I’d take away the guns.

Today, I can say with complete clarify, if it were up to me, I, too, would take away the guns.

Rape is never a game

As part of my morning news-gathering ritual, I awoke today to a story on about the explosion of a new category of games whose objective is the stalking, raping, mutilation, and killing women. These games, called hentai, originate in Japan, and, partially because of the outrage they have generated, are going viral around the world. Understandably, women’s groups are actively trying to ban them. However, the ubiquitous nature of the Internet today makes this impossible. The games can be banned from store shelves and reappear as free downloads on the Internet. They can be banned in one country, only to appear in another.

In today’s technological society, we cannot squelch what people feel is their right to free expression (especially when it involves generating income), even if that free expression promotes violence and hatred against women.

Here’s the CNN story: ‘RapeLay’ Video Game Goes Viral Despite Outrage

So what is the appropriate response? Outrage can only begin to express the pain that these games cause. It is not the games themselves but the reality that there are men around the world who get sexual pleasure from raping women, from seeing women raped, and in this case, from imagining women being raped that is most disturbing. It is natural for women everywhere to feel the anguish of every woman who has suffered at the hands of a man.

Whether it has happened to us or not, we carry around a deep-seeded fear that we might be next. And even if we never are victims of overt violence ourselves, we have all, at times, felt powerless, humiliated, and abused by men and the society that they control.

Women have long contended that rape is violence, not sex. But that doesn’t change the fact that some men derive sexual pleasure from this violent act. Whether we like to claim it or not, power, control, dominance, and submission are part of sexual excitement for human beings. I am not saying that everyone gets sexual pleasure from these things but, as controversial as this statement might be, I do believe it is inherent in our genetic make-up, just as it is for thousands of other species on this planet. It is the job of males to perpetuate the species, whether or not the female complies. We women get pregnant, have babies, and in most cases, rear the children, but none of this can happen unless men first impregnate us. This is a biological power that men carry with them throughout their lives that even sperm-banks and in vitro fertilization cannot erase.

When you add to our biology, men who grow up surrounded by violence and fear, who witness models of male dominance and female submission played out every day by their parents, the very people who are supposed to teach them about how to treat others with respect, it’s no wonder that we create millions of landmines around the world ready to explore at the slightest provocation.

The question is whether we humans can overcome our biology, the complexities of our psychological make-up, and our negative life experiences to see sexuality, and all human interaction, as the beautiful, trusting, loving act it can be.

My first reaction when I saw this story this morning was an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. It was a familiar feeling – one that I’ve  had many times in my life when I have heard about similar abuses. Will this ever change? Has our seemingly endless work toward a peaceful world made the smallest impact on the future? When people get enjoyment from even pretending to rape women, is there any hope for the future?

What I know with certainty, and this might be hard for some of you to hear, is that no matter how hard we work for it, we will never achieve a utopian society where everyone treats everyone else with the respect and dignity they deserve, where children are uniformly nourished and loved, and where the entire planet lives in peace. Human nature is much too complex, and our biology is too strong, to control all the factors that cause people to strike out against each other.

This does not mean, however, that I can or should stop working toward this vision of what the world could be. It is this vision that gives my life purpose, fills my life with meaning, and keeps me moving through another day. Perhaps it is a foolish notion, a cause as hopeless as preventing a river from overtaking its banks after a relentless rain, but it is my foolish notion, one that keeps me from letting the hopelessness overtake me, that keeps me flowing down the river.

I can and will express my outrage. I can and will support efforts to ban any activity that promotes violence against women, against all life forms. I can and will do what I can to improve conditions that contribute to violence. I can and will work to improve human interactions and to personally work toward discovering what it means to engage in healthy relationships (and God knows even this small thing is a struggle some days). And I will do that knowing that I am but one drop of water in that river.

I cannot change its course alone. For that I need you.