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How to protest

How to protest

By: Kim Sillen

Uninspired by the status quo? A New York artist offers first-hand experience on campaigning for change.

Picasso’s painting Guernica: New York City, me at eight years old. I didn’t know even the key points of the work’s content, I only knew something devastating had happened, something horrifically wrong. Now, grown up, I’ve made more protest art than I ever imagined, but Guernica remains my yardstick for how compelling a painting can be, how art can bring an issue to the forefront and elicit viewers’ sympathies. 

While petitions and emails might not always be the most effective modes of protest, a complete lack of them is sure to earn a shrug from the legislators involved and the ready-made excuse that, “No one cares about this.” And that’s not good for change. Signing petitions and sending emails is like taking vitamins; they probably can’t hurt, and they well might help cumulatively. But just as you can’t kid yourself that you have a healthy diet because you pop a multi-tablet now and then, you cannot be fully engaged in whole-hearted “protest” just by hitting auto-sign a few times a week either. If that’s all you do, it’s better than nothing. But with a little creativity, you can come up with more effective effort. 

I used to think that you couldn’t trust people you didn’t know in real life to step up to the plate and deliver when it came to getting serious work done. Then I hooked up with a dozen strangers far-flung across the U.S. on Facebook, who all put in at least 40 hours a week in unpaid work for a month and a half, trying to get the Electoral College [the mechanism that sees each state vote for a body of electors who in turn vote for a president] to vote for anyone but Donald Trump. (I don’t usually recommend spending this much time on anything, but in this case, everything was at stake.) People who actively seek out taking action mean business. Find them. You can’t do it alone.

I was placed in the “Produce a PSA [Public Service Announcement] with Famous People to Persuade the Electors to Vote Against Trump” sub-committee. We had no money and no big celebrity contacts, but we did have a smart, young, small-budget commercial director in our midst. I wrote a first draft of a script, which the others fine-tuned. We brainstormed in Skype sessions and conference calls. Some moments we felt like little kids playing school, that it was all a silly charade. Somehow, about a week after we had started, the director shot the video with legendary actor Martin Sheen as the lead, and about a dozen other TV and film actors. An old friend who is an actress (and whom I had been reluctant to ask) rallied many friends in the business and everything fell together. The PSA was on all the major networks and got over 1.3 million views on YouTube. Tragically, we didn’t meet our goal in persuading the electors, but a heck of a lot more Americans now understand what the Electoral College is, which we’re going to need in the future to change the way the process works. 

Some take-away points… Don’t be afraid to ask. They can say no, they might feel compelled to say yes; they might even fund your endeavour. Twitter, Instagram and the very handy website WhoRepresents.com means you can access anyone online – and you will get replies. Everyone knows someone who knows someone, including you. Think harder. And, sometimes failing in your aim accomplishes another happy result.

If you’re a graphic designer, you have the ability to make causes go viral. Set a weekly goal for Instagrams, poster art, or whatever’s up your alley. Have fun with it and create imagery you’re proud of. Think of how essential Frank Shepard Fairey (who created Barack Obama’s Hope poster) has become. But there’s still nothing like ink or paint on paper when reaching out to people. Postcard campaigns to legislators (i.e. inundating them by the thousands with a unified message) get results. Flattery is also a useful tool with artistic outreach, should you feel like sending some legislators a portrait or collage of themselves, urging them towards a specified end. Make your campaign snowball and get others to do the same. Think big with your visual ideas: where can you place guerrilla art? (Google Hanky’s Dump Trump imagery. He took it far.) Can you pull off a mural or a wheat-paste poster campaign? The same thing goes with music and performance. Everyone loves a well-orchestrated flash-mob. Just be clear in your cohesive message. Think about PR and how you’re going to get the media there. You don’t need to be a pro. I walked into NY Daily News with an idea but no contacts and no appointment on a Monday, was interviewed, and had my collaborative protest project featured two weeks later. 

You can be in the right place at the right time. But there’s a trick. Always carry printed material of some sort – stickers, postcards or even quarter-page copies with your imagery and hashtag, etc. You will run into just the right journalist, photographer, politician or celebrity one day, sitting at the next table or on a train. You can be as low-key as you’d like, but you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t go for it. (When I think about the occasions that I missed, I still think, Idiot!) 

Having stood on rainy corners waving placards with the best of them, there are a few basic tips everyone should know. Check the organisers’ site before all else, to know what to expect and what is permissible: can you bring large bags, for instance? I recommend hand sanitiser for the inevitable Portaloo, a portable phone charger, water and energy snacks, and to wear comfortable shoes. If a hundred thousand or so turn out, cell phone reception will evaporate, so write a protest-buddy’s number on your arm in Sharpie, plus a legal hotline. And finally, don’t engage with anyone who is contradicting your views. Protest is big: shrug off the small stuff.