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Demonstrations & Protests

"Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict." - Saul Alinsky

Demonstrations and protests can be a powerful way to raise awareness about an issue. Being students, you have unique opportunities to get involved with demonstrations and protests. You can keep up with current issues by following organizations like Secular Coalition for America

Note: Many campuses require prior notice and approval for demonstrations, and restrict the place, time, and manner which they can be conducted. Look at your school's policies before planning something, and consider alternative ways of promoting your message. For a starter guide to knowing your rights, see the American Civil Liberties Union Know Your Rights: Demonstrations and Protests.

Some campuses have excessively restrictive policies, you can refer those to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and, of course, the Secular Student Alliance - email organizer@secularstudents.org

Protest Methods

  1. Protest marching & picketing: Both of these forms of protest refer to nonviolent demonstrations which mass people in a particular area; marches proceed from one place to another, whereas pickets remain in one area. Generally these feature signs, banners, songs and chants, and other ways that draw attention to one's cause.
  2. Sit-in: This has many variations, including the bed-in, but essentially refers to nonviolent occupation of an area. Ideally, the area you choose should be symbolic and highly visible. However, don't make your presence disruptive - blocking the entrance to the administrative office is more likely to get you arrested than noticed.
  3. Teach-inUnlike a seminar or lecture, teach-ins are explicitly geared to activating people around issues. Unlike a regular lecture, they are designed to be very interactive, and include the opportunity to take action right then and there (e.g. through a petition or letter-writing campaign). See if a professor or distinguished community member is interested in speaking on campus in a public and visible space. Your event can also include music, art, and free-form discussion.
  4. SoapboxingRefers to any impromptu public speaking to raise awareness and passion about a topic of social importance. If done in a bold, striking, and attention-grabbing manner, it can very effectively rally support for a cause. See if your university has an area dedicated to free public speech, or see about designating such an area. Attempts to shut down soapboxers have generally expanded into much larger protests for free speech, and can draw wider public attention to your cause. The Free Speech Movement of the 1960s began as a protest for the right to soapbox at UC Berkeley.
  5. Vigil: Not just for theists! A vigil is a great way to commemorate and draw attention to a very serious incident; it can either be silent, or it can include statements from the participants (such as reading a list of names). It can be a great opportunity to include diverse communities, even faith-based groups. 
  6. Banner Drop: About as simple as it sounds - drop a banner from a high place. Generally this is a very eye-catching, particularly if the location is symbolic, so it's very good for announcing a provocative new campaign. Campus and local media may be interested, so try and contact them beforehand. This may get you in trouble, though, so be careful!
  7. Balancing something bad with something positive: Perhaps the most direct way to combat ugliness in the world. For instance, holding a blood drive on the National Day of Prayer highlights the ability to be good without religion.

One of our best resources to find out what works and what doesn't is you - our student leaders! If you've employed a strategy that worked well, let us know about it so other groups can also use that idea. If you've learned a lesson of caution about something we suggest, point out the pitfalls. You can email us at organizer@secularstudents.org!

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