Protesting 101: What to expect when you’re hitting the streets

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I remember my first real protest, as a 15-year old when the war in Iraq began. I’d been sitting in the kitchen while my mom cooked dinner, and on the small countertop TV, a news helicopter showed us images of hundreds of protesters flooding the streets. Many of them were students at MIT and Harvard — no doubt a good portion of them at their first protest as well — and I remember the news anchor saying that they were crossing the bridge from Cambridge to Boston, headed for Copley Square.

My mom and I both forget the specifics of what happened next. I just remember that when we arrived in Copley — about 30 minutes from my childhood home — it was nighttime, and the air filled with a defiant mood. We marched down Newbury Street, a main commercial hub, where someone had spray-painted a peace sign in the road.

When we came to an on-ramp for the Mass Pike — a multilane highway with fast-moving traffic — a few dozen marchers tried to race police down the ramp and block the highway. Surprised, my mom and I held back and watched briefly before heading home.

I had no idea what to expect at my first protest, but I felt an urgent need to be there. I left determined and a little excited. Before long I would be organizing anti-war rallies of my own, and marching for other causes, too.

Plenty of people never make it to their first protest, determining they aren’t the type. But for thousands of Americans, that’s changing.

Almost 15 years later when millions of people participated in the historic Jan. 21 Women’s March, I realized that many of them must’ve been first-timers. Just a few days would pass before another major mobilization, this time primarily at the nation’s airports, and no doubt again pulling in newly mobilized Americans.

Building on the strength of preceding movements including Occupy, Black Lives Matter and the protests at Standing Rock, the Trump resistance has already turned 2017 into the year of the protest. And it’s doing so by bringing people into the streets who wouldn’t call themselves activists, who’ve never read socialist scholars, who’ve never called their congressmen before.

Sound like you? Read on.

Media depictions in the news or films don’t really get down to the nuts and bolts of how street demonstrations work. In the spirit of service journalism, here’s a guide for what you can actually expect at a street protest. If you still have questions after reading this, comment on the online version and I’ll do my best to answer based on what I’ve seen (and I invite protest vets to chime in). If you’re one of the countless thousands who will decide this year to protest for the first time, this practical guide should help you feel more comfortable showing up and making up your own mind.

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