Some Lessons from the Last Revolution

Some Lessons from the Last Revolution
Photo by Alex Darocy/Indymedia Santa Cruz

By Joel Eis

Things are getting interesting. History is getting more personal every day.

Street demonstrations are a great thing, but they’re not a movement. They’re an action to show how people feel about an idea, but people who are committed to making change can and should seek out other tactics to make real change in the world around us.

Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t go to every march, every meeting and every action. It’s all good. Most of us have jobs, school, families and other interests. For them, occasional involvement is enough. Do what you can. As you feel more comfortable in your commitment, doing more is inevitable.

For people who become “radicalized,” thinking up and realizing these activities become a life purpose. Doing these actions builds to a movement, and they are their own reward for the participant. With commitment, success is inevitable. Seize the time.

Each event alone will not make the changes we seek. However, together they will have an effect. They are how we got to where we are today in civil rights, an end to institutional racism and a greener world.

Here are a few ideas and some tips on making events successful.

Organizing a Demonstration That Builds Toward a Movement

Before the event

  • Be clear on the purpose of the event.
  • File permits if required.
  • If permits are denied, demand reasons in writing.
  • Hold the event anyway. Make denial of a permit as an additional reason to march.
  • Get allies in the media.
  • Write your own press releases before the event.
  • Remind participants to dress safely (see below).
  • Have a training session or training leaflet.
  • Meet often in person. Phone calls, texts and e-mails are under surveillance.

At the event

  • Have a clearly stated one-page leaflet to hand out before and at the event.
  • In the leaflet, state the purpose of the event.
  • Appoint and station clearly identified monitors along the route to identify provocateurs, looters and the like.
  • Be sure authorities know who these people are.
  • Be sure they photograph looters or troublemakers as well as people suspected of being plainclothes cops.
  • The media will try to put a microphone in front of anyone who might not have their politics clear. Choose and identify spokespeople. Let the media know who they are. Never allow a fringe person to speak for the organization. Find the reporters and present the spokesperson to them.
  • Leave the event in groups and watch your back.
  • Check the rooftops of two-story buildings often. Photos are taken and rubber bullets come from there.

Safety at the event

  • Walk the event route the day before or the morning of to spot potential bottlenecks where troublemakers or cops can create tense situations and instigate a riot. 
  • Mark these for extra monitors.
  • Glass front buildings can allow for extra surveillance.
  • Cops can come out of alleys, side streets or corporate galleria areas.
  • Train your people to note escape routes to avoid being cornered and arrested.
  • Keep leaders surrounded with others.

Protective clothing

  • A demonstration is an inherently confrontational situation. You might be “peaceful,” but demonstrating against “the system” is a way of “doing violence” to the assumed “business as usual.” Show some common sense.
  • Do not go to a demo as if it’s a party. Bringing together like-minded people might be joyful, but there is an enemy around you. As a leader, you need to show a serious demeanor about the issues and taking care of the business at hand. 
  • People in funny hats or costumes just don’t get it. Keep them in the middle of the group, not where the press can get pictures and discredit your action. Some of them are cops.
  • Wearing sandals, flip-flops, strapless t-shirts, shorts and the like show poor demeanor. It’s also dangerous. You cannot run. You cannot protect your body.
  • Serious shoes, full-length pants and perhaps a jacket worn around the waist in warm weather are good. You also set an example to others.
  • Some “people’s safety gear” is easily obtained. Safety goggles and a wet bandanna (carried in a zip-lock bag in your pocket) can help against tear gas and pepper spray. Milk in a plastic bottle can help you or others.
  • Two sock hats worn when things get tense can keep you from getting a concussion from a billy club. A bicycle helmet is better.
  • Cops love to grab big hoop earrings and pull them out. Get anyone wearing these to take them off. Pregnant women should be severely cautioned.
  • People with kids should have monitors around them.
  • The cops use riot sticks to jab in the kidneys or abdomen. Find a nice thick magazine (glamour magazines are great) if you have to run, or there are cops nearby; shove it in your pants behind if you are running, in front if you are facing the cops.
  • If things get heated, you will instinctively put your arms up to protect your head and face. A slap on the inner arm with a billy club hurts like hell. If you get another magazine, roll it up and hold it against the turned-up side of your inner arm; you will be protected.
  • If you need to use the magazine against an assailant, you are ready. Short forward thrusts with the tubular magazine at close range into the upper thigh of someone trying to wail on your head can increase their learning curve. Held in both hands and pushed against the throat of an aggressor is also a defensive tactic.
  • The cops will always be wearing face shields. A handful of mud, a spray of whipped cream or shaving cream (even “silly string”) renders them helpless and you have the advantage in getting away. (What? They’re going to arrest you for carrying Reddi-wip?)

If you are busted

  • Be sure to write the name and phone number of a good bail bond provider and a good lawyer on the inside of your arm with indelible ink. The police will take away everything in your pockets.
  • Have enough cash to get you and someone else home after the event.
  • Do not waste your one phone call on calling a stoner roommate or a parent who is going to lecture you but not help. Let someone know you are going to the event and that you might call them. Make sure they stay off the phone and keep it turned on!
  • Observe the names and badge numbers of the cops who handle you. Pay attention to anything they say or do. A racial remark or any excessive force can get you off even before the trial. Do not confront the cops about it at the time. Save it for your lawyer. Get the names of the people who witness your arrest and how you are handled in jail. Yell your name out to them.
  • Be sure any media people taking pictures or filming know your name. Yell it out. Name and address and phone number.
  • If the cops beat or push you after you are restrained, get their names and badge numbers.
  • If you are maced or sprayed and ask for eye irrigation and they delay or deny you, this is excessive force.

Trial strategy

  • How you deal with an arrest and trial is a continued movement activity. Discuss your arrest and trial strategy with your group before the event.
  • Do not let the cops offer you a plea deal without seeing a lawyer.
  • Do not answer any questions about any groups you are with, or represent, even if it’s all over your shirt, the sign you are carrying or the leaflet in your pocket. Some groups are on the police’s “terrorist list.” Claiming or admitting a connection to these groups, which you might not know are on their list, can lead to an automatic jail sentence and ensure future surveillance. 
  • Hold a group press conference soon to clarify your side of the story. Have a prepared leaflet. Do not hold one-on-one interviews with the press. Have someone listen to these.
  • Request approval of all quotes before they are printed.

After the event

  • Hold a meeting after to discuss successes and failures.
  • Be honest. Make constructive suggestions.
  • If new people show interest in leadership, bring them in. An organization with a small leadership cadre is setting itself up to be destroyed.
  • However, vet your new leadership recruits. In a casual/social way, find out if they are in school and where they work; check them out. Sometimes enthusiastic volunteers are FBI. There are lots of famous pictures from civil rights, antiwar, ecology and feminist events where a large percentage of the people at the front of the march are cops.
  • Have a politically motivated party or potluck after the event to talk about it, but don’t brag or talk about specific plans.
  • Plan another event soon.

“If you don’t know what you stand for, you’ll fall for anything” (Alexander Hamilton).

“Keep your eyes on the prize, carry on” (Movement slogan/song).


Joel Eis is a draft resister and antiwar/civil rights organizer.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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