What Future Protests Can Learn From Moral Mondays

Today, thousands of North Carolinians will convene on Raleigh for the ninth Moral Monday protest of 2013. The demonstration, led by the North Carolina NAACP and faith leaders from across the state, draws attention to the wide array of conservative legislation advanced by the Republican-held legislature, including attacks on abortion rights, the poor, and voting rights.

(For more on how one millionaire was able to funnel enough money into the 2010 election to turn the North Carolina statehouse Republican for the first time since the Civil War, read Ian Millhiser’s primer here.)

ThinkProgress has written extensively about the North Carolinians willing to get arrested protesting the legislature’s attacks — including 92-year-old Rosanell Eaton who endured literacy tests growing up and saw the same tactics being used with modern voter ID laws — but there are also larger lessons that future liberal protesters can learn from the highly successful Moral Monday campaign.

Here are five such lessons on how to organize protests:


Training protesters beforehand. Moral Monday organizers left no stone unturned in preparing protestors prior to the event. Three hours before it began, organizers met with about 250 protestors at a nearby church. Those who had previously been arrested were instructed to sit in the right pews — getting arrested for protesting twice carries a much larger penalty — while those who were willing to be arrested that day were told to sit on the left. After a series of speeches and songs, lawyers and organizers came in to instruct those who would engage in civil disobedience exactly what to expect, what to do, and what not to do. The organizers walked them meticulously through each step — what the police would tell them, where to stand, not to resist, what they would be charged with, what the booking process would be like, and so forth — and gave each person willing to be arrested a green armband so as to identify and separate them from the rest of the crowd. By the end of the training, each protester knew exactly how to conduct themselves. With thousands of protesters on hand later that day, this training beforehand kept the event from spiraling out of control, particularly as the arrests began coming down.

Cooperate with police. One hallmark of the protests were how cooperative they were with law enforcement throughout the process. Organizers understood that police officers were not the enemy. (In fact, because the police don’t have collective bargaining rights in North Carolina, protesters were advocating on their behalf as well.) ThinkProgress spoke with officers who lauded how organizers had cooperated with them throughout every step of the process, keeping them informed of what time they would set up, where folks would organize, and so on. On the rare occasion that a protester began hurling insults at an officer, organizers were quick to intervene and remind the individual who the actual opponents were. Cooperating with the police kept the protests civil, even as arrests happened, thus keeping the focus on the rally’s message instead of on clashes with officers. One policeman told ThinkProgress that, in his experience, protesters had been “very nice,” “orderly,” and “great to deal with.”

Putting your most sympathetic activists front and center. Protests and movements often garner the most attention when there’s an individual or two whose life embodies the struggle at hand. That’s not to say that outside observers don’t pay attention to the abstract cause of voter suppression, for instance, but it becomes far more tangible for onlookers when there is a person whose individual voting rights are being threatened. Moral Monday organizers understand this. On the June 24th protest, they put 92-year-old Rosanell Eaton front and center, leading the group of 120 protesters as they walked into the legislative building and prepared to be arrested. Eaton had grown up in the Jim Crow South and had been forced 70 years ago to remember and recite the preamble to the Constitution on the spot just to register to vote. Now, with North Carolina considering voter ID legislation that could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of minorities in the state, she felt the need to stand up and protest. “She thought things were smooth sailing,” her daughter, Armenta, told ThinkProgress. “She’s seen the good, bad, and the ugly. Now she’s seeing the ugly again.” Putting these sympathetic characters up front makes it far more likely a protest will garner media attention.

Supporting those getting arrested. Throughout the day, organizers and protesters were able to create a remarkable sense of community, especially in support of those who chose to be arrested. Half of those gathered at the church organizing meeting beforehand were supporters who wouldn’t be getting arrested that day, but came out to support those who would anyway. At the actual event, just before protesters marched inside the legislative building, thousands of supporters lined up in two columns to create a tunnel walk for those engaged in civil disobedience, chanting “thank you” and showering the marchers with hugs and handshakes. Afterward, hundreds gathered outside to cheer on those arrested as they were loaded onto the paddywagon buses parked outside. Finally, many drove out to the county detention center to greet arrestees as they were released, cheering loudly as each new person exited the building. Though each action may not have been monumentous by itself, collectively they created a strong sense of community that not only supported those making a big sacrifice, but also encouraged others to do so on future Moral Mondays.

Meticulous organization. Every step of the process, from the initial meeting at the church to the press conference highlighting individuals who were impacted by North Carolina lawmakers’ decisions to the protest itself, was highly organized. Protests are notoriously unpredictable affairs, but an ounce of organization can head off major problems. For example, as protesters streamed into the state legislative building, organizers were on hand to count the number of people going in and cut it off after a certain amount, lest they overcrowd the small building and force police to shut the entire protest down. In addition, organizers kept those thousands of people who couldn’t fit in the legislative building engaged with other support activities, like demonstrating out by the buses to support those who had been arrested, or carpooling out to the detention center to greet them afterward. Finally, a potluck back at the church was organized afterward where protesters could debrief and swap stories about the day.