Know Your Rights About Legal Protests
There’s a reason why the right to protest is included in the very first amendment to the United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights. From the founding of this nation, protests have been extremely important. The Boston Tea Party was a protest that served to rally colonists to join the cause for Independence. Women marched as suffragettes to force the government to pass the 19th amendment in 1920, which gave women the right to vote. The 1963 March on Washington ended with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Cesar Chavez, the leader of the National Farm Workers Association, led many protests and acts of civil disobedience to bring the plight of migrant farm workers to the attention of Americans.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, many new protest movements have formed in support of a wide range of political positions.
We are not here to support the politics of one protest movement over another. However, we do firmly believe in your legal right to organize and peacefully carry out acts of protest here in Texas. That’s why we’re putting together this guide on how to organize a protest in Texas. We will cover everything from the logistics of protest organization to when to contact defense attorneys for a protest arrest.
If you are criminally charged from your involvement in a protest, you should partner with a criminal defense lawyer who will help you fight for your rights.
Memorable Protests Require Numbers
Consider these statistics from PBS about one of America’s most effective protests. The March on Washington had an estimated 250,000 participants, despite the organizers only expecting 100,000. And it took 2,000 “Freedom Buses,” and 30 “Freedom Trains” to get those protesters to Washington, and the morning of the March, 10,000 people were arriving every 10 to 15 minutes.
While your protest might not rally as supporters as the March on Washington, there is strength in numbers. Protests work because they offer a show of support for your cause, and demonstrate to people in power that you are too numerous to be ignored.
You need to get people there. You may have the most important cause in the world, but if people don’t know about it, know where to show up and when to be there, it’s far less likely people will hear what you have to say. So what steps should you take when organizing a protest in Texas?
Start With Your Goals
There are lots of things in this world that make people angry. However, just being angry isn’t enough. You have to take people’s anger and frustration and help them channel it on a single, well-stated goal.
So what, precisely, are you trying to change? It’s not enough to say you’re upset about “something,” you need to make it clear that it needs to be replaced by “why you’re upset about something.”
While people may be similarly upset, most people aren’t going to take action unless they feel like they are doing something concrete. By having explicitly stated goals, you make their frustration concrete, thus giving them a reason to take action.
Additionally, your ultimate goal is to get the attention of people in power and make them aware of you what you want. So what if you get their attention? You need to be sure that you have something to tell the person that they can take action towards.
But don’t make your goals too narrow or overly complicated. Effective protests have concrete goals united under a single theme, such as the rights of women. That way you have goals that can be reasonably accomplished while also offer a large enough umbrella to get as many people enthusiastic as possible.
Pick Your Location
There’s a reason the March on Washington marched on Washington. Washington D.C. is the seat of federal power in America. Because the movement sought change at a national level, there was no better place to get national attention than the nation’s capital.
Again, your goals might be much more modest, but the location matters. Most protests start by finding a symbolic place that helps to frame the cause. Those looking to change state laws often take their protests to Austin. But if you are protesting a spike in crime centered on a particular community, the locations of those crimes can also make an effective protest.
But you also need to consider logistics when picking a location. If the crimes keep happening in a dark alley, you might not want to take the protest there, since no one will likely notice it. You want your protest to be seen, and you also want it to be able to accommodate the number of people you are expecting.
And perhaps most importantly, you need to pick a location that is legal. You have a constitutionally protected legal right to protest, but that protest must take place on public property. You can’t protest on someone’s lawn or a private company’s property.
Choose the Best Time
Protests are about raising visibility for an issue, and the time when the protest takes place has a lot to do with that.
Consider one of the most popular forms of protest, the striker’s picket line. They picket when people are going to work to make it clear that the strikers are not working for a reason. Because striking is about working conditions and compensation, strikers want people to associate their protest with the act of working.
However, the work day doesn’t make sense for all protests. If it is a protest that is attempting to unite people from all walks of life, doing it during work hours might make it difficult for some to participate. While some people, especially those on a yearly salary, may be able to take a personal day to protest, those who need the hours just to pay the bills might have to skip out on a cause they care about. If that’s the case, a weekend protest might make the most sense.
So think about your goals and weigh them against the logistics of getting people there.
Don’t Forget Permits
You have the right to protest. However, the government can limit that right in the interest of public safety. There are a number of debates — some of which are currently making their way through the courts — about where to strike that balance, but most municipalities require certain permits for protests. Depending on your locale, these permits will vary, but they dictate where your protest is allowed to take place and what limits may exist regarding what happens within it.
Protests are, by law, not allowed to incite imminent violence or lawless action. And while you have the right to freely assemble regardless of whether you have a permit or not, municipalities have used their interest in protecting public safety as a way of legally justifying permit requirements.
If you do seek a permit and you are rejected, you may want to consult an attorney to make your case. Also, not every municipality requires a permit. However, it’s a good idea to contact the city government regardless so that the police know what to expect.
While there are a number of well-documented instances of police suppressing the right of assembly, know that there are also examples of police protecting the rights of protestors from other members of the public mounting a counter-protest. Plus, when protestors take action to demonstrate the peaceful nature of their action, police and other officials are much more likely to be willing to defend your rights of assembly.
Plan Out Your Actions
After you have taken steps to set a time and date, you want to plan out the specifics of how you are going to conduct your protest.
First of all, you want to pick an emcee who will direct the action. You want your emcee to represent as many of the people’s interests as possible. So, for example, if you are protesting the treatment of women, you want to make sure that your emcee is a woman.
An emcee has an extremely important job at a protest. She needs to strike a balance between getting the crowd excited while also ensuring that they don’t get out of control. Having prepared chants is a great way to do this. Not only will it give people a literal rallying cry, but it will also make your point clear to anyone watching, including the media.
Bands or singers are also a great addition. Anyone who lived through the 60s knows about the power of a good protest song. Again, this will help get the crowd excited while also keeping them focused.
If you are marching, make sure to plan your route and make sure that you have included that route in your permit application.
If there are community leaders who support your cause, get them involved as well and give them a chance to speak. This will help bring more media attention to your cause.
If you feel that the best way to get your point across is to have a sit-in or camp-out until your demands are met, know that there will likely be some people that will want to stop you. If so, make sure that you have legal support if people try to break up your protest.
Publicize Your Actions
You need to get the word out, so you need to take steps to publicize your protest. Ask yourself where interested supporters are likely to see information about a protest.
In the age of social media, getting the word out is a lot easier. Make a Facebook group and assign a Twitter hashtag to your efforts.
You can also do some more old-fashioned promotional work and print off flyers to post publicly. If you are trying to get the attention of students, flyers spread across campus can be very effective.
Finally, contact local media outlets, such as newspapers, radio and television news outlets, to let them know what you are planning to do. Remember, they only want to cover things that they consider newsworthy, so if you have public officials and other notable participants on board, make sure to drop their names when talking to the media.
Make Protest Materials
This may go without saying, but you want people to see your message as well as hear it. That’s why so many protestors carry signs!
This is a great chance to be creative. During the recent Women’s March protests, lists of the funniest and most creative signs went viral on social media. Not only were millions of people watching the protests when they occurred, but the message continued as people shared photos of their favorite signs for weeks and months afterward.
Buttons are also great. While they won’t show up as clearly on television cameras, participants can continue to wear their buttons to express their support long after the protest has ended.
Prepare for the Unexpected
Finally, when planning your protest, know that it will not go exactly as planned.
First of all, make sure that you have emergency supplies. If you are protesting in the summer, make sure that you have water supplies that far exceed the size of your expected crowd, just in case, it grows larger than anticipated. Hire EMTs to treat anyone who may get hurt for whatever reason, including heat stroke or accidental falls. Even if your protest remains peaceful, accidents can happen.
Draw up a contingency plan if things take a negative turn. If you have media coverage, you will need to explain things if they get ugly. This is a lot easier if you’ve done pre-planning.
Know the Rights of Protestors
We have been discussing your legal right to free assembly already, but before you get to a protest, you need to know what are protestor’s rights. That way, you will be prepared to react to police instructions and know if what they are asking you to do is reasonable or not.
Remember, the line between your right to assembly and the government’s right to protect public safety is fuzzy. If the police ask you to stay in a certain area, and you feel that your protest can still be effective in that area, it is wise to listen. However, if you feel that they are limiting your effectiveness, you may want to make your case. Having a lawyer on hand makes that easier.
Also, you do not have to let the police search you unless they have a warrant to do so.
Finally, with any protest, there is a chance that you will be arrested. This arrest may be a violation of your rights, but resisting arrest can be dangerous and unwise, as it will give authorities more evidence to use against you. In fact, peacefully being arrested and then being vindicated by the law later is an effective way to get your message out. Just make sure that you have a lawyer ready to help you after you are arrested.
Keep It Civil
Finally, while you have the right to protest, you don’t have to right to incite violence. But what constitutes inciting violence can be hard to define. That’s why you want to do everything you can to be civil at all times.
Obviously, throwing rocks or water bottles or using signs as weapons will get your arrested. However, if the police find you verbally threatening, you may be arrested as well. If you feel like you have NOT crossed the line into abusive language but you find yourself arrested anyways, make sure to document what was said so that an attorney can effectively make your case.
Finding a Lawyer for Protest Arrests in Texas
If you need a lawyer as a result of legally exercising your right to protest, you want to have a lawyer you can trust.
Here at Morales & Sparks, we are committed to helping Texans exercise their rights. As a bilingual criminal defense practice, we are especially well-prepared to defend Texans, regardless of what language you speak.
At Morales & Sparks, you will be treated like family and defended like family.
So if you are planning a protest and want to partner with a lawyer who cares as much about your rights as you do, or if you need experienced defense attorneys for arrested protesters, contact us today!
Disclaimer: The purpose of this post is to provide general information and is not to be constituted as legal advice. If you need help with a specific issue, please seek the advice of an attorney. Morales & Sparks does not condone the use of violence at protests.