Demonstrations 101

Jessica Maxwell

Nonviolent direct action, civil disobedience, and mass demonstrations have long been respected and effective components of grassroots movements for peace and justice. We can use these tools more effectively when we clearly understand our rights as protesters and the distinctions between legally protected protest activity and civil disobedience or direct actions that defy the law. It is also important that we learn creative skills for confronting potential violence at such actions. We hope the information below will promote safe and effective actions and empower demonstrators to assert their rights.

Nonviolent Action and Civil Disobedience
The following definition is from a training manual produced by the Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, available online at

Civil disobedience involves intentionally breaking a law to protest an unjust law or political policy. Civil disobedience actions are usually nonviolent and the participants refrain from 1) using physical or verbal violence towards any person, 2) carrying weapons, 3) bringing or using alcohol or illegal drugs, and 4) destroying property. There have been movements, however, that have used the destruction of property as a tactic of civil disobedience. In the 1980s, for example, the Plowshares movement destroyed military property tied to the nuclear arsenal in order to protest the use of nuclear weapons and to slow their proliferation.

Legally Protected Forms of Protest

While direct orders given by police at a particular action may contradict what the law theoretically allows us to do, it is useful to have some idea of what is legal protest and what is not. Police response may vary depending on context, location, and the people involved. Demonstrators are often faced with the difficult choice of obeying unjust police orders and having their rights violated, or defying illegitimate police orders, facing arrest and seeking vindication through court proceedings. The introductory information offered below is based on a handout from the Central NY chapter of the NY Civil Liberties Union and is not comprehensive.

You can assemble, picket, or hand out leaflets or flyers at public places (parks, sidewalks, city hall steps, etc.). However, you cannot legally blockade a building, preventing others from entering or exiting, or impede vehicular or pedestrian traffic.

Certain public venues may require advanced notice or permits for large gatherings or for specific types of events – such as those using sound amplification. If you want to be absolutely sure that your event is legal, it is always a good idea to check with local law enforcement officials.

You can say offensive things about a group of people or an institution; however, you cannot walk up to a member of that group or supporter and engage in a personal verbal attack.

You can use or misuse the American flag in a protest; it is protected symbolic free speech.

Understanding the legal system
The Just Cause Law Collective, a mobile legal team that provides information and support for demonstrators, has a handbook for activists. It can be found at It was written in 2001 by Katya Komisaruk, a former plowshares activist and attorney, and includes the following excerpts.

What crimes could we be charged with?
Protesters are usually charged with infractions (a crime usually not punishable by jail time) or misdemeanors (a crime punishable by a year in jail or less). Typical infractions are jaywalking or driving beyond the speed limit. Typical misdemeanors are trespassing, blocking the road, causing minor property damage or resisting an officer.
Sometimes activists are charged with felonies (a crime punishable by prison time), such as conspiracy or major property damage. However, in past mass civil resistance, these felony charges have nearly always been dropped. Prosecutors tend to use them as a scare tactic or bargaining tool.

Can the charges against us be changed?
Be aware that the charges that the police write down when they arrest us are not necessarily the charges that the prosecutor uses. The arresting officer’s charges are just a suggestion. It’s the prosecutor who decides the real charges, and s/he can change them up until we actually start trial. Charges are a matter for negotiation using solidarity.

Interacting with the Police
According to the National Lawyers Guild, “If an officer approaches you (for example, on the street) to ask questions, you do not have to identify yourself or answer those questions. There is no requirement that individuals identify themselves to police officers or carry identification cards (except while driving)” ( Police can be intimidating, but you can always remain silent or politely decline to respond. You can also verbally refuse to consent to a search, but shouldn’t physically resist, since that could result in injury or charges of assault or obstruction.

Nonviolent Strategies for Confronting Disrupters
Demonstrations always have a political goal. It is important that whatever disruptions occur–whether initiated by counter-demonstrators, police or fellow demonstrators–we not let them overtake the event and undermine our political goal. For this reason it is strategic to use nonviolent tactics to address conflicts at demonstrations, but many choose to rely on nonviolence for philosophical or ethical reasons as well.
If disrupters have serious concerns, we may be able to have constructive interactions with them by listening and responding respectfully. If disrupters are not willing to be engaged in a constructive way, it is often better to ignore them and isolate them from the main body of the demonstration so as to limit their impact. Many of the following suggestions are adapted from handouts used by the School of the Americas Watch movement.

General Tips
The tone of the demonstration depends on how we respond to our fellow demonstrators, police, the media, and observers. Our attitude should be one of openness, friendliness, and respect toward all.
Be creative. Nonviolence does not mean being aloof or failing to act.
Be calm. It is a rare person who does not become angry or afraid under stress. Don’t think that you are weak if you have fears.
Work as a team. You don’t have to do everything yourself. Use and rely on the support you can get from fellow demonstrators.

Feel free to engage hecklers in conversation in a rally situation, but in a march, it is important for the main body of the march to continue around hecklers.
Listen before responding, but feel free to assert your right to be heard as well.
Be polite. Smile. Nothing is more disarming.
Don’t assume that the person’s concerns are not legitimate or that you know what they’re going to say.
Look for common ground–while you may disagree strongly on certain issues, you may actually agree on others.
Remember you can challenge someone’s views without personally attacking the person.
Don’t feel obligated to respond to hecklers. If you are uncomfortable or feeling short on patience, let a fellow demonstrator or organizer handle it.

Do not run toward fights. Move quietly and quickly to a scuffle if you can help to isolate it.
Do not push people and try not to touch them; most people resent such action and it may escalate the situation.
You don’t need to interpose yourself; too many people intervening can escalate and prolong the scuffle when it would have fizzled out if left alone.
Once you confirm that others are addressing the scuffle, look around to see if anyone else needs assistance and encourage others to return their focus to the main event.

If the police intervene, remember that any interference with police actions may not only result in personal injury, but also arrest and legal charges.
Be alert – who is instigating, who is mediating, who gets arrested, look at officer badge numbers and names. Ask others to write down information if you cannot.
Stay calm.

Jessica is a staffperson at the Peace Council and has led nonviolence trainings in the past.