The modern women’s movement, as connected by the Internet, is damn good at identifying the need for physical, in-person demonstrations and getting people to show up for them.
As a general matter, however, there is less confidence in getting permits, working with police and the logistical side of getting boots in the streets. This process is often represented as more mystical or scary than it needs to be. Here’s a suggested process and some tips for making sure your demonstration, protest or visibility event is all up on the legal side of the law. These tips apply to demonstrations where nobody plans to get arrested. The good news is that, when organizers agree on this approach, it’s fairly easy to ensure no one does.
Don’t be rigid in your plans from the outset, saying something like “we are going to take over this corner at 3 p.m.” Leave yourself open and flexible as you research your options (more about this in a moment). You will want to choose a location that, ideally, is symbolically logical for the message you are sending and has high visibility, such as street or foot traffic. However, these are not hard and fast rules. You may be better off, for example, doing a visibility event at a well-travelled corner that has no overlap at all with your message. Or inside a public space, if your primary means of planned visibility is a video to be shared online later. As a general matter, if you are planning a street-style demonstration that doesn’t overlap with a scheduled event or appearance that you are responding to, it’s a good idea to plan for having it start no later than about 11 a.m., so that you can get members of the media to have video footage in plenty time for evening newscasts.
What does this have to do with getting a permit for a lawful demonstration? Everything. Because you can’t be rigid about where you want to be and when. You are going to be a little bit at the mercy of your local jurisdiction in terms of what makes the most sense.
First, go to the local police department’s website and look up demonstration rules. Some jurisdictions will require you to submit permits well in advance, whereas others may have “courtesy” permits that are not required. If you are planning a demonstration in Washington, D.C., or anywhere where the land in the surrounding area you’re considering is federally or state managed property, you may need to check into the rules with, for example, the Capitol Police, the Supreme Court Police, or the National Park Police. If you are planning a demonstration on or near a university campus, check to see if they have their own police permitting process and rules. Often they do. When in doubt about the area of jurisdiction, just call your local police department and ask for help. It doesn’t need to be scary. You can just let them know that you’re hoping to do a legal, First Amendment demonstration to exercise your free speech, you’re not planning to be disruptive and would like some help identifying where you can stand and putting together a permit for that demonstration.
You will likely be asked questions about the number of people you estimate will attend. Try to give a good ballpark figure, and one that gives you flexibility if more people show up than you had intended. Of course you don’t want to overshoot too high, and make the police nervous that they need increased presence on their end. You will also likely be asked questions about what kind of equipment you plan to bring. While jurisdictions vary widely, one of the easiest ways to get approval and stay out of law enforcement’s crosshairs is to say you intend to use signs without sticks on them, which means they must be carried by hand, and that you will only offer literature to those who request it. If you are planning a vigil, some jurisdictions have restrictions upon flame, which you can easily get around by specifying that you will use battery-operated votives. If you are planning to have a bunch of people on the sidewalk, it’s easier to get approval and keep it simple if you agree that everyone will keep walking. Sound amplification may restrict where you can go, and frankly, often the visual matters more than the speeches, although this is not always the case. The point is to be both flexible and creative. You can do almost anything you want to do if you are open to working within the confines of the local rules.
In filling out the permit, they will ask you for your name and contact information. The impact of what you offer is easy to skip over, so be prepared for this in advance. Remember that you are likely filling out a publicly searchable record, including by your opponents, so choose the contact information you would like to share accordingly. It’s also a good idea to state from the outset, in an attachment, the name and contact information of another person who is authorized to speak to the permit application. It can be difficult to get this done after the fact.
A note about “special police,” especially campus police, mall security and other private contractors in that orbit. They are often more difficult to work with than local, state or federal police. You are left to make up your own joke about mall security, but the point is that these folks are less apt to be forgiving or to want to work in partnership with you. If you are scared of folks getting arrested, you might wish to explore moving your demonstration to a sidewalk just outside the jurisdiction of the private police. This is not to say it can’t be done, and your writer is smiling at the memory of one particular rent-a-cop who refused to shake her hand.
Which brings me to my last point, my extra-special personal point that has helped me over and over again. Once you have your permit in place, make an extra copy of it so you and the other person authorized to speak to it each have one on demonstration day. Make sure lead organizers at your demonstration know that you and that person are authorized to speak to the permit and/or law enforcement as any issues arise (knowing this in advance is key). Then, on event day, have the two of you go up to the police when you first arrive and let them know you’re there. Give them your names, let them know how long you intend to stay, where you plan to walk around, and any other relevant details. Tell them nobody wants to get arrested and that if they have concerns, to just let you know and you’ll communicate back with your group. It’s folky, but it works.
There are other good styles of organizing demonstrations, including ones I have practiced with success, but this process for securing permits and working with police is one that really works for most people who just want to host a successful demonstration without anyone getting arrested.