If you are organizing an activism campaign of any length, odds are good you will run into one or more types of challenging protesters. To help you maintain some order (and a sense of humor), we’ve put together a short list of the most common types of problem protesters, and some ideas about how to deal with them.
The loudmouth is a great person to have at an event, up until something terrible comes out of their mouth. Keeping energy up in the group absolutely requires volume, and that’s one thing the loudmouth has in spades. What they may not have, however, is an internal filter.
Make sure the loudmouth knows your talking points. You do not want the loudest person around misrepresenting what you’re all about. If you are discouraging swearing at the protest, make sure they know that, too. Loudmouths may need a handler, someone to gently remind them when they’ve dropped an f-bomb in front of a group of children.
The loudmouth will be magnetically drawn to the media. You cannot stop this, just hope and pray they remember the talking points and don’t trip themselves up.
The Megaphone Mumbler
Nothing kills the mood like someone rambling or mumbling on the megaphone. Maybe they had a great idea when they got up there and it just fell out. Maybe they don’t handle public speaking well. Maybe somebody else said all the things they were planning on saying and now they’re left with the megaphone and no idea what’s about to come out of their mouth. Of course, it could also just be that they’re naturally a mumbler and there’s nothing to be done about it.
First things first, get them off the megaphone. Don’t steal it out of their hands, but find discreet ways to indicate that they don’t have to keep talking, and you can take that burden off their hands. Once you’ve secured the megaphone, get it in the hands of a reliable rabble rouser, or rile up the crowd yourself. You can start a familiar chant to get folks going again if nothing else comes to mind. Never end your event with a mumble.
For future events, try to keep the mumbler busy doing non-megaphone activities. Mumblers may turn out to be fantastic at handing out pamphlets, or answering questions for the press. Missing one piece of the activist’s toolbox does not make them bad activists.
Hijackers come in all political ideologies. They’re the black bloc’ers who show up and try to turn your economic justice march into an anarchy parade, the union members who show up with matching t-shirts and signs and get between your people and the street, the socialists trying to sell their unrelated newspaper while you’re rallying for whistleblowers. Most of these people are great folks, and wonderful to have around when their ideals line up with your own. But sometimes your friends or total strangers show up and want the party to be all about them.
Try to keep the hijacker away from the media. They may show up with large, off-topic banners and signs. You can choose to place yourself and your people in front of the hijackers’ materials, or you can choose to disengage entirely, creating an invisible boundary between “people who are here for your cause” and “people who are here for their own cause.”
Hijackers may attempt to sow discord and interrupt your event because they honestly believe their causes are more important, or your cause is somehow corrupt, or they just want to roll cop cars and your event seems like it might be a good opportunity for that. Having people in your ranks trying to ruin your day is never fun. If you have good mediating skills, now is the time to bust them out. Otherwise, just do what you can to separate fights before they get too heated and don’t be afraid to toss out agitators who might push your peaceful protest into a violent one.
Sadly, you may be in a position where you don’t have enough of your own people for an event, and the only way to get enough numbers to create an impression is to allow or even encourage hijackers to show up. In these cases, it’s best to refer to them as “allies” or “friends” with the press, so you can maintain at least a little ideological distance.
The Conspiracy Nut
Unless you are organizing a 9/11 Truth rally, anyone yelling about 9/11 at your protest is going to be a problem. Likewise, chemtrails, lizard people, the illuminati, moon landing hoax, and zero point free energy all should be verboten topics at any rally where you intend to be taken seriously.
Challenging the conspiracy nut on their beliefs is not going to get you anywhere. Instead, focus on “staying on target.” Activists seem to be particularly prone to adopting one or more conspiracy theories, potentially because they often find themselves the target of coordinated attacks from powerful people and organizations.
Managing the conspiracy nut is challenging, because any attempt to steer them towards useful things has the potential to backfire dramatically. They are also the most likely of all the types of problem protester to turn the public against you.
If you are one of these people who believes in any or all of these theories thats fine. Don’t feel insulted. This section isn’t about your theories being right or wrong. It’s about the simple fact that mentioning them instantly makes the public ignore you and very quickly ends any hope you have of actually convincing anyone of anything. That can ruin an event.
Dumb people exist. It’s a fact of life and not something you’re going to be able to change or escape just by pretending everyone is smart and well-educated. No side of the political spectrum has a monopoly on idiots, no matter what your bumper sticker might say to the contrary. There are stupid liberals, stupid conservatives, stupid socialists and anarchists and libertarians, and you are going to get some at your protests.
Like many potential problem people, the idiot can be useful. You need bodies on the picket line, and these fine folks have sacrificed their time to be here for you. Appreciate the idiots. At the same time, you do need to protect your protest from them.
Don’t let the idiot talk to the media. Try to keep them off the megaphone if you can. Keep idiots away from the cops or direct confrontations with the target of your demonstration. The idiot may show up with their own propaganda (signs, handouts, etc.) Remove any profane or illegal materials, and resign yourself to the fact that some less-than-ideal flyers and signs are going to exist. Try not to shake your head too much at them.
Despite the potential for diluting or undermining your message, idiots can be tremendously useful. Crapping on them for the way they were born and/or raised is not going to get you anywhere. Play nice.
The Drama Bomb
These folks will literally fuck people out of your revolution. By which I mean they will sleep with fellow protesters, start a tumultuous relationship, and break it off in such a melodramatic manner that their ex no longer feels welcome showing up. The drama bomb doesn’t always ruin things with sex, sometimes they will manufacture schisms within your group over minor incidents or actual lies. They may start arguments with the public or law enforcement, or find ways to hog media attention and make it all about them.
The drama bomb isn’t all bad. They tend to be super passionate about the cause and energetic at events. They may be so fantastic at recruiting they make up for the folks they drive away.
The only way to deal with a drama bomb is to contain the explosions as they occur. Don’t attack the drama bomb, you will only cause more drama and feed the vicious cycle. If you’re confident in your skills as a mediator, do what you can to heal schisms before they get out of hand.
Drama bombs tend to grow out of it with time. There is nothing you can reasonably do to speed up this process, so don’t get caught in the trap of thinking you can save the drama bomb from themselves. Still, if a drama bomb comes back to your group after a long absence and seems to have changed, always give them the benefit of the doubt. Few of us can honestly say we have no skeletons in our own closets.
The Probably a Fed
The guy who shows up in the wrong clothes, who doesn’t know the language, who misunderstands the fundamentals of why you’re here and what you hope to accomplish: the probably-a-fed rears their ugly head in many activist organizations. While it’s easy to hate the guy, you actually have a fantastic opportunity!
If your probably-a-fed is actually a fed (or otherwise associated with law enforcement), you have their undivided attention right now. Make sure they get every little bit about your cause hammered into their head at every meeting. Answer their questions with more than they wanted to know. Choosing transparency over secrecy can mean fewer arrests and better interactions with the police on your event date.
Now, sometimes the probably-a-fed is there trying to start trouble actively. Treat them like you would any other member of your organization advocating for inappropriate actions, up to and including excluding them from the group entirely. Do not let bad ideas take root, especially bad ideas planted by people who view you as the enemy.
Did we miss any kinds of problem protesters you’ve encountered? Post in the comments or join the forum discussion, and we’ll add them to the article!