Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Conor Friedersdorf.
No matter if you’re aiming to overthrow your government, or to simply shame your local state legislature, some best-practices for a D.I.Y. revolution have emerged of late.
As Egyptians revolted, Malcolm Gladwell argued in The New Yorker that the least interesting aspect of their efforts were what new media tools dissenters used. “People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented,” he wrote. “Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone.”
Grant him this: technology hasn’t changed everything. It confers certain advantages, has significant limits, and is exploited by the savvy organizer as one more tool to be used when appropriate. So how to combine hi-tech and low-tech to organize a safe and successful mass uprising? Herein, some handy tips.
Step 1. DEVELOP A STRATEGY
There’s nothing more basic than formulating a plan of attack, whether with an iPad, a pad and pen, or a stick in the dirt. Ask Gene Sharp, an 83-year-old orchid enthusiast so low-tech that he doesn’t even use computers. But his pamphlet From Dictatorship To Democracy, “a 93-page guide to toppling autocrats,” is available for download in 24 languages. And it’s been used by dissidents in Burma, Bosnia, Estonia, Zimbabwe, Tunisia and Egypt. Score one for hyperlinks and downloadable PDFs.
Pro tip: Someone has already orchestrated a protest like the one you want to throw. Use Google to find articles about that event, note the name of the organizer, and try to track down his or her email address to ask for advice. Once you’ve set a strategy, disseminate those plans to as wide an audience as possible. Upload documents to social publishing sites such as Docstoc.com or Scribd.com for easy viewing and sharing across all platforms and devices.
Step 2. DON’T OVERLOOK OLD MEDIA
Hi-tech is useful if you’re trying to reach strangers while sidestepping state run media, as Twitter dissidents did in Iran. Or to organize a walkout among high school students, as happened in Newark, New Jersey: when every last person you’re trying to reach belongs to the same Facebook network, use that.
But low-tech mass media remains the most effective way to assemble a large crowd of strangers in a free country. Glenn Beck summoned tens of thousands to his “Restoring Honor” event via Fox News, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert used Comedy Central to publicize their own response rally, Tea Partiers asked local AM radio hosts to help publicize their regional events, and a 2006 immigration rally in Los Angeles drew the biggest crowd of all: 500,000 people took to the streets thanks in large part to deejay Eddie Sotelo and his counterparts in Spanish language radio.
Pro tip: Facebook is best used to communicate with an existing coalition – it’s hard to talk with folks who don’t already count you as a “friend” or “like” your cause. Whereas Twitter is better for more freewheeling interactions that unfold in real time – just remember to settle on a hashtag that’s appended to every tweet.
Step 3. BRING THE PROTEST INTO PEOPLES’ HOMES
Pitted against heavily armed security forces, the people of Bahrain turned to their camera phones: “By uploading images of this week’s violence in Manama, the capital, to Web sites like YouTube and yFrog, and then sharing them on Facebook and Twitter, the protesters upstaged government accounts and drew worldwide attention to their demands,” The New York Times reports. “A novelty less than a decade ago, the cellphone camera has become a vital tool to document the government response to the unrest that has spread through the Middle East and North Africa.” But what if you’re not facing inherently newsworthy abuses?
The lowest tech way to get press is getting naked. The cameras show up every year in Venice, California when bare-chested women and men clad in bikini tops protest the local prohibition on topless sunbathing. How many people are needed to get an anti-war protest newspaper coverage? Only one if she’s nude, on top of a car, performing a yoga pose (downward dove?). Environmental activists were able to persuade 600 people to bare all atop this glacier to draw attention to climate change. And last year various Americans and Germans took off all their clothes to protest airport scanners… that peek beneath clothing.
Pro tip: The proliferation of camera-equipped smartphones makes capturing images from your protest easy. For even more dramatic shots, USB Fever sells wide-angle lenses that can be attached to your cell phone via magnet. And an Eye-Fi memory card will automatically upload images via Wi-Fi to your computer — or directly to Flickr or Facebook. If you’re expecting water-cannons or overly-aggressive officers, opt for a super-tough and waterproof camera such as the Casio Ex-G1, and perhaps an indestructible laptop such as Panasonic’s Toughbook 31.
Step 4. BE ONE STEP AHEAD OF THE LAW
Cheap digital video cameras are handy for documenting police abuses for later litigation. But be careful with that particular gadget. It can capture illegal or unseemly behavior on your own side. And in some jurisdictions, recording audio can get you arrested on illegal surveillance charges – what’s needed is a lower-tech camera that captures images, but not sound.
Of course, even low-tech tools can get you into trouble. In Providence, Rhode Island, you’ll need prior permission if you want to shout through a bullhorn. Sometimes the most important technology is the pen used to fill out a permit.
Pro tip: If your cell phone doesn’t take video, a cheap, compact option is the Flip Ultra HD, a popular choice among journalists.
Step. 5 DON’T BREAK FOR LUNCH
Unless you’re embarking on a hunger strike, it’s a losing proposition to pit famished, fatigued protesters against well-fed authorities taking shifts. The hi-tech solution: take to the streets with a camel-back full of electrolytes and a supply of MREs. Extreme situations might even justify Dexedrine.
An old-fashioned approach to meals can have its perils. During the San Francisco dockworker strike of 1934, amid a pitched battle between longshoremen and riot police, there was a peculiar pause in the action. “As if a work whistle had blown, each side withdrew for a midday break,” writes Kevin Starr, California’s official state historian. “Toward one o’clock Harry Bridges was eating at a union dining hall at the corner of the Embarcadero and Mission Street… Suddenly shots rang out, followed by yelling and screams. Looking outside, Bridges could see the police driving back his men with clubs and gunfire. During the lull of the lunch hour, the police had regrouped themselves into two phalanxes, one to the north of the strikers’ headquarters, the other to the south.”
Pro tip: Pack plenty of wanter. The CamelBak mule holds 100 ounces. (Good news, anarchists and communists: it comes in black or red.) In case potable water is scarce, equip your protest kit with an ultraportable SteriPEN water purifier. And if you find yourself becoming overagitated — never a good idea during a mass protest — calm yourself with Breathing Zone, a handy iPhone app that’ll help keep the typical stress of fomenting unrest somewhat in check.
More on Techland:
How Egypt Cut Off the Internet (and How a U.S. ‘Kill Switch’ Might Work)
How Libya’s Second City Became the First to Revolt