The Battle of Ferguson II included many teachable moments for activists of every sort. They are most useful for those who are organizing protests that have the potential to be met with aggressive law enforcement action; in other words, those protesting the thin blue line or large financial institutions.
The organizers in Ferguson did a wonderful job of arranging safe houses, jail support, and protester registries.
There was a massive amount of organization and planning ahead of the Ferguson protests, however no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. The plan revolved around the ability to march and conduct a peaceful protest. From the second the first tear gas canister flew through the air that was no longer a possibility. Contingency planning was probably not a priority for organizers because they didn’t believe law enforcement would be dumb enough to stop a marching protest. Tactically, from law enforcement’s standpoint, a marching protest is the best thing for them. The longer people march, the more tired they become. The more tired they are, the less likely they are to engage in violence.
This generates the first rule of activism: Never underestimate the stupidity of a government organization.
Bring Your Own Medical Staff:
During a riot or any sort of aggressive protest, activists should bring their own medical staff. In Ferguson, a protester suffered from what was described as a cardiac event. When other protesters attempted to carry the injured person to the police lines they were hit with tear gas. When they finally were able to make it to the police lines, cops instructed them to lay the person on the ground.
It would have saved precious time if the protesters had arranged for their own first responders and evacuation routes. In protests of this sort, medical personnel should be easily identifiable and should engage in no activity other than medical care. Fly the Red Cross and abide by the traditions of the symbol. Stay a non-combatant.
Protests that are mobile are extremely fluid. Medical personnel should have vehicles available to extract patients and get them to hospitals without the assistance of emergency services. The police won’t care and EMS will be barred from entering the area. It might be wise to have a dedicated individual circling the area in a vehicle to be used to extract the injured or sick.
The Media Will Lie For Law Enforcement:
Multiple outlets told their viewers that the tear gas used against peaceful protesters were simply smoke canisters. The fact that this was happening was shared via Twitter and reached those connected to the protest via hashtags, however those still getting their news from the state-run media were unaware until a tear gas canister hit near propagandists broadcasting above a headline that called the chemical agent “smoke bombs.” Protesters could have countered that, and many other law enforcement lies, by getting in the background of reporters who were broadcasting and shouting the truth. Do not allow the state-run media to downplay the events to the viewers at home.
There Will Be Looting:
In any protest that evolves into a riot, there will be looting. This reflects poorly on the movement. In Ferguson, looting continued long after the protesters were gone. Later protest organizers told news outlets things like:
“We are sorry this occurred. We wanted a peaceful protest.”
“Our team couldn’t control it.”
While most public relations experts stress the use of inclusive words like “we” and “our,” this is not the occasion to use them. The looting didn’t happen during “our” peaceful protest. It happened after law enforcement tear gassed it.
There will always be those that will attempt to profit from a crisis. During wars, people profiteer and black markets flourish. During riots, people loot. Don’t accept responsibility for the actions of those people not associated with your cause. If those associated with the cause loot, they damage the movement as a whole. Organizers should do everything in their power to discourage the activity and explain the consequences of looting to the protesters.
Law Enforcement Monitors Social Media:
When a tweet goes out identifying a new location to meet at as a specific intersection, you might as well have just broadcast it over the police radio. During World War II, the Allies would openly broadcast messages to the French Resistance to let them know what was happening.
For example: “Sally is wearing a blue dress” really meant that the US was conducting an arms drop.
This tactic could easily be adapted to Twitter or Facebook if codes were worked out ahead of time by organizers. Instead of tweeting “We’re meeting back up at Arsenal and Grand” and letting the cops know the plan, a message stating “John has a big nose” confuses law enforcement while getting the message to other activists.
It’s important to only let key people know the codes to avoid them falling into the opposition’s hands. Those key people can then inform their circle or organization with another set of codes specific to their group.
To further confuse the Nazis, the Allies would constantly broadcast phrases that meant nothing to anybody. The Nazis would spend their time trying to figure out what the codes meant, when they didn’t mean anything. The same technique could have been employed in Ferguson.
Imagine being the law enforcement cyber surveillance officer that has to make sense of this:
Engage in Signals Intelligence
The cops monitor activists’ communications; activists can do the same thing. Scanners provide access to law enforcement channels but in times of emergency, law enforcement switches to unmonitored frequencies to limit oversight. Cops are trained to keep their communications quiet. Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Services are not. They are kept informed of law enforcement actions and this information is disseminated to their first responders in the field. Fire Departments and EMS don’t typically have secure channels. While it may not provide operational details, it will provide locations of law enforcement and troop build ups.
Choose Your Targets
You expect soldiers in war to avoid civilian casualties. You should make the same attempt. I don’t advocate any form of property destruction. For those that are undeterred by that statement, consider the effects of your actions. In Ferguson, nobody cared about cop cars being destroyed or lit ablaze. However, there was outcry over small businesses being looted and torched.
Divide Their Forces:
In an event like Ferguson where the number of protesters far exceeds the number of available cops, don’t stage a massive protest. Stage several. The more locations involved the more police have to divide their forces. Make certain to ensure that every protest has sufficient numbers to outnumber law enforcement to lessen the chances of a police attack. Never go out in small groups.
The protests need to be in constant communication, and in the event one of the locations is attacked, all other protests should become mobile and move towards the scene of the police attack.
Force Public Arrests:
An order for a peaceful protest to disperse goes against the US Constitution and everything this country stands for. After the order to disperse is given, those protesters willing to spend the night in jail should move into the nearest open commercial building and refuse to leave until they are arrested. The police will be less likely to use chemical agents in a commercial building occupied by bystanders.
A mass arrest of protesters provides for good media coverage. Nothing says “police state” quite like a bunch of peaceful protesters being led out of a building in plastic handcuffs. Those that are calm should talk to the cameras while being arrested and explain that they were conducting a peaceful protest and that the arrest is illegal. Remain calm.
Keep these little tips in mind the next time you find yourself in a situation that may turn into a domestic battlefield.
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