Friday, January 15, 2010

Here is Part II of How to Start a Protest (by Venita Coelho)

The Accidental Activist –

How to Start A Protest II

There are only two things that politicians take heed of. One is bad press, the other are crowds. When you have an issue that needs action you need to work out two strategies simultaneously. One to get lots of press attention. The other to build critical mass. It is not enough to have one press conference – you need to network with the press, make them see your point of view, co-ordinate so that a series of follow up articles keeps the matter alive. If you can manage to get into the national press then you will really get our netas to sit up and take notice. Dedicate one person who is articulate and persistent to be your press liason. Her number will have to be on day and night. Get the simple things correct – press releases in both English and Konkani, always sent out to the right contact person, before 4:00 p.m. if you want them carried the next day. Make a special effort to get coverage from the non English dailies. These are what the majority of Goa reads.

To keep the issue on the boil you need a series of ‘breaks’. It is well worth holding back dynamic information and releasing it in bits so that the story stays alive. Get known faces to speak up on your behalf. Any celebrities from your area? Get them to pitch in and do their bit. All is fair when you are fighting for column space.

As your issue begins to get press coverage, start planning how to mobilize more support. First look for support near to home – associations in the nearby villages, other action committees and consumer groups. Make sure you network with other activists and Goa wide groups. You will get the benefit of both numbers and their experience.

An important weapon is a public rally. But NEVER decide to call a morcha unless you are sure of the numbers. And numbers in Goa are extremely difficult to get. If you call a public protest and end up with a couple of hundred people, that is the end of officialdom taking you seriously. If you manage to gather a couple of thousand they will sit up. And if, like a recent protest, you manage to get five thousand people on the road and shut down all of Panjim, you can be sure your demands will be met. But this will not happen unless you network with other NGO’s in the field, have a dedicated bank of volunteers drumming up support, and provide money for buses to truck people in from elsewhere. Launching a public protest can be a huge logistic exercise. Far better to innovate and come up with methods of protest that leverage minimum effort with maximum mileage. Who says you can’t get creative with protesting? The Protest by Picnic organized by GBA on Vainguinim beach was one of the most delightful ways to protest thought up in a long time. The Cidade had been treating the beach as private property for far too long. To reclaim it as public space, GBA threw a picnic and everyone was invited!

Forget the tried and tested route of flexing muscles at large rallies. Go in for something crazier- that the establishment will also have no idea how to tackle, and which will grab you lots of press.

Meanwhile the real slog will go on. Make sure you have a dedicated band that is following up on RTI applications and other government permissions. I always thought that speaking directly to those responsible for handing out permissions was a waste of time. But I was proved wrong. Visit the Chief Town Planner often enough, and with press in tow, and he will eventually have to take action of some sort. Support will come from unexpected places within the government. In one case the Forest department chose to take umbrage that a powerful builder had cut trees without their permission. They ordered an Inspection and a subsequent Stop Work notice. So don’t ignore this route. Meet those on the official side. Sometimes instead of a stuffed government shirt you will encounter a human being who is genuinely trying to do his job. It always leaves me hopeful.

By now the individual back lash will have started. You can expect notices from the panchayat, cases filed against you at the police station and stones thrown at your house at night. These are all tactics of intimidation, and it amazes me how little it takes to scare people. A couple of stones rattle against the roof and suddenly all the supporters vanish. You’re there to fight, correct? Then fight. Go and register counter cases at the police station. Hire a damn good lawyer. Take them on head on. It always neutralizes them. One activist who got a demolition notice for a perfectly legal garage merely shrugged and said ‘ Okay I’ll demolish my garage even though it is legal – so now what are you going to do?’ That left them stumped. It is important to make them realise that you are not a pushover who will run at the first sign of trouble. Let them know that you are a yodha and this is going to be a real battle. Make sure you keep the press in the loop. Press coverage is good protection.

Sounding more complex than you bargained for? The most important things in life are always got at a high cost. But the cost of not fighting for them is even higher. You got started because you were angry. Keep the anger going. Keep the fight going.

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