HONK FOR PEACE
(or for free speech, or whatever)
theory and practice
I like to hold up a big sign, visible to passing motorists, beside a main street, during afternoon rush hour. Following is an explanation of why I choose this tactic rather than some other, and some technical details of implementation.
The goals of protest. Total neophytes in political activism might believe that protest demonstrations are messages addressed to government officials (or heads of corporations), asking them to change their policies. But that’s entirely the wrong idea. The intended target audience is not the government officials (or other people in power). Rather, the target audience usually is the general public. The goal is to recruit more of the general public to join in the protesters’ cause. As more and more of people join (and perhaps the demonstrations become larger), the protesters become a political force that cannot be ignored. Eventually, the government or corporate officials must either change their policies or be replaced.
“Fill the jails!” used to be a slogan of protesters, during the civil rights campaigns and in earlier movement protests. Protesters might willingly get themselves arrested for some sort of civil disobedience. If enough of them got arrested, the police wouldn’t know where to put them, and the newspapers would make it known.
But the situation has changed, so methods of protest must change.
Increasingly, the news media are owned and operated by a few large corporations, whose boards of directors overlap with the boards of directors of the military-industrial complex. And so the corporate news media gives little attention to our protest demonstrations. Even if we gather thousands of people together, and incorporate some costumes and giant puppets into our demonstration, or even if a few of us chain ourselves to the White House fence to get arrested, most of America will never hear about it.
And “fill the jails” may no longer work, in part because currently we have fewer protesters, but perhaps also because there are now a lot more jails. As part of the “Readiness Exercises 1984″ (or REX-84), President Reagan’s administration built many large detainment camps to hold large numbers of people if some sort of civil uprising were to occur. These camps are now called “FEMA camps” because they are maintained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They are empty, but held in readiness. So “fill the jails” is not really feasible. Getting arrested is no longer a way of being heard; it has become a way of being silenced.
Our objective is to convey our message to the general public, but we cannot rely on the mainstream news media for that purpose. And so it seems to me that we must take our message wherever it will be seen directly by a large number of people. And, of course, we don’t accomplish much by preaching to the choir; we want to reach beyond the choir.
With all that in mind, I have decided that the roadside vigil is a fairly good tactic. I like to hold up a big sign, visible to passing motorists, beside a main street, during afternoon rush hour. The sign can be about any topic you choose, but there are some extra advantages to it being about peace, and so that will be my main example in the following discussion.
If you’re standing with friends, you can talk while holding up the signs; it’s almost like an outdoor party. If you’re doing it alone, you might bring along a portable radio or CD player or other audio entertainment device, or else plan on using your sign-holding time as a time of meditation.
This action doesn’t require a large organization of thousands of people. It can be carried out by a group of any size, from one person to a few dozen. How many people you need depends on your own boldness. Some people might feel foolish and embarrassed to be carrying out such an action in a group smaller than, say, 10 people. Personally, I’m perfectly willing to do it in much smaller groups as well, and in fact I usually do it alone. I enjoy smiling at the motorists, waving at the ones who have honked, all while dancing (just a little) to my radio.
In fact, I would urge people not to do it in large groups. The passing motorists won’t have time to read more than one sign anyway. If you have a large group, I urge you to break it into smaller groups, who can stand vigil simultaneously in different parts of the city. Two small groups in different locations will be seen by twice as many passing motorists as one large group!
You’re limited to a very short message in very large print, because that’s all a passing motorist will have time to read. Admittedly, this means your message can’t be very sophisticated or subtle. But, interestingly, you’ll accomplish something useful even if the motorist doesn’t have time to read your sign. Even in that case, the motorist will still be made aware that someone is standing by the roadside with a protest sign — i.e., that someone is dissatisfied with our present system and our more conventional means of expressing grievances; someone is reaching out to the public directly. Even that is a statement about our society’s current political state.
I chose this tactic because it does not rely on press coverage by the corporate media. But it doesn’t preclude coverage, either. I was pleasantly surprised to get an article in the local newspaper on Christmas day, 2010. Of course, I wasn’t the first person come up with the honk for peace idea; some of my online friends have told me they’ve been carrying out similar vigils in their own cities.
The rationale for demonstrations. Many people have spoken of the usefulness of protest demonstrations, but I think I’ve heard it put most eloquently by Professor Richard Wolff:
Never underestimate the impact of even a small number of people doing something. It means thousands of others who see it, who hear about it, now have a more realistic feeling about such a thing. It may take them several more months or years before they ever [join in]. But the possibility of their going just got a little more real when they see you standing there doing it. It’s not as strange, it’s not as hopeless, it’s not as impossible, because it’s been realized by another person who’s not so different from them.
I can’t actually prove that the sign-holding tactic is effective, but I believe it is, and I have some reasoning to back that up:
- People’s political positions are more nuanced than simply “I’m in favor of the war” or “I’m opposed to the war.” Opposition to the war may vary greatly, through many gradations of intensity, from “I hope they will end that war soon” to “what can I do today to help end that war?” I don’t expect Honk For Peace to instantly move anyone from one end of the spectrum to the other — but each time I hear a honk, I believe I may have moved one person up one notch, one gradation, closer to helping out. This is a slow process — it’s not going to change the whole world overnight — but I believe it is making small, gradual change, which contributes to the larger change that may eventually get us where we want to go. Also,
- Whether a person supports or opposes a war may depend on logical reasons (or, then again, it may not). But the intensity of a person’s involvement — i.e., whether they want to be spectators or want to help out — depends largely on how much inspiration they’ve had, and how much they’ve been made to feel part of a movement. I’m trying to give them that feeling.
- The sign reminds people that the war is still going on, even if they haven’t heard about it on the news lately. (As long as the two plutocracy parties of the plutocracy both support the war, they won’t debate about it, and so it won’t be mentioned on the news very often.)
The sign is made much more noticeable if it is held by a live human being (in contrast with simply being posted somewhere, like a billboard).
There are further advantages if the sign is one that urges people to honk:
- Honking is such an easy action that many people will DO it, and perhaps that breaks their inertia — it may get them over the threshold, from doing nothing, to doing at least a little of something and feeling like they are part of a movement; after that perhaps they’ll do more at some point in the future. That feeling is one of the most important things I’m trying to accomplish — I’m trying to overcome the culture of separateness and consumerism which is our root problem, and re-establish a feeling of connectedness. We want that feeling to “go viral” — i.e., to spread from person to person, like a smile. (Near the end of the film “I Am Fishead” is some interesting discussion of the viral spreading of good will among people.)
- Moreover, other motorists can hear the honk, and so that adds to the message they’re receiving: they’re being told that someone like them agrees with your sign.
- And it gives you some positive feedback too: you’ll feel good about each honk that you hear. And if you look quickly, you may figure out which car the honk came from, and you’ll probably see a smiling face, perhaps a hand waving with a “V” sign. I generally wave back.
All of this might not sound like much, but I’m hoping to change many minds, each very slightly; I think that’s how mass movements start.
Further technical/tactical details.
Of course, this tactic is not effective if you live in a rural area. It may be difficult if the local police believe you are in violation of some law (whether you are or not). And it may even be hazardous, if you do it in an area where there is strong and violent sentiment against your message. But here in Nashville, it seems to be quite safe, and the police here have no objection as long as I stay out of the street, stay on public property (e.g., most sidewalks), and don’t block traffic on the sidewalk. A few sidewalks are private property, though they look just like the public sidewalks, and I’ve been surprised to see how vehement the owners are in their insistence on my not using their space for my message.
I would exclude certain locations. For instance, if you hold up your sign near the entrance to a parking lot for a big rock concert or a big football game, it will be seen by many people, but they are people who came there mainly for entertainment, i.e. to get their minds off serious matters. They may actually feel that it is inappropriate for you to hold up your sign in such a place, and so they may feel resentful, and be prejudiced against your message. At least, that is my guess. I could be wrong about that. (Let me know if you think otherwise.) I think there will be no such resentment along major streets, because motorists are used to driving past all sorts of advertisements.
If the weather is hot, use sunscreen and bring a water bottle. If the weather is cold, bring more layers of clothing than you think you’ll need — you can always remove a layer of clothing that you’ve brought, but you can’t add layers that you haven’t brought. If the weather is wet, bring your biggest umbrella, and use a sign small enough to fit under the umbrella (or use a waterproof sign, but that may be harder to prepare). You get extra points for demonstrating in bad weather — i.e., some motorists will be extra impressed to see you there.
How often should you hold your “honk for peace” vigil? That depends entirely on how you feel. If you do it too often, you’ll begin to dislike it, and that will adversely affect not only your vigil but your other activities too — don’t do that. You may want to do it more often in months of good weather, or at times in your life when you have more time available to you. If you find yourself doing it about once a week, I would suggest that you consider doing it at the same time on the same day each week — that may be an easier schedule to maintain, individually or in a group, and it may have a greater impact on the repeat members of the audience, too.
Location: Choose a place where you’ll have not only good visibility, but also an easy time parking your own car. Some store proprietors might object to your using their parking lot for this purpose. My own favorite location (here in Nashville) is beside Centennial Park, where there is lots of public free parking.
Choose a location where the drivers can afford a little attention for you — i.e., a straight strip of road, where few people are turning, is better than a place where people are merging into traffic.
What slogan I use depends on my audience. For instance, I actually believe that capitalism is the cause of war, but I don’t think most of the passing motorists would understand a sign that says “Honk for Socialism.” Perhaps we’re getting closer to the time for that sign, but I think we’re not there yet. So I hold a “Honk for Peace” sign, and I hope that that will get their thinking started, and eventually perhaps they will see what I have seen.
Designing the sign. I design signs that I can re-use many times. (And so I am more likely to skip days when it’s raining, because rain tears up my signs pretty quickly.) My handwriting isn’t neat enough to satisfy me, so I prefer to use my computer to print out on 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper, and then tape them together. I attach the big paper sign to a piece of posterboard using binder clips, so that later I can easily switch paper signs but re-use the posterboard.
Use a bold font, such as “Impact.” A lighter weight font may still be readable from a distance, but not quite so easily, as you can see in the “buy less” sign that I made for holding up near a shopping mall during November and December.
Put the sign on a pole, so that you can rest the weight on the ground rather than support it entirely with your own muscle. I use the empty cardboard roll from paper towels as a pole sleeve which I attach to the back of the poster board, so that I can easily remove the pole when I’m packing up to go home. My pole disassembles into two parts, and my biggest sign folds up, to fit into my small car.
Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or suggestions.
Eric Schechter (615) 414-4572