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Prep Work Contributes To Successful Protest Turnout


Not all the protests against a New York grand jury this week were spontaneous. We've been tracking those protests after the grand jury did not indict a police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner during an arrest. In New York City, after that judgment, thousands of marchers stopped traffic on bridges and highways. And chants from demonstrators drowned out performances at Christmas tree lightings in Boston and Philadelphia. These were political acts. And they required political organization. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: How do thousands end up flooding city streets for a shared cause? It can happen on the fly.

JOSE LOPEZ: People just started throwing out places - meet here at 3 - meet here at 4 - calling each other or tweeting at each other.

WANG: Twenty-eight-year-old Jose Lopez, an organizer with the activist group Make The Road New York, says that's lot of what happened the first night after news broke about the Eric Garner case. But some of the second-night protests were weeks in the making. Lopez says he and other organizers in New York began planning last night's gathering in Foley Square almost two months ago, before the grand jury's decision was released.

LOPEZ: For a lot of us, although it hurts to say, we knew what was coming. What we said was simply, the day after the verdict is announced, show up to Foley Square at 5:30. That is a tactic that we have used often.

WANG: The second-day tactic, Lopez says, gives organizers more time to rally more supporters through tweets and texts and lots of phone calls late into the night.

LOPEZ: I don't know if you can hear. My voice is a little crazy right now 'cause I'm on three hours' sleep.

WANG: And outreach push the night before a major demonstration is critical for turnout. And some of the planning involves teaching protesters chants before they arrive. Here's a clip from a YouTube video shared by Lopez's group.


MAKE THE ROAD NEW YORK: (Singing) I still hear my brother crying, I can't breathe. So now I'm in this struggle singing I can't leave.

WANG: Lopez says all the prep work helps channel the desire to protest after cases like Eric Garner and Michael Brown in Missouri.

LOPEZ: I think in moments of national crisis, especially when people connect the dots and are able to understand that each of these incidents from Ferguson to Staten Island aren't isolated, I think people want to respond.

KEN NERO: 'Cause as a black person, I could be shot down. My future kids could be shot down - my brother, my father, my mother. You know what I mean? This is a pattern.

WANG: Thirty-one-year-old Ken Nero is a librarian at Washington, D.C.'s Howard University by day.

NERO: Yeah. Yeah, I got work and then (laughing) put on the activist cap.

WANG: A cap he's worn often after Ferguson, which he says inspired him and other activists to start using the hash tag #DCFerguson to organize protests. Nero says as a new organizer, he's relied on social media. But he's also learned the value of methods used by civil rights activists decades ago.

NERO: What stayed the same was the importance of the clipboard. Getting out there and talking to people, putting up flyers - all these things are timeless, I think. And they'll never be replaced wholesale by social media.

WANG: Still, Tricia Rose, director of Brown University's Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, says social media has helped activists amplify their messages through easy-to-share slogans and images of so-called die-in stagings where protesters lie on the ground.

TRICIA ROSE: They're not entirely new methods, but I think they're more common. They sprout up in the context of social media. And people can participate immediately.

WANG: That participation, whether through a smart phone or on the streets, is an important ingredient to build a movement.

ROSE: You have to have a collective consciousness around the idea that you and a large group of people are tethered, that your fate is connected.

WANG: And even though social media is perhaps better known for inspiring selfies, Rose says it's also today's place to share collective consciousness. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.

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