10 rules for protesting respectfully

OPINION: Here's a guide for engaging in “legitimate” protest, based on the insights, experiences and historical lessons of America’s most qualified dissidents.

A pro-Palestine protestor in an encampment at UCLA on May 1, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. The camp was declared 'unlawful' by the university and many protestors have been detained. Pro-Palestinian encampments have sprung up at college campuses around the country with some protestors calling for schools to divest from Israeli interests amid the ongoing war in Gaza. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

 Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

— Frederick Douglass, “If There is No Struggle, There Is No Progress

Perhaps no demographic in U.S. history is more experienced at challenging the status quo to change their country for good than Black Americans. For 400 years, we have been engaged in a struggle to make the world recognize our humanity. Whether it is race-based servitude, American apartheid or ethnic cleansing, every inch of Black progress required a down payment of blood, sweat and tears. If you are Black, protest is part of your cultural heritage. 

To be clear, the desire to change the world is not exclusive to Black people. Most humans — regardless of their race, nationality or religion — want to live in a world free of oppression, inequality and war. But while privilege provides some people a direct path to social, political and economic change, others must fight for every inch of progress. 

Even if you are not Black, you can still stand in solidarity with the oppressed people of the world. Take, for instance, the multiracial coalition of students protesting the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza. While the pro-Palestinian participants’ goal are simply to end Benjamin Netanyahu’s obvious “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” many of the neophyte activists have been blindsided by the public reaction.

Luckily, theGrio is here to help. 

As part of our effort to make America great at least once, we put together this introductory guide to welcome newcomers to the protest space. These simple rules are based on 400 years of experience, expertise and lessons learned by Black America. If you use it wisely, you will not only be a force for change but be able to do it respectfully.

Rule 1: Do what Black people did.

No disrespect, but everything you want to know about protest, Black people already did it.

African-Americans either invented, beta-tested or helped legalize the tactics and strategies employed by all modern protest movements. If not for Black protesters, the right to assemble, engage in peaceful demonstration and even “the peaceful expression of unpopular views” would not exist in its current form. Black-led protest movements were instrumental in helping white women gain the right to vote, immigrants gain the right to be Americans and every American gain the constitutional right to an education

Black college students invented the sit-in, and Rev. Dr. Leon Sullivan created the international model for institutional humanitarian divestment, which the brave students at Columbia University now use. When white boys became so concerned with income inequality that they occupied Wall Street, Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign had erected a tent city on the National Mall a half-century earlier. The Black Panthers, the Black Armed Guard and the Deacons for Defense and Justice defended their neighborhoods long before Kyle Rittenhouse and the Oath Keepers joined their fellow white boyz in da hoods. 

There is no need to develop new strategies or create a unique game plan. We already did that.

Rule 2: Hate America.

If you genuinely believe that all men are created equal, then you probably want your fellow countrymen to have the rights afforded by the American Constitution. Any real American should also believe that all men are created equal and are endowed with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If you are truly a patriot, you have likely pledged your allegiance to a republic with liberty and justice for all. But, unlike the flag-waving, troop-loving people who perform patriotism as an act of whiteness, if you want your country to live up to its promises, you must actually do something.

If you’re wondering why so many people consider your fight for Palestinian human rights to be unpatriotic, just remember that Colin Kaepernick, Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois and anyone who has ever shined a spotlight on this country’s mistreatment of its Black citizens were considered to be “un-American.” Meanwhile, the racial terrorists of Reconstruction, the confederate secessionists, the suffragettes who supported lynching, the segregationists who spat on Black children, the Obama birthers, the QAnoners and even the Jan. 6 insurgents all considered themselves to be patriots. Not only did they honestly believe they were protecting their beloved country, but anyone who opposed them turned into an enemy of the state.

Once you know that 85% of Americans in 1965 believed that communists were “involved in the demonstrations over civil rights,” it’s not hard to understand why Marsha Blackburn thinks students protesting the genocide in Gaza are “funded by pro-Hamas billionaires” and pose a “severe national security threat.” But before you let a random Karen convince you to “leave America … and fight for that thing you believe,” remember that the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi movement of the 1930s and the people who currently want to make their country great again all share a familiar slogan to describe their patriotic approach to protest:

“America First.”

Rule 3: Choose a side.

Perhaps you believe one of the most advanced militaries in the world has the duty to avoid slaughtering non-combatant civilians. Maybe you object to a government starving its citizens by preventing access to humanitarian aid. If you simply consider Palestinians to be human beings, then you must also answer one question:

Why are you pro-Hamas?  

When it comes to protests, there is no gray area, just shades of white. According to American rationale, anyone who believes employers, college admissions and government agencies should consider the historical factors that created structural inequality is an anti-white supporter of reverse racism. If you think law enforcement officers should be held accountable for police brutality, you are anti-cop. If you are brave enough to utter the words “Black lives matter,” you must also specify the value of white lives, blue lives and all lives. Then again, it’s possible to believe that abortion is personally wrong and still feel each woman has the right to make her own reproductive decisions. 

Most importantly, you must remember that there are no sides.

The people who make these bad-faith arguments aren’t interested in solving a problem or litigating the issue. There is no counterargument that justifies inhumanity, oppression or wanton genocide. After all, Ida B. Wells had to convince white women that her anti-lynching advocacy didn’t mean she was pro-rape. The same New York Post that objected to the “antisemitic” protests in a column essentially telling people to “go back to Africa” didn’t have a problem with its cartoonist portraying Barack Obama as a chimpanzee. Conservatives who championed “diversity of thought” and free speech on college campuses are now urging colleges to embrace cancel culture and suspend student protesters before the negroes attack. I know it doesn’t make sense, but you must remember the words of the great American hero Peter Parker:

“With great oppression comes great responsibility.”

Or something like that.

Rule 4: Know your role. 

Have you studied your “Marxist agenda” enough to qualify as a “radical leftist”? Would you like to be a part of a “woke mob,” or are you more of an “outside agitator”? Do you even have what it takes to rouse a rabble?  

Aside from labeling you as an unpatriotic, antisemitic, terrorist sympathizer who hates America, the people who oppose your fight will undoubtedly redefine your position, misrepresent your cause and smear reward you with one of the following new titles:

Don’t spend too much time trying to decide if you want to become a “professional Antifa agitator” or a “woke radical leftist.”

Unfortunately, you don’t get to choose. 

Rule 5: Forget your rights.

One of the most common rookie mistakes peaceful protesters make is assuming that people in power are governed by something known as “the law.” When confronted by authority, they will often quote the clause of the Constitution and cite the exact court case that protects their freedom of speech, right to assemble and the authority to petition the government. However, as any veteran of Black protest movements can tell you (hold on for a second while I switch to all caps):


There is no such thing as law or order. If laws actually existed, you wouldn’t be here in the first place. The “Leahy Law” prevents the U.S. government from providing funds to “foreign security forces where there is credible information implicating that unit in the commission of gross violations of human rights.” I’ve heard a tale of a constitutional amendment that forbids states from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” but it’s probably just a rumor. If due process existed, surely someone would’ve stopped the Texas Dept. of Safety and the University of Texas from arresting protesters with no evidence of a crime. Did the House Committee on Un-American Activities or the FBI use the Constitution to spy on civil rights activists? Was George Wallace abiding by the law when he sent Alabama State Troopers to break John Lewis’ skull?

Instead of arguing the technicalities of the law, you must remember that this country’s highest court once proclaimed that Black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” 

Trust me, I know

Rule 6. Resort to violence.

While I do not promote, support or condone the use of violence, I am acutely aware of one thing America believes:

There is no such thing as a peaceful protester. 

Painting outspoken groups of Black people as dangerous, anti-white thugs is part of an age-old tradition that dates back to the New Orleans Massacre. And the Camilla Massacre. And the Colfax Massacre. White-owned mainstream media. It’s as American as pumpkin pie (apples aren’t actually native to North America). No matter how peaceful your actions are, you’ll be accused of promoting violence or disrupting peace. But, as one unpatriotic, communist rabble-rouser said: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

The Civil Rights Movement used passive resistance, but the FBI’s COINTELPRO program still aimed “to pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them before they exercise their potential for violence.” In 1965, 41% of white Americans believed either “some” or “most Negroes would like to use violence in their demonstration.” Just in case you think things have changed, 40% of whites described the Black Lives Matter movement as “dangerous” in 2020. The data shows that the George Floyd demonstrations were less violent than the civil rights rallies.

This rule does not apply to white people.

The Joe Scarborough who cherry-picks incidents of antisemitism to condemn Columbia’s student human rights activists is the same slick-haired, demagoguing blowhard who defended his conservative Tea Party colleagues who spat on a Black Congressman and called a civil rights hero a “n*gger.” The “Moaning Joe” who was “just trying to help” the people “too stupid” to scorn student activists is the same guy who broadcast multiple giggle fests with a white supremacist presidential candidate in 2016. But before you even listen to blowhards whine about your form of protest, remember the words of that famous outside agitator:

“Yes, it is true that if the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation, and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be an obnoxious peace… If peace means accepting second-class citizenship, I don’t want it. If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it. If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace. If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.

Martin Luther King Jr.

These people don’t care about unity, harmony or world peace. They don’t care about Black people, dead Palestinians or Jewish victims of terror. Silencing dissent is their ultimate goal. 

Trust me, I know. 

Rule 7: Don’t do what white people did.

It’s only natural to wonder if you are on the right side of history. There’s nothing wrong with exploring and examining yourself. A reasonable person should wonder how their actions affect others. But if you are unsure whether or not you are doing the right thing, don’t base your self-analysis solely on people you offend or the intensity of the backlash you receive. Instead, you must remember this:

White people are probably wrong.

When it comes to freedom, justice or equality, the vast majority of white Americans have been on the wrong side of every movement in American history. They massacred the indigenous people of America because they genuinely believed their God wanted them to “bring the infidels and savages, living in those parts, to human civility.” They were wrong. Because white people thought they were superior to Africans, they created a race-based, constitutionally enforced international human trafficking system based on violence and the threat of violence. That was wrong. They were wrong about “Manifest Destiny.” They were wrong about Black codes and “separate but equal” and lynching laws and civil rights and that that integration would destroy “the amicable relations between the white and Negro races.” They were wrong about voting rights. They are wrong about diversity, equity and inclusion

They were not just wrong about Black people. They were wrong about women’s rights. They were also wrong about Chinese immigrants. They were wrong about Japanese Americans. They were wrong about Catholics. They were wrong about Jews. They were wrong about Sharia law and “radical Islamic jihad.” They were wrong about immigrant crimes. They were wrong about the war on drugs. They were wrong about terrorism. They are wrong about the Lost Cause. They were wrong about economic anxiety. They were wrong about COVID-19. They were wrong about the 2020 election. Not only are they wrong about Black history and critical race theory, but they are also wrong about white history

While individual white people may have objected to slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, police reform immigration and inequality, there is not a single movement in the history of this country that has enjoyed the support of white Americans. Not one. And yes, they have the right to be concerned about the recent student protests

But why would you ever consider the opinion of someone who is always, always, always wrong?

Rule 8: They’re not like us.

Even if they don’t use picket signs and sit-ins, everyone wants to be heard.

Unfortunately, most Americans can’t storm a capitol building and walk away with a slap on the wrist. You could try voting but, because of America’s redlining, gerrymandering, voter suppression and other remnants of America’s racial history, Black people can’t simply vote their way out of oppression. If you were rich, you could just use your money to influence your desired political agenda. But, because of economic inequality and the racial wealth gap, not everyone can buy their own politician. Non-white people can’t use racism and white fear to build a political constituency. Some of us aren’t privileged enough to live in neighborhoods with well-funded schools that prepare us for elite colleges that enable us to connect with other privileged, well-funded, politically connected people who can promote our interests. 

Our power comes from solidarity, unity and self-determination. All we have is our voices and our unkillable desire to be free. 

And that is enough. 

Rule 9: How not to win.

If changing your adversaries’ hearts and minds is your goal, you will surely lose. 

The end of race-based slavery didn’t make confederates see the light; people are still protecting their statues and their flag. When the Supreme Court dismantled its “separate but equal” precedent, segregationists didn’t suddenly say: Y’all won.” Even after Brown vs. Board of Education, segregationists mounted a campaign of “massive resistance.” Most white Americans still thought civil rights protests were “not justified” a full year after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Two years after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 86% of white Americans still felt civil rights protests “hurt the advancement of negro rights” 

Persuading people to reject their wrong-headed ideology has never been the goal of organized protest and peaceful resistance. Racists don’t just stop being racists and genocidal governments don’t get bored with massacring their citizens. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor,” King explained. “it must be demanded by the oppressed.” 

No one willingly relinquishes their privilege or reverses course unless they have no other choice. Collectively applying pressure is the only way to create real change. 

Rule 10: Be disrespectful.

If you’ve reached this point, you should understand why protest, by definition, is not respectful. 

Your actions are supposed to make people uncomfortable. If a person, institution or country does not respect your humanity, you should not respect them. Yes, change is slow, and progress may sometimes seem impossible – especially when the world maligns your movement. But the converse of Frederick Douglass’s quote is also true. 

If there is struggle, there will be progress

This is why we protest. The entire country once respected the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” decision. But Jim Crow did not die, a Black resistance movement strangled it to death. America did not give us our civil rights; a nonviolent army of well-trained activists took them. This country never seriously tried to be a democracy until rebellious Black Americans put the entire nation in a chokehold and made America submit. Resistance is not futile. Protest is the most American way. 

The people with power will never ever ever ever respect a movement that disrupts the status quo. It cannot happen. They don’t hate the rain or dislike the ocean. They hate that they can’t stop this rising tide, and they can feel it coming. They’re angry because they can’t silence our voices. They’re mad because they know exactly what we want and exactly who we are: 

We are the thunder and the lightning. We are the awful roar. We are the end of them, and they know it. What’s more— and I say this will all due respect:

We are inevitable.  

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His NY Times bestseller  Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America is available in bookstores everywhere.