Pagan pride season is coming up again. There are, as you may already know, certain groups who will go out of their way to try and crash your events. It helps to know how these groups operate and how to get rid of them–without legally jeopardizing your own event. Mass gatherings like pagan pride require the organizers–and the attendees, by extension–to remain in the good graces of the powers that be.
Not the gods, but the people issuing your permit to gather. Or the people you called to alert that an event too small for permits was happening.
Picketers can throw off the energy and momentum of your event, and they often attract a crowd. The gathering of a crowd means that picketers now have an audience, and having access to more people means that they’ll stick around for longer because they like the attention and have more people to target.
Drawing a crowd also presents two possible dangers for your event: one, that it will drag attendees away from your event to go yell at the picketers, and two, increase the likelihood of someone doing something dangerous or illegal because they’re pissed off.
Which can result in forceful legal intervention, a horrendous lawsuit, and will create issues with organizing the next event. We don’t want that.
So we’ve established that debate, argument and heckling don’t work. Fighting and forcing picketers away also doesn’t work, for slightly different reasons. Provocative groups are often, as a rule, lawyer happy.
So what does work?
Cut off their attention supply, and bore them to tears.
You usually can’t force them to leave unless they encroach on the area you have a permit for–and even then, public property can’t be monopolized, and free speech is a demo derby. That can make picketers virtually untouchable.
Don’t touch them, by the way–because again, these people are prone to filing lawsuits.
Before you Start:
Step zero, which has to happen before any response can be planned, is to have the permission of the event organizers. In the case of Philly Pagan Pride, the idea was from the organizers, so we didn’t have to worry about this. With Seasons of Transition Pt II, we had volunteers from within the community who approached me first and ran tactics they had in mind by me.
But it is absolutely necessary that you are working with the event, to prevent any possibility of accidentally working against the interests of the event. Make sure you understand what the event permit allows–or what’s allowed when you hold an event sans permit.
Once this is sorted out, you’re free to proceed to step one.
Do Your Homework
Step one is researching the group(s) you expect to picket, and how they get attention. Large signs? Yelling into a megaphone? Hurling slurs and obscenities? Research the group in question, find photos or videos of their demonstrations, and take notes on their content and methods. In addition, take notes on how watching their demonstrations makes you feel, so you can prepare for the emotional aspect of countering a picketing. Alternately, contact people who have previous experience of dealing with the group you’re expecting, who will have witnessed the tactics, the counter-tactics, and the emotional aspect of picketing events first hand.
Make sure you also understand the rules that the event is bound to, and which laws apply to anything you have planned.
Assembling Your Team
Step two is assembling a response team in case of picketing. You want people who are able to keep their cool, even if the picketers are screaming hellfire at them. People who have dealt with the groups before are familiar with the tactics.
Having been picketed by the same group that targets PPPD while at school, at (gay) pride, while walking through Philly minding my own business, and at Philly’s final Bastille Day show; I can attest that they get really old, really fast. They still register, and the sound of their main guy yelling through the megaphone is unmistakable. But it’s hard to get mad when you’ve heard the same stupid lines spouted verbatim over and over.
For Seasons of Transition, a trusted volunteer with experience in providing security put together a team for me, which also provided the added benefit of one less cat to herd.
It’s immensely helpful if these people are also well-versed in the relevant laws governing protest and freedom of speech in the area the event is held.
Set the Standards
Step three, once you have your response team assembled, is to establish rules of engagement. In my role with Philly Pagan Pride’s response team (an opportunity I was so blessed to have, and am absolutely pleased ended with a successful response), I put together a list of guidelines to keep in mind, based on having previously dealt with the group we expected to picket (which they did):
- To prevent any risk of lawsuits or legal action, do not harass or threaten anyone picketing no matter how infuriating they are. Do your best to avoid all physical contact with them, or their belongings and signs.
- Do not, for any reason, violate their first amendment rights. Street preachers are, as a rule, well-versed on the boundaries of free speech. We can make them leave if they enter the space our permit covers, we cannot make them leave if they are on public property like the sidewalk.
- This group records video and audio of their interactions with the public. Avoid doing anything embarrassing, incriminating, or actionable.
- This group sometimes brings their children–do not, for any reason, interact with them. Anything said to the children will be twisted into a persecution narrative.
- It’s important to show that we are not an audience. Direct interaction like heckling and debate shows that we’re actively listening, and should be avoided.
- (The self-care recommendation) Their demos are often quite long, and you should be prepared for the possibility. Bring water, snacks, and anything you need to protect yourself from the elements. If possible, secure a buddy who can provide emotional aftercare. It’s also a good idea to have someone on the team who has knowledge and experience with the emotional aftermath of these events.
Obviously, there will be some variation depending on the group you’re dealing with and what their tactics are. This also applies to step four.
Plan Your Approach
Step four is to discuss your counter-tactics. If you expect the group to intrude upon the space where your event is held, you may have the right to call the police. But a human barrier at the edge of the space the permit covers is a possible idea, and is generally legal. You can also, if you feel it is necessary, hire security for the day. If the group you expect to picket uses large signs, a visual barrier is an excellent option. By decreasing the spectacle, people will be less likely to gravitate towards the picketers. A visual barrier also protects event attendees from being spotted and targeted in any rants by the picketers. If amplified audio is one of the tactics of the group, you can assemble drummers and singers, or put together a playlist of pagan-friendly music that will be blasted through speakers to cover the noise. (Make sure the event’s permit allows for that much sound–remember, work with the event.)
One thing you absolutely must do, no matter what other tactics you employ, is to keep the crowd and therefore potential audience small. You cannot force other people to do what you want, including the crowd. Don’t even try. But you can explain the situation, explain what you are trying to achieve, and politely ask for their assistance in meeting that goal. Most people will happily go along with you asking nicely. This is especially true if you address and empathize with the feelings behind their attempts to interact with the picketers. The most efficient method is having a large, easily legible sign (doubles as a visual barrier!) that discourages engagement. Even better if it reminds people to go on with the day and enjoy themselves. A good second line option is having several small cards on hand explaining what’s going on, and that your response team currently has the situation under control. You will still have to approach a few people individually, but it substantially lessens the burden.
An optional, but smart step is to do a role call about a week before the event to check on preparations: what the planned response is, how it will be done, and any backup plans. But, man plans and the gods laugh–hence why this is optional.
Step five, if you’re unlucky, is your response. Beforehand, establish what time during the event (or before it, same day) you want to get the response team together to quickly review goals and get to know anyone you’re not familiar with yet. Your group will work better if you know everyone’s names and can recognize faces–even better if you know who is helping with what in your response. Remember what you have planned, remember the rules of engagement during the response, and remember how you will engage with the public.
Did the picketers leave on their own sooner than expected? That means you did it! Expect group hugs and lots of pats on the back.
Aftercare and Cleanup
Step six is checking in on people who participated in the response. Playing musical instruments loudly for a long period, loud singing/chanting/prayer, and yelling to cover the sound is physically exhausting. Make sure these people get quick calories, and water to avoid overheating and dehydration. (Most Pagan Pride events are held in the late summer and early autumn, where it’s still fairly warm in most places.) If people aren’t used to dealing with particularly obnoxious picketers, they’re probably full of excess adrenaline that will trigger anxiety and eventually drop sharply–which brings on its own issues. Make sure these people have someone to keep an eye on them, that they can talk through their feelings with and attend to any other needs that arise. If appropriate, prayer, magic and ritual can also help ground them. If people are overstimulated from the inevitable noise that the picketing brought with it, see if you can find somewhere fairly quiet for them to get back to baseline. Make sure everyone involved is properly fed and watered.
If in doubt, try to put together a resource (or list of resources) providing guidance on emotional aftercare.
Your final step is debriefing. What went well in your response? What methods will be kept and re-used for next time? What didn’t go well, or what unexpectedly came up? Picketers are frequent flyers at these kinds of events–if they come once, they’ll likely come again. How will you prepare for it next year? Do you have new volunteers to join the response team next year?
This is not an exhaustive guide, but I hope it was thorough enough that those planning a pagan event and expecting picketers are able to respond effectively. Remember, the goal is to keep most attendants safe and focused on having a good time.