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January 23, 2019 News » Cover Story

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    Signs of the Times
    Protest signs, however clever or brief, send a strong message to the public and Capitol Hill lawmakers about what the people want.

    By Ray Howze

    The resistance begins at home.

    And if you plan to protest, get your activism on, or want to tell politicos to listen up this session, you better have a visual.

    "Shrinke Zinke."

    "Grab 'em by the Bears Ears."

    "I DON'T want to be like Mike (Lee)."

    "Vote rape apologists out."


    Those were just a few of the thousands of signs that have showed up around the Capitol and the downtown Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building since this time last year. Some utilized puns, others had some wordplay fun, and some were as simple as "Resist."

    Regardless of what the signs said, they poked and prodded the establishment—advocating for change. With topics such as medical cannabis, clean air, education, Medicaid and public lands set for debate on the Hill this year, there are bound to be rallies aplenty.

    But what makes for an effective sign? What catches the eye?

    Two weeks ahead of the general session, one group had an idea in mind: Get crafty.

    Armed with scissors, glue and fabric, Danielle Susi led a small class of five inside Murray's Clever Octopus Creative Reuse Center—an arts-and-crafts store that uses scrap and leftover material—in a protest-banner workshop.

    "I'm obsessed with how change can happen in a grassroots way," Susi says. "Word play can be fun, but it's also really powerful. I mean, which sounds better: 'I hate Mitch McConnell' or 'Mitch don't kill my vibe?'"

    The five budding activists said they planned to attend Jan. 19's Women's March downtown. Hence why some of the banners touted phrases such as, "Nevertheless, we persist," ... "This is not the only story. Listen. Think. Learn. Do" ... "El pueblo unido jamás será vencido [The people united will never be defeated]" ... "The resistance begins at home" ... and one that simply said "Vote."

    Jen Melcomian, who glued the orange letters V, O, T and E onto some gray fabric, says being able to protest is a right she doesn't take lightly. She grew up in the neighborhood around the Capitol, and perhaps, because of proximity, kept up with ongoing political and social issues.

    After she graduated from West High School, the fight for Gay-Straight Alliance clubs in schools picked up around Salt Lake in the mid-1990s. School walkouts took place to send a message to administrators. During that time, Melcomian's political activism piqued. She says she got out and supported the movement and has continued to be an ally since.

    "I love a good protest and I was raised to stand up for what you believe in," she continues.

    Her "Vote" sign was simple, stood out, and made it clear that voting is one of the easiest ways to make your voice heard. Her next stop: the Women's March.

    As the legislative session gets underway, numerous groups, such as March for Our Lives Utah and various Native American tribes, will gather on the Capitol's south steps or in the rotunda.

    This year, MFOL volunteers plan to spend most of their time lobbying lawmakers. They hope to build on last year's accomplishments, such as when nearly 8,000 protestors marched from West High to the Capitol in March, demanding lawmakers propose new gun-reform legislation. Chants of "Hey, hey. Ho, ho. The NRA has got to go!" were belted out by thousands of high school students.

    But in addition to their crowd size and volume, their signs sent a calculated, effective message. For Noah Blumenthal, March's rally was their first foray into gun-reform activism. Despite attending one day after having their wisdom teeth removed, Blumenthal says the day inspired them enough to get involved with the local chapter. Now an outreach coordinator with MFOL, Blumenthal has helped design and distribute posters for the group as well as graphics on social media.

    While Blumenthal says the signs weren't their original ideas, the phrase "Students demand gun reform" and "Enough" were clear and powerful.

    "I find that the most interesting signs are the ones that are incredibly expository," Blumenthal says. "I feel that one of the things that is a strength of our movement is that we will say what's going on in a very critical fashion, instead of censoring, trying to mediate or make issues seem more mild."

    Blumenthal suggests rhymes help signs stand out. It creates an ironic undertone that's direct and snarky. But, Blumenthal warns, "think of all the ways your sign could be interpreted."

    "There are a lot of buzz words, phrases we hear out there," Blumenthal says. "I think they can become misleading or even meaningless if people don't step back and question what they really mean. You can say words like, 'intersectionality,' or whatever, but it's not really meaningful unless you find out what it means and implement it in your everyday actions or protest movement."

    Blumenthal says they're currently waiting for some direction from the national chapter about any possible rallies to mark the local group's one-year anniversary.

    When it comes to tribal issues and state lawmakers, you'll likely see Moroni Benally helping lead a rally. The coordinator for advocacy and public policy at Restoring Ancestral Winds, a nonprofit tribal coalition designed to address domestic violence and sexual assault, says when it comes to signage, he likes the "ones that are kind of boring, but they have a message that's significant."

    "'Honor the tribes. Honor the treaties,' '500 years of genocide.' Things like that, which really are an attempt to correct these very whitewashed versions of history we often get, can be a bit jarring for people," Benally says. "I think that's what it's meant to do—be provocative enough and give people a moment to pause and think, 'What do they mean by that?'"

    Benally and others initially plan to keep an eye on what happens to House Concurrent Resolution 6, which would designate May 5 as Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Girls and LGBT+ Awareness Day, as well as a rally in the rotunda for the MMIW group.

    Sometimes, though, they don't always feel heard. Benally recalls a hearing regarding the Antiquities Act last year, but because of rules regarding decorum and public speaking, they struggled to get their message across.

    "I'm a firm believer that many of the rules we have, even protocols that the Legislature abides by, are designed to not necessarily hear the voices of the marginalized," Benally says. "So when they ask to comply with those rules, they're asking us to remain silent."

    That's where the more public rallies come in handy.

    People like Susi hope the time spent crafting their messages resonates elsewhere. She helped class attendees glue a PVC pipe on the top of some of the signs so they can hang them in their homes, too. She plans to hang her "Mitch don't kill my vibe" sign inside her house, because, well, change doesn't just take place at the Capitol—it starts at home.

    "I'm passionate about empowering other people to make things that are useful and radical," Susi says. "In a way, to me, it is radical to reuse this material because topics like sustainability are even more of a statement today."

    Melcomian, meanwhile, wants to encourage others to continue the grassroots fight for women, especially since the Women's March gained steam following the 2016 election. But she worries some momentum has been lost.

    "I think we kind of need to re-engage," she concludes. "Because we have to stand up for this stuff. People might be surprised how they're not alone."

    • Enrique Limón

    Revolt, Resist, Repeat
    5 Tips to hold dear this protest season.
    Protesting or engaging in civil disobedience has a long history in the U.S.—think Rosa Parks or even back to Henry David Thoreau. If you plan to exercise free speech and your right to assemble, it's best you have a gameplan. Here are a few tips lawyer L. Monte Sleight with the Pioneer Justice Center shared at a recent civil-disobedience training session:

    Plan and prepare
    Not everything goes as planned, so prepare as well as you can. Ask a lot of questions such as who, what, where, when, why and how. For example, who's going to be doing what? "Even if it's a legal protest, there's a good chance you're going to have police officers," Sleight says, so be prepared on how to interact with law enforcement. In addition, familiarize yourself with your fellow protestors so you know who is who, and can spot counter-protestors or undercover law enforcement trying to infiltrate your group. Know, educate and train your people.

    Arrange to have trained legal observers or a non-protesting police liaison attend your demonstration. The ACLU of Utah or the PJC can help you arrange this. "The best thing you can do is have people who aren't involved in your cause. If you're protesting animal rights, bring someone in from the environmental group to be your observer," Sleight suggests.

    "If you're going to break the law, don't break the law"
    If you plan to protest, "don't bring anything that would cause the police to be suspicious of you," Sleight says. This includes, weapons and contraband. Also, be careful with cell phones and make sure they're password protected. If ordered to disperse, do so.

    Police encounters
    When you're being detained or arrested, it's not the best time for a teaching moment. Film law enforcement. Study up on how to converse and engage with police officers. Never consent to a search. When encountering police, stay in well-lit places, never run or resist and be polite—yet firm—while invoking your rights. "If an officer sees your rights differently, don't argue," Sleight says.

    Memorize the following phrases: "Am I free to go?"; "Am I being detained? For what purpose?"; "Am I being arrested? On what charge?" "I invoke my right to remain silent."; "I do not consent to this search." (RH)

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