Tactics for the Times (COVID Edition)

While most of the world is, or has been, instituting some form of isolation in response to COVID-19, human rights activists have had the difficult challenge of continuing to move their advocacy forward without direct interaction. Below is a collection of tactical actions that highlight the work of activists from across-the-globe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Car caravans draw light on dangerous conditions for prisoners and ICE detainees

Across the U.S., activists have utilized unique forms of protest to address the hazardous environment within the nation’s overcrowded prisons and ICE detention centers. Historically, these centers have been known for the rapid spread of disease due to close quarters and ill-equipped medical facilities. As the country is facing the unprecedented pandemic of COVID-19, advocates have organized car caravans, distanced rallies, and projected messaging in major cities throughout the country to call for the release of detainees and prisoners in dangerous conditions. Organizations and individual protesters are appealing to municipal, state, and federal administrative bodies to prioritize the health and safety of these at-risk groups—calling for the release of prisoners and detainees. The tactics employed with respect to CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus are an innovative way to confront this pressing issue. The use of cars, remote rallies, and projection are a model for advocates concerned about the spread of COVID-19 for groups unable to practice ‘physical distancing’ due to the conditions of incarceration.

Never Again Action New Jersey: ‘Physical distancing’ protest through the use of car caravans

Cramped conditions in ICE detention centers have long proven to be a hotbed for the rapid spread of disease among detainees. Coupled with the lack of adequate medical care, concerns about the health and safety of people held in these overcrowded quarters have mounted as the nation faces the COVID-19 pandemic. In late March, a ‘car caravan’ was held to protest the continued operation of one such center.

In New Jersey, Nearly 100 cars formed a line to circle Hudson County Detention Center. Led by Never Again Action, a network of thousands of Jewish immigration reform activists and allies, the protest maintained ‘physical distancing’ guidelines set by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Advocates embraced inventive measures to ensure that their voices were heard without contact, safeguarding the health of volunteers.

Hudson County Detention Center is one of the 637 facilities nationwide that house detainees. For the thousands of adults and children inside these centers, health and well-being is of pressing concern. Never Again Action’s rally incorporated careful consideration of public health, and is an easily replicable tactic for advocates who wish to express their fears about the potential spread of the novel coronavirus to vulnerable populations being held in ICE centers.

Never Again Action Massachusetts: Projection on Boston’s JFK building calls on the memory of Anne Frank to demand release of ICE detainees

In late March, a call to the Governor for the release of detainees in detention centers across the state of Massachusetts was projected on the side of the JFK building in Boston. The message, sent by Never Again Action, heeded memory of the atrocities committed by German officials in World War II. “Anne Frank died of an infectious disease in a crowded detention center,” the message read, “Governor Baker, release everyone in ICE detention before it’s too late.”

This tactic, though large in impact, only necessitated the participation of a small number of activists. Utilizing impactful historic memory, the message resonated with passers-by. Media coverage of the projection was widespread in local news. With coordination and a small handful of activists to run equipment, participants’ safety was respected. Few volunteers are needed to spread awareness through this tactic. In a time where public health is top priority, advocates can still make a big impact with a small group.

Refuse Fascism: Nationwide action to call for release of prisoners and detainees

Throughout the month of April, assorted chapters of Refuse Fascism, a group devoted to exposing the dangerous policies of the Trump/Pence administration, held rallies in major cities across the country calling on government officials to close ICE detention centers and to release non-violent prisoners from jails and prisons during the COVID-19 crisis. The group’s underlying mission is to bring attention to the current danger inherent in these facilities, where detainees and prisoners are living in close quarters where the virus is likely to spread. Participants in chapters across the nation have held weekly rallies where intersections have been blocked by cars and bodies, at safe distance, to bring attention to their cause.

The group also coordinated the delivery of empty body bags to Trump properties in New York City, Chicago, California, and New Jersey. This visual imagery was used to implore the administration to confront the crisis’ disproportionate effect on prisoners and detainees, and utilized targeted messaging alongside props. Activists involved in these efforts planned action with distancing in mind. Strategies developed to draw attention to the repercussions of administrative inaction were innovative in design and in messaging, while respecting the safety of volunteers. Similar action can be organized through coordination under quarantine, mitigating the risks of gathering in large numbers.

Hartford Connecticut Residents: Faux funeral procession draws attention to COVID-19 spread in state prisons

Hundreds of residents in the Hartford, CT area organized a slow-moving caravan of cars around the Governor’s mansion in early April. The procession mimicked a funeral procession to highlight conditions in the state’s prisons, where dozens of inmates have been exposed to COVID-19. Activists held signs and honked horns to reach the governor to call for the release of this at-risk population.

Though the Governor and Department of Correction Commissioner held a press conference to address the safety of a small number of the state’s prison population, the protesters believe these efforts are not enough. The state administration prioritized the release of older inmates and those considered high risk, however the faux funeral participants recognize that the danger of the virus is far more widespread; those without such pre-existing conditions are also affected in large numbers. The prisons’ inability to quarantine all who come into contact with COVID-19 poses a threat to the health and safety of thousands of prisoners across the state. Utilizing this impactful imagery to garner attention from the administration and the public at large, actvists were able to respect CDC guidelines of ‘physical distancing’ from the safety of their cars while sending a powerful message about compounding dangers of COVID-19 in prison conditions.

At-home collaborative protests ‘make noise’ to call for change

While millions around the world are advised to quarantine in their homes, sheltering in place hasn’t left activists silenced. Coordinated “balcony protests” have popped up in major cities to address on-going concerns under the threat of COVID-19. Banging pots and pans, shouting, and dropping banners to call for change, activists have found new ways of making their voices heard. Advocates haven’t allowed quarantine orders to slow the momentum of their movements. While maintaining CDC guidelines for health and safety, protests continue to make a difference with strategic innovation. 

Brazilians call for action: Disrupting government broadcasts to shed light on mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis

On a Wednesday evening in mid-March, millions of protesters in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo stood at their windows and on balconies to call for the resignation of President Bolsonaro and his administration. These citizens cited frustration with the leader’s swift dismissal of the threat that COVID-19 posed to the nation, and of the government’s lack of response to constituent concerns about the pandemic. Synchronizing the clanging of pots and pans, shouting, and singing, participants rang out in unison to interrupt a planned televised segment featuring the nation’s leaders.

These calculated efforts under quarantine were amplified because organizers timed the action for maximum media coverage. Though the president’s administration has drawn steady protest since his election in 2018, this action was the largest to date. Vocal opposition is not only possible, but achievable in astounding scale during an otherwise uncertain time. Organizing disruptive protests with strategic timing can be an effective way to stay safe while making a difference.

Colombian Unions and Student Groups: Keeping up momentum from a safe distance

In Colombia, student groups and unions across the country had planned a widespread strike to protest the social and economic policies of President Ivan Duque for March 25th. Unaware of the pandemic that would soon put a damper on their plans, these groups reimagined a way to come ‘together’ from afar. The protesters utilized the historic form of resistance known in Colombia as “cacerolazos,” where participants bang pots and pans together during rallies. Instead of marching together, protesters of the administration’s policy reforms joined one another from afar in a united uproar.

The strike was originally scheduled to last 24 hours, and the reimagined version would make no conciliation. For a full day the clanging of cookware rang out from windows and balconies across the nation. Though the streets were largely empty activists felt solidarity from their own homes through audible protest. Like these groups in Colombia, advocates can come ‘together’ in innovative ways while keeping distance in the name of public health. 

Women in Sonora, Mexico: Ensuring justice for victims of femicide in messages of support from home

An unseen crisis for too many under COVID-19 quarantine is the increased prevalence of domestic violence and child abuse. Women and children confined in close quarters with abusers are left without safe refuge while the pandemic sweeps the world. In the state of Sonora, Mexico, news spread to locals about the death of 13 year old Anapaola who was killed in her home in the city of Nogales. Unable to take to the streets in protest, women across the state painted banners to hang from their balconies and windows and lit candles for Anapaola’s loved ones to demand justice, and to shed light on the unique crisis faced by many women and children alike. Organized by Feminist Girls Collective of Mexico, the protest was called "A Light For Anapaola." The group has been demanding governmental action to address the rising violence against women in the country for years, and refused to be silenced in a heightened time of crisis.

Violence against women is a pervasive problem, not only in Mexico. Too often men victimize women and children without impunity, and legal protections don’t do enough to prevent widespread femicide. As the world shelters in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, recognition and calls for justice for those trapped in dangerous conditions in their own homes can have a positive impact—both in proclaiming support and making visible this pressing issue, and in reaching authorities who have power to address it.

Essential workers demand protection: Lack of adequate safeguards and supplies lead to walk-outs and strikes around the world

As many transition to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, workers in essential positions face uncertainty and heightened concern for their health and safety on the front lines. Medical professionals who come face-to-face with the virus are lacking sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). Delivery workers denied hazard pay and safety gear fear for the health of themselves and their loved ones. Warehouse staff question whether or not their positions are truly ‘essential’ during a global pandemic. In light of these concerns, these groups who are expected to continue “business as usual” have staged protests to demand that their employers address COVID-19 related concerns in the workplace.

Organizing labor for the well-being of workers has long proven an effective tactic. Though movements usually have the luxury of time to develop effective strategies, the current and rapidly growing pandemic has led to fast-moving (and at times impromptu) action by essential workers. Withholding labor during a crisis has great impact on businesses that continue to operate during this time, and the potential effect of these protests, walk-outs, and strikes on their bottom-line can result in swift response. 

National Health Care Day of Action: Care-givers coast to coast demand additional supplies

Nurses and doctors on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19 are facing more pressure than ever. Some are treating up to 20 patients at a time, ten times as many as is usually expected. Others are expected to continuously reuse protective gear, against guidelines set by health officials. Even more alarming, some nurses have reported being barred from speaking to the media about their concerns.

On April 15, health care workers organized a “National Health Care Day of Action” to call attention to the need for increased medical supplies for staff and patients fighting COVID-19. Hundreds of nurses held protests on this day. They called for additional N95 masks, ventilators, and hospital gowns to protect themselves and their patients. Through the viral hashtag #TheSystemIsBroken, they also called for systemic changes, including resource sharing for cities in greater need, additional training for critical-care nurses, and temporary housing for those who risk spreading the virus to their families.

No amount of preparation may have prepared healthcare workers for this crisis, but vital measures can be taken, they believe, for hasty response as need continues to rise. These professionals take great risks every day to treat and protect those affected by COVID-19. Their coordinated protests to call for basic protective gear and provisions to ensure safety make visible the mounting distress of those who we rely on in times of greatest need.

Pakistani health care workers risk safety to pressure officials: Doctors gather to demand protections from COVID-19

Defying the country’s mandate for physical distancing and ban on gatherings, over 150 Pakistani doctors rallied outside Balochistan State Chief Minister Jam Kamal Khan’s home in Quetta in early April. The protesters demanded that government officials provide ample protective equipment for staff in direct contact with the virus. The group sought to shed light on the effect that ill-equipped facilities had on their colleagues and families, many of whom had contracted the virus. This non-violent civil disobedience disregarded public health concerns around distancing from one another, but the doctors involved felt that gathering in mass was the most effective way to draw attention to their message.

The protesters were met with batons, and a mass arrest of the group was made citing breach of their code of conduct, in addition to violation of the nationwide mandate under pandemic. The protesters involved felt that because they risked exposure and their lives on a daily basis fighting the virus, gathering en masse was a justified means to an end for their demands. News of the arrests spread across Pakistan, spurring viral online protests calling for the doctors’ release. Though replicating this tactic is ill-advised, especially for those who have not yet been exposed to the virus, shedding light on the crisis faced by health care workers with shortage of protective gear and supplies through media coverage and social media hashtags is easily replicable and meaningful for frontline workers.

Warehouse and delivery workers stage “sick-out”: Coordinated effort to protest conditions for essential workers in crisis

While much of the world adjusts to life at home under quarantine, employees deemed ‘essential’ in this crisis continue to report to work. These workers face added health and safety concerns every time they punch the clock, and in many cases they feel employers aren’t doing enough to protect them. A series of localized protests have been held at Amazon warehouses across the country, and strikes have been called for Instacart ‘shoppers’ in the past month. Recognizing their power in numbers, these workers set their sights on a larger-scale, coordinated protest. On Friday May 1st, hundreds of workers at Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, and the delivery services Instacart and Shipt called out sick to shed light on unsafe working conditions and lack of protections from the COVID-19 virus. Amazon warehouse workers are disappointed in the company’s decision to end its unlimited unpaid time off policy in a time when they feel it’s most needed. Target workers say their employer has acted too slowly to provide protective gear for employees, and does little to enforce distancing within stores. Whole Foods employees have seen a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases among coworkers; over 200 have tested positive and two have died from the virus. 

Participants in Friday’s ‘sick-out’ protest demand paid sick leave for workers who choose to self-quarantine, increased hazard pay, and the closure of stores where COVID-19 cases have been confirmed among employees. These workers recognize that doing their job involves an increased risk to their health and safety. Working together to halt production for one day, they hope, will send a message to these companies that the well-being of employees is paramount in this time of uncertainty. In the case of Amazon, the message was heard loud and clear: one of the company’s vice presidents and a senior engineer resigned in solidarity with the workers. He expressed dismay at the company’s treatment of the striking workers, and has since spoken out in support of their cause.

Taking the fight online: Coming together from a distance through technology

Stay at home orders have forced activists to find creative new ways to continue their movement during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unable to take to the street, advocates around the world are coming together over the internet to keep up momentum for their causes. These groups are using viral hashtags and building online campaigns to keep their membership engaged and to reach a greater audience at a time when public gatherings pose threats to the health and safety of participants. Across a spectrum of causes, activists have waged online rallies and protests to raise awareness of climate change, school closures, voting rights, gun violence, and more. Especially at a time while much of the world is turning to the internet to find connection during crisis, utilizing this platform to garner support around social issues is an effective tactic. 

March for Our Lives: Youth movement launches #OurPower to engage young people online

Formed in 2018 in response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, March for Our Lives is a predominantly youth-led group that took on issues of gun violence before expanding to broader civic engagement. In the year of its inception the group held a march with over 200,000 attendees to protest gun violence in the U.S. and have since helped pass dozens of laws in states across the country. The group has over 300 chapters and counting, and even as COVID-19 poses unforeseen challenges the organization is finding new ways to bring youth together to promote change. 

Their recently launched website, called Our Power, promotes voter registration and connects youth and supporters with local chapters. The group is also holding digital town halls to gather while members are shuttered in their homes. The town halls aim to reach state administrations who can take action to stop gun violence. They also serve, as organizers note, as a way for activists to remain connected and supported during these unprecedented times. The website also uses an online donation platform where advocates can raise money for local violence prevention programs through the website. Building tools online can help movements endure in challenging times.

Fridays for Future: Moving the international climate movement online

Climate movement activists have steadily built an international network through Fridays for Future, founded in 2018. The network has burgeoned over a few short years into one of the largest organizations of its kind. The group is well organized, and has utilized traditional forms of protest through rallies, marches, and pickets to demonstrate the dangers of climate change across the world. Now, under a global pandemic, the group has shifted away from tactics that could put participants in harm’s way in favor of internet-based activism.

Every Friday, the group calls for a ‘digital strike’ to maintain momentum of their cause. To date, hundreds of thousands of participants have used the hashtag #digitalstrike in countries around the globe to come together in support. Organizers explain that the hashtag is a virtual representation of the disruption these advocates would otherwise partake in if circumstances allowed. For Earth Day, one branch of the movement held an online rally with guest speakers and performers to reach their base. Using new online platforms, members of the movement continue to build awareness about climate change and related issues without yielding to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Oakland Education Association: Teachers and community members stage “Virtual Hour of Power” to protest permanent school closures during COVID-19 pandemic

In late March, the Oakland Education Association (OEA) organized an online action to protest the Oakland Unified School District’s plans to permanently close some public schools, and to co-locate charter schools within others in the area. Citing budget concerns and dwindling attendance, the district had announced that they were going to move ahead with their plans despite the uncertainty the district is facing in the face of COVID-19. Teachers and community members, through OEA, argue that stability for their students and children is vital, especially now as kids transition to remote learning.

The OEA organized a “Virtual Hour of Power” in protest of the board’s actions. Participants were encouraged to use a Facebook ‘frame’ calling attention to the issue, provided with videos and photos of protest from teachers in the group, and were directed to flood the online comment sections of the school district’s social media pages. The association also provided online talking points for those who wanted to advocate for teachers and students in the community. Gathering voices of opposition together from their respective homes during California’s ‘shelter in place’ order sent a strong message to the board. Providing easy tools for participants was a useful tactic in quickly organizing the action, and can be replicated for advocates organizing during difficult times.

Protest through popular gaming: Utilizing internet-based video games to spread messages of dissent

Joshua Wong was no stranger to uniting activists in the Hong Kong area. Beginning his advocacy work with the 2014 Umbrella Movement where protesters used umbrellas—both to shield themselves from police-fired pepper spray and to provide a powerful visual to the media covering the movement—he later played a role in organizing 2019 protests calling for greater government transparency. Recognizing that this work must go on even under orders to stay at home, Wong found a unique way to bring voices of dissent together from afar. The release of Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” quickly gained popularity, not only in Hong Kong but around the world. The capabilities of the game allow players to interact over internet connection. Wong saw this platform as a prime opportunity to organize activists who would otherwise come together in the streets but who were sheltered because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wong encouraged Animal Crossing players to decorate their islands, a “home-base” that can be visited by anyone around the world, with messages of support for the movement to “Free Hong Kong.” This virtual protest is one-of-a-kind, and has garnered incredible support across the game’s platform. Wong’s idea has inspired players to utilize the game’s potential to spread messages and come together to broadcast advocacy in a time where gathering in the streets is no longer a viable possibility. Thanks to Wong’s influence, decorations and messaging for countless causes have popped up on islands from players around the world. His use of popular media is an innovative way to maintain resistance through distance.

Gathering from afar: Israeli activists ‘attend’ Facebook Live protest to call for policy change

Frustrated with actions taken by Prime Minister Netanyahu, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens staged a live protest through Facebook to target the administration and air their concerns over recent policy change. Participants wanted to draw attention to the indictment charges faced by the Prime Minister, who is seeking another term. They believe that Netanyahu is manipulating legal systems in an attempt to evade charges.

Unable to hold traditional protests in which Israeli activists would come together to rally the administration’s actions, a network of advocacy groups including Darkenu and the Movement for Quality Government in Israel came together to organize the Facebook protest. The digital demonstration was heavily promoted and shared among users of the site. At the time of its broadcast, nearly 600,000 attendees logged in to watch activists come together with messages of dissent for the Prime Minister’s actions. Using social media broadcasts is a tactic that can reach a massive audience remotely, encouraging others to keep up the struggle and maintain awareness while respecting guidelines to combat the viral pandemic.