Step-by-Step Guide to Organizing a Protest Against the Jerry Lewis Telethon

by Harriet McBryde Johnson

I was asked to provide the step-by-step of how we've been doing the telethon protest in Charleston, SC, for the past ten years. But first, let me say this: There's no right way or wrong way to protest. The possibilities are endless. Polite. In-your-face. Politely in-your-face. Picketing. Handbilling. Press conferences. Civil disobedience. Guerilla theater. Pick something that you personally feel comfortable with, and give it a try. Here's what I do.

STEP 1: Make a personal commitment. Decide that you are going out, even if you have to go out all alone. If you start talking to people about the protest before you're committed, your friends may talk you out of it. But if you start by saying, "I'm going out," chances are they'll feel like they should be there with you.

STEP 2: Think of a very basic message. A simple sound byte that says it for you. I usually say, "There are two sides to the telethon. It gives a false picture that we're sad and miserable all the time, just sitting around waiting for a cure. Those images get in our way when we try to live our lives." This works for me because visually I'm in a state of obvious decrepitude but I speak with some force. I am identified as a "Charleston attorney." My persona and message, taken together, counter stereotypes in a very economical way. Your persona may be different, but play around until you have the message that fits how you look, how you sound, who you are, and where you're coming from.

STEP 3. Choose a format. Handbilling? March? Indoor press conference? When? I do my event Labor Day morning. A slow news day.

STEP 4. Reconnoiter. Scout out a good location for your protest. Go there at the time of day you plan to have your event. Will you be in sun or shade? Where can you tell people to meet? Where do they park? Public or private property? Is there traffic? Foot traffic? How's the noise level? Will it be a good environment for a TV interview? You may select a location connected to the telethon (local studio, corporate sponsor's headquarters, etc) or just a good place to meet people. I do it in a downtown location where we can interact with thousands of tourists. When I'm asked about the location, I say, "They have 200 TV stations. We have posterboard and markers, but we get a national audience right here."

STEP 5. Get any required permits, unless you want to either (a) trust local law enforcement or (b) get run off or (c) go to jail for civil disobedience. I always get permits because I'm a lawyer and so are many of my friends, and we'd prefer not to have to do any "explaining" to our conservative Bar. In most cities, you just need to fill out a form with the local police department. Have this on hand during the event. On private property (shopping malls etc) you have to go to the owner. I have gotten permission from a local college by appealing for "fairness" when they hosted the thon. It helped that I was an alumnae and faculty daughter.

STEP 6: Invite people. Some say the planning should be a group process, and that's terrific when it works. It doesn't work for me. I find people respond better when I present them with a plan, a message, and a permit. Make a list of natural allies and invite them, but don't be surprised if they don't show up. It's an odd issue. Lots of people are afraid to go up against "charity." Some people on wheels like to pretend the thon doesn't affect them. I have my best success just by telling everyone I know. Every client who comes in my office, everyone who calls in, everyone at meetings I go to -- all contacts after I have the permit in hand. Every year, I'm amazed that someone shows up whom I'd never have expected. Don't worry if your supporters don't "look right" for whatever reason. I'm always lacking people with visible disabilities. If I'm asked, I say, "These are some wonderful friends to give up part of a day to support me. Some have a personal connection to disability. Others simply care about justice." What you want is warm bodies. Be happy with whoever comes.

STEP 7: Expect a tiny turn-out. My first year, it was four people. Me, my Dad, and two college boys who came because I offered free lunch. That's OK. Now we usually have 12-15 people, enough to cover 6 busy street corners. That's great. You don't need thousands of people on this issue. Make the smallness of the group part of the message. "It takes an unusual person to hit the streets on this particular issue -- really on any issue. But we're getting a great response from the community and it shows a few people can have an impact."

STEP 8: Issue a press release. I fax one to all local media 2-3 days before the event. Lead with a brief statement of the issue and the details of what you'll be doing and where. Supply background on the controversy and on you or your organization. Your press release should say the event starts 30 minutes after the time you've told your supporters. People tend to arrive late, and you don't want press showing up with no one there. Put your press release on this web page. We'd like to know what you're doing when we do our media work.

STEP 9: Prepare signs, flyers, whatever you'll need. Sign-painting parties can be fun. I use peel off vinyl letters on poster paper. Don't forget to do a press kit. This should include your press release, a copy of your flyer, background information, and clippings about the controversy.

STEP 10: Get on the phone to arm-twist every supporter. If you're afraid you'll be out there all alone looking stupid or -- worse! -- pathetic, tell your friends!

STEP 11: Right before the event, call local media. Did they get the press release? Any questions? Are they coming out? Reiterate the details. Emphasize you're with the telethon PROTEST. People will tend to hear this wrong. If they are noncommital, gently encourage. If they say no, tell them they can call back to schedule an interview. I don't carry a cell phone, but you probably should. Give special attention to the affiliate of the telethon. Say, "Most telethon affiliates don't cover the protests, se, but I'm sure your department will cover the news even if the station has a stake in the other side."

STEP 12: Go to your rendez-vous point about 20 minutes early. You want to be the first person there. As people gather, chat with them, but don't get out your signs until you're ready to be photographed.

STEP 13: When people have gathered, distribute signs, handbills, marching orders. Go over any rules, such as conditions of your police permit. Give instructions on how to handle hecklers. We are exceedingly polite, offer handbills, and smile. We pass out about 600 handbills in two hours. One per family. If we start running out of handbills early, we just amass on one corner and work our "Honk if you hate telethons" sign.

STEP 14: Be sure everyone knows how to deal with media. If your people disperse, set up lookouts and give instructions for them to come back and bunch up when photographers arrive. You don't want to be photographed alone, especially by the telethon affiliate. Give press a press kit. Get someone to do a Vanna-White, flipping through the kit to show them what cool material is in it. Ask your supporters if they want to speak, or refer media to you. If they want to speak, go over possible sound bytes with them. Everyone should stay on message. Never say anything you don't want to be your on-air comment.

STEP 15: Clean up your trash and save your signs for next time. Give any unused materials to your supporters, whose friends will be asking "What the hell was that about when I saw you on the news?" Adjourn no earlier than you've told people. Some people and press will arrive late. In my protest, I invite everyone out to lunch. I've never had to buy lunch for more than 12, but I wouldn't mind if I did. It's the social event of the year.

STEP 16: Monitor coverage. Be prepared to get slammed by your telethon affiliate. Call and complain if there are any factual inaccuracies, requesting specific corrections.

STEP 17: Tell us how it went. Keep a file for next time.

STEP 18: Be proud that you didn't let Jerry keep you "in your house."

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