A User's Guide to Getting Involved in Democracy—Petitions and Protests

How do you get involved in U.S. Democracy? Here's a crash course on next-level civic participation. Yep, we're talking about putting your money or your giant poster board sign where your mask-covered mouth is.

Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy
8-minute read
Episode #89


After you listen to this episode of A User's Guide to Democracy on Unknown History, quiz yourself on what you've learned about getting involved in government for a chance to win a copy of the book! (Enter by Sunday, September 27, 2020.)

Last week, we talked about elections and the Electoral College. If you missed it, make sure to give a listen to keep your civic skills sharp.

Today, in week two, we're talking about what you can do to participate in government. This is crucial information as we slide into a contentious election season.

How to make your voice heard in government

What's the first step on the road to making this democracy work for you? Make sure you're heard by the people who are making the laws for your life.

Did you know that, before he became our fourth president, James Madison served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives? Madison was a true champion of Congress's responsibility to "We, the People." He believed the House should have, "an immediate dependence on and sympathy with the people."

Congress is only in power because we put them there.

And before we tell you how to win that sympathy, a little reminder: That immediate dependence Madison was talking about? Congress is only in power because we put them there. Even the most cynical of citizens has to admit that there is a baseline reason why Congress has to listen to us. If they don't, we can choose not to vote for them.

Alright, now we've established who holds the reins—we do. How should you go about being heard by your representatives?

Petitioning for a redress of grievances

It's right there in the first amendment to our Constitution—we have the right as American citizens to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The quickest, easiest way to do that is by phone.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in the late 1800s. By 1900, Congress was getting hundreds of calls a day. Before information like a senator's phone number was kept strictly confidential, people would call them up at all hours demanding legislation that suited their needs.

How to call your congressperson

Unless you're very lucky, or very sneaky, or very well connected, chances are you don't have a rep's home number these days. So what do you do?

You can find the office numbers for your representatives at senate.gov or house.gov.

When you call, you're either going to leave a message or get an assistant or intern on the phone. (Don't be insulted—congresspeople are busy.)

You can go one of two ways with this phone call. You can demand something or you can ask for help.

Your representatives are your 'people on the inside.'

Asking for something might involve asking for a certain bill that will address a problem in your state, or asking your representative to vote a certain way on an issue.

Requesting help could be something like, "I'm trying to file something with the Social Security Administration and I'm having issues."

Your representatives are your "people on the inside." They're not just there to make laws, but also to serve as a help desk to translate the obscure beast that is the federal government.

Does calling your congressperson actually work?

It really depends. Lawmakers often say that their drafting or sponsorship of a bill was entirely due to the fact that the constituent brought an issue to their attention.

Some congressional assistants admit that a lawmaker is more likely to be swayed by a personal email or letter.

If you want your legislator to vote a certain way, that's a long shot. This is politics, after all. You're competing for attention with lobbyists, special interest groups, and the polls. And sometimes a legislator is just going to vote their conscience and there's nothing you can do about it.

Can you meet your representative face-to-face?

So, we've learned that contacting your congressperson does work, but also sometimes doesn't. Is there anything else you can do to step it up? How do you light a fire under the people who are supposed to be representing you?

You can try one last option—a face-to-face meeting with your representative.

How do you light a fire under the people who are supposed to be representing you?

We'll own to it—the chances of getting a meeting with a lawmaker are slim. Meetings are difficult to score, period. And chances are, you'll sit down with an assistant instead of the person who's really in charge. But know that just like with your call, email, or letter, this meeting will be logged and communicated in some way to the legislator.

How to request a face-to-face meeting

So here's what you do:

  • Call that rep's office, ask to speak with whoever is in charge of the rep's schedule, and request a meeting.
  • Give a little rundown of what you're hoping to talk about.
  • Show up early. come prepared with your clear, concise ask.

Make sure you've done your research. Does the bill you're planning to ask for already exist? Do you know your rep's voting history up to this point?

And in the pre- and (hopefully) post-COVID-19 era, a handshake helps seal the deal. That and a little social pressure in the form of a call-to-action: "Can I count on your vote?"

The special sauce—demographics

Here's one way to increase your odds of being heard. That meeting is going to mean a heck of a lot more if you personally represent a demographic that your representative needs to appeal to in the next election.

Leverage your power as a constituent who represents hard-to-come-by constituents.

And if you're a kid? Look the heck out—kids are political gold! You have real power as a kid asking for a vote for something you believe in.

Leverage your power as a constituent who represents hard-to-come-by constituents. Sure, you're up against the lobbying groups. But lobbying groups are not the ones voting for Senator X in the next election, or the ones telling Mommy to vote for Senator X in the next election.

How to petition the U.S. government

You can also exercise another one of your fundamental First Amendment rights—the right to peaceably protest or petition.

In the actual words of the U.S. Constitution:

Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Petitioning, which is mostly done online these days or with the help of political organizations or advocacy groups, was the way we used to interact with our government. It even made its way into the Declaration of Independence. One of the charges against the king, a justification for revolution was:

Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.

There are loads of petition websites out there. The most popular one is change.org. And while it's difficult to measure the victory of a petition—most of the time, they do not honestly result in legislation—they do raise awareness. And once lawmakers know something has a lot of support, they might be encouraged to take it a step further.

You can go directly to the seat of the U.S. federal government and create a petition at the official White House website—petitions.whitehouse.gov.

How to peacefully protest

Now, let's talk protest.

We don't think it's a partisan statement to say that we are a nation born out of protest.

Spurred on by their leader, Samuel Adams, the Sons of Liberty dumped, in modern-day value, $1.7 million worth of tea into Boston Harbor during the Boston Tea Party. To do property damage against the British was a huge, common way to protest.

We are a nation born out of protest.

One scholar that we interviewed, Alvin Tillery, said that so far in American history, there have been only three movements that changed our country—the Boston Tea Party, Shays' Rebellion (which began in 1786 over wartime debt and led to the necessity for a new Constitution), and the long (and still continuing) Civil Rights Movement, which peaked in the 1950s and 60s.

Important Supreme Court rulings about protests

What has the Supreme Court ruled when it comes to protesting?

This gets into a little bit of grimy, foggy territory. And this is something we see again and again when it comes to the Supreme Court protecting our rights. They didn't rule on a case regarding protest until 1919.

That case was Schenk v. the United States. Schenk was the first in a trio of cases regarding the constitutionality of protest—Schenk v. the United States, Gitlow v. New York, and Abrams v. the United States.

Charles Schenk was arrested for handing out pamphlets that criticized the draft during World War I.

Benjamin Gitlow had written a left-wing manifesto that called for overthrowing the U.S. government.

And Jacob Abrams (and others) threw leaflets out a window that advocated for workers in ammunition factories to go on strike.

What is significant about these three cases is that they all lost. Those actions of speech and protest were not considered protected by the Constitution.

Two major cases that protected protest were both about protecting actions done by the Ku Klux Klan.

So when, if ever, did the court rule that an act of protest was protected under the Constitution? We'll give you the bad news first. Two major cases that protected protest were both about protecting actions done by the KKK—the Ku Klux Klan.

Brandenburg v. Ohio, in 1969, ruled that members of the Klan could advocate violence at their rallies. And in 2003, in Virginia v. Black, the court ruled that laws banning the burning of crosses were unconstitutional.

2003. Yeah.

So, what's the good news?

There have been two—count 'em—two nonracist cases where the Supreme Court ruled that an act of protest was protected. And they're two of our favorites.

Tinker v. Des Moines. In 1969, a group of schoolchildren in Des Moines were expelled for wearing black on armbands to protest the deaths on both sides during the Vietnam War. The court ruled that their action was protected, and freedom of speech and expression don't stop at the schoolhouse gate.

Texas v. Johnson. Gregory Lee Johnson burned a flag outside the Republican National Convention in Dallas in 1984. The court ruled that actions can be protected speech if they convey a message, and there's not much clearer a message than the burning of a flag.

A few last words of advice on protests

As we've established, you do have a First Amendment right to protest.

You should probably do it in a public space unless you want to be at the whims of the private property owner of the space where you're protesting.

It can help to have a permit.

It can help to notify the police beforehand.

But the thing that you really must know before you go out and protest is that your safety and your life are paramount. We once had a guest tell us, "Don't use this as an opportunity to give a police officer a lesson in your First Amendment rights." Get home safe and in one piece.


An excerpt from "A User’s Guide to Democracy: How America Works" by Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy, illustrated by Tom Toro (Celadon Books, 2020)

Plan out the order of events with your fellow organizers. Know the route of the march, know when you want speeches to happen and who is going to give them, know how long your sit-in will last. Know your rights! Even if you don’t have a permit, if your protest march obeys traffic laws and stays on the sidewalks, it’s constitutional. Just make sure passers-by have space and aren’t “physically or maliciously” detained by your group. Same goes for distributing pamphlets. You can’t force anyone to take them, but you can offer them freely. Prepare your fellow protestors to be stopped, and possibly subjected to tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, beatings, and arrests by police officers. Tell them to peacefully voice their First Amendment right to be doing what they’re doing, and remind everyone that preserving their physical safety and life is paramount.


About the Author

Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy Unknown History

Hannah McCarthy is the co-host of Civics 101 from New Hampshire Public Radio. She came to New Hampshire by way of Brooklyn where she worked as a radio producer and writer. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Nick Capodice is the co-host of Civics 101. Before coming to NHPR, Nick worked in the Education Department at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where he wrote and led tours, trained educators, and helped design digital exhibits. He also led beer history and tasting tours for Urban Oyster in Brooklyn.

Nick and Hannah are the authors of A USER'S GUIDE TO DEMOCRACY: HOW AMERICA WORKS, with illustrations by Tom Toro.