HOWTO make easy readable protest signs

trump_hates_puppiesRumor has it that the remix of the Muslim ban is about to drop, and I’m betting a lot of you protesters want to get your march on this week. Here for your protesting enjoyment are three sign designs I’ve personally created and tested in the rain and wind of the San Francisco Bay Area: the Extremely Portable, the Reusable Whiteboard, and the Enormous Billboard.

But remember, the first rule of Protest Club is: You don’t need a sign to protest!!! You can just show up with your own bad self and that makes you a protester. Sometimes protests have more signs than people to hold them, so don’t feel weird about showing up empty-handed!


  • These designs are too expensive for some folks. I personally have more money than time, but you can substitute other materials if that works better for you.
  • San Francisco police don’t seem to consider sign poles as potential weapons but other police departments (notably the NYPD) do. Check your local ordinances and substitute cardboard tubes if necessary, or use the Extremely Portable sign design which doesn’t have a pole.
  • I include links to order stuff on Amazon, but some people are boycotting Amazon because it sells Trump-family related products. You can also buy the materials for MUCH CHEAPER at hardware stores, art supply stores, office supply stores, and big box retailers.

The Extremely Portable

portable_signIt used to be that many protests were planned weeks and months in advance, on a regularly spaced schedule. No more! Thanks to our exciting and unpredictable executive branch, we often have protests organized with just a few hours notice, several times a week. The modern protestor may wish to be equipped with a sign small and sleek enough to carry everywhere, in a purse or a laptop bag. San Francisco Bay Area tip: you can text “RESIST” to 41411 to get text notifications of local protests – you might even see me at one with this sign!


Unfold the sunshade. Trace your message using the yardstick and pencil on the silver side, keeping in mind that you need thick letters if you want your sign to be readable from a distance. I suggest a fairly generic message, like “RESIST” or “Trump” with a ban symbol over it.

folded_signOnce you’re happy with your design, fill it in with marker. You’re done! Fold that sign up and keep it next to your laptop or in your purse or in your trunk or in your desk at work – anywhere you might suddenly learn of a protest and want to go join it.

The Reusable Whiteboard

whiteboard_actionMany protests have specific purposes, and my tiny apartment started filling up with out-of-date signs I couldn’t use again. I created this sign so I could have an on-point message at any protest without a lot of time or cost, and improve and update my sign as I got feedback during the protest.


About 1/2 of the way from the bottom of the eraserboard, use the yardstick to find the center of the sign. Make a mark with your pencil about 3/8 inch on either side of the center (the distance between the marks should be about 60% of the width of your sign pole). Do this again but about an inch or two from the bottom of the sign. Do this in the same place for each eraserboard.

whiteboard_bottomThis sign has a problem with the wind catching between the eraserboards and ripping them loose, so we will use zip ties to attach the four corners of the marker board to each other. Repeat the marking process you just did but in each of the corners of the eraserboard: make two marks about an inch apart, aligned in a way so that the zip tie will interfere the least with your sign’s contents.

Once you have all your marks made, place the eraserboard over something that it will be okay if a nail comes through the eraserboard (cardboard, scrap wood, etc.). Place the nail on the pencil mark you just made and use the hammer to drive it through quickly. Do this for each of the marks on each eraserboard.

whiteboard_cornerNow take a minute to figure out how your zip ties work – which side has the nubbly bits, which way the tail goes, etc. Sacrifice a zip tie or two if necessary to be sure. Put one eraserboard face down on the floor, put the pole between the holes you just made, and put the other eraserboard on top, face up. Now thread a zip tie through the hole in one board, into the matching hole on the other board, and back through again, with the pole in the middle of the zip tie – but don’t tighten it yet. Do this for the second set of holes too. Now you can tighten the zip ties. Crank them down so the sign doesn’t slip or spin around, but be careful not to rip the eraserboard too much. Do the same for the holes in the 4 corners, though you don’t need to crank them so much – just enough that the edges of each eraserboard touch each other.

You are now done until you have a protest you want to go to. I often wait until I arrive at the protest to create my sign, bringing the markers and a paper towel to erase with (though I often just erase with my glove). I found that the standard dry erase markers are waterproof except for the black color, which washes off with water if you recently applied it. Don’t forget to erase your sign right after the protest – the longer the marker stays on the dry erase board, the harder it is to erase.

The Enormous Billboard

puppies_signThis design is visible from a long way away but heavy and relatively expensive. If you spend a few days workshopping your message, or investing in some quality art, reporters are more likely to talk to you and help you get your message out to a wider audience. Spend some time thinking about who your audience is, what your goal is, and how you can best reach them. (Yes, Trump does hate puppies.)


billboard_signUse the yardstick and the pencil to trace out your message on the foamcore posterboard, drawing lightly so it is easy to erase major mistakes (don’t bother erasing all the pencil lines, no one can see them). Make your letters thick and easy to read from 30 feet away – on many signs, the letters are too thin to read. You can test readability by taking a photo of your sign on your phone and holding it at arm’s length: can you read it? Use as few words as possible. Once you are happy with the pencil tracing, fill in with the marker.

Do this for both posterboards – you will get tired of spinning your sign around so people can see your message from the opposite direction. If you put different signs on each side, you can A/B test which messages are the most effective (by counting how many people want to take photos of each side). (Note for painters: use acrylic paint and mix with a lot of non-translucent white such as titanium white.)

Close up of overlapping tape
Close up of overlapping tape
If you expect rain, cover the posterboard with clear packing tape, overlapping the strips by about 1/4 of an inch. Don’t be fussy about it, just tape quickly and avoid gaps between the tape. You don’t necessarily have to tape both sides.

Now you are ready to attach the posterboards to the wooden dowel – the pole. You are about to mark where the zip ties will go, so move them around so they fit between the words on your sign. About 1/3 of the way from the bottom of the posterboard, use the yardstick to find the center of the sign. Make a mark about 3/8 inch on either side of the center (the distance between the marks should be about 60% of the width of your sign pole). Do this again but about an inch or two from the bottom of the sign. Do this in the same place for each posterboard.

Place the posterboard over something that it will be okay if a nail comes through the posterboard (cardboard, scrap wood, etc.). Place the nail on the pencil mark you just made and use the hammer to drive it through quickly. Do this for each of the 4 marks on each posterboard.

Now take a minute to figure out how your zip ties work – which side has the nubbly bits, which way the tail goes, etc. Sacrifice a zip tie or two if necessary to be sure. Put one posterboard face down on the floor, put the pole between the holes you just made, and put the other posterboard on top, face up. Now thread a zip tie through the hole in one board, into the matching hole on the other board, and back through again, with the pole in the middle of the zip tie – but don’t tighten it yet. Do this for the second set of holes too. Now you can tighten the zip ties. Crank them down so the sign doesn’t slip or spin around, but be careful not to rip the posterboard too much.

nonslip_ziptieNow tape the sides of the posterboards together – this prevents the wind from snapping them around and ripping the holes the zip ties go through. All you need is a strip of packing tape around the top, bottom, and middle of the signs. If the sign tends to slide around on the pole too much, add two more zip ties on the pole just underneath the bottom zip tie that threads through the sign. It should stop it from sliding down, but still make it possible to pull the pole out of the sign if necessary.

That’s it! Happy protesting, whether or not you have a sign!

Update on signs of fascism in the U.S.

I took a vacation from updating my signs of fascism spreadsheet and now I’m back with a big picture update. Short version: Trump seems to be failing at one of the most basic requirements of fascism, which is winning popular support and suppressing public dissent.

Trump was sworn in yesterday with the lowest approval ratings of a president-elect since we started measuring approval ratings, and his ratings are still falling. Congressional representatives are still acting like they are worried about getting re-elected, and are changing their votes when their constituents pressure them. The puny attendance and visible lack of enthusiasm at Trump’s inauguration, especially as contrasted with the various protests, is another sign of his failure in this important area. Trump is also failing to recruit artists and pop culture in general, another thing fascist movements are usually at least partly successful in doing.

My conclusion: we’re not currently on the path to total fascism in the U.S. If someone competent takes over the Trump administration (Bannon?), that could change quickly, but as far as I can tell, Trump is fundamentally unwilling to give anyone that level of power. An increase in U.S. fascism is still an imminent danger and something we should be alert for, but I’m feeling more hopeful about the resistance.

The biggest problem with my signs of fascism spreadsheet is that the actions column I created to tell myself what to do – pack, leave, flee, etc. – depends so much on a lot of factors not in the spreadsheet. For me, as a disabled white cis woman living in California who has healthcare through the ACA, things are okay right now, but any changes to the ACA will have a major effect on my safety. For others, many people have left the U.S already; others want to leave and can’t. Trans folks, Black people, Muslims, immigrants both documented and undocumented, disabled folks – we’re all more vulnerable to the upcoming administration. And that’s not reflected in the spreadsheet.

I’ve decided to start tracking four things for myself on a scale of 1 to 10: how much I’m resisting, how much I’m collaborating, what my personal danger is, and how hard emigration is for me personally. My fear is that, like the author of Defying Hitler, I’ll gradually collaborate more and more without realizing it.

The future is still scary and fucked up, and many bad things have happened, are happening, and will continue to happen. I am still working with my immigration lawyer to have options to live and work outside the U.S. I still have a go bag packed. I’m still getting copies of all my identity documents. But I’m also actively involved in resistance movements and I’m seeing the results of our work (including behind-the-scenes changes that I can’t talk about in public). People in the U.S. and around the world are connecting and mobilizing and speaking up.

I’ll close with a quote from Rebecca Solnit:

Many people are still trying to figure out what to do; others are doing it. They give me hope, in some portion of humanity, the portion that will resist Trump and defend our ideals. It will be hard. It will be ugly. Our job will be to be embody and protect all of those things most antithetical to authoritarianism, racism, misogyny, kleptocracy, an atmosphere of lies and indifference to science, fact and truth.

In easy times, we grow slack; this will require us each to find our capacity for heroism. Some will, and my hope lies with them. Or us.

One way to resist Trump: become an Ally Skills Workshop teacher

We have a problem in the U.S.: 63 million people who voted for Trump, either despite or because of his record of advocating and practicing racism, sexism, xenophobia, ableism, transphobia, religious hatred, and other cruel and backward beliefs. This election made it clear how important it is for people of good will to learn the skills to stand up for their values, and, when possible, to change the hearts and minds of people who don’t yet understand the implications of supporting someone with these beliefs. You can be a crucial part of changing some of these 63 million minds – keep reading to learn how.

I teach a workshop based on the idea that people who have the most power and influence in society should take on more of the work of fighting systemic discrimination. It’s called the Ally Skills Workshop, and I’ve been teaching it since 2012 along with co-creator Mary Gardiner, Leigh Honeywell, Kendra Albert, Y-Vonne Hutchinson, and many others. In this workshop, I teach people simple, everyday techniques for standing up to systemic oppression as well as making systemic changes to reduce oppression. It teaches people a wide range of responses, from simply saying, “Not cool, dude,” at a party to helping people be heard in a meeting to reforming the way your company interviews new employees. Kendra Albert recently created a version of the workshop specialized for talking to friends and family who support Trump’s policies.

I want the workshop to reach more than a few dozen people a week. That’s why I teach other people to lead the Ally Skills Workshop with a train-the-trainers class. The next train-the-trainers classes are on January 15, 2017 in Oakland, California, and January 22, 2017 through online video. Tickets are priced on a need-based sliding scale, with free tickets available if you email me directly and tell me more about why you’d like to take the training. There’s no fee or charge for teaching the workshop later on – all of the materials are freely reusable and modifiable at no cost.

Teaching the workshop isn’t for everyone. From my experience, here are the three most important qualities for an Ally Skills Workshop teacher to have:

  • A fairly broad understanding of the issues facing a number of different marginalized groups
  • Comfort with speaking extemporaneously in public, including interrupting or confronting people when necessary
  • A strong sense of empathy for a wide range of people (or the ability to turn your empathy up during the workshop)

I often recommend that people teach the Ally Skills Workshop in pairs so that it’s less pressure on one person to be able to answer all the questions or respond appropriately in the moment. (I also teach people how to handle not knowing the answer to a question along with other useful teaching skills.)

If teaching the Ally Skills Workshop isn’t for you, I and many others are willing and able to teach this workshop around the world. Email me at to find out more.

Fighting American fascism depends on understanding American anti-Black racism

Like many people, I slept badly on the night after the 2016 U.S. election. One nightmare in particular is burned into my memory: I dreamed that Rudy Giuliani, dressed in a Nazi uniform, was smiling gleefully as he explained to me that he was going to kill me with chlorine gas. Then I felt the chlorine gas filling my lungs and I knew I was dying.

My nightmare reflects the reality that American fascism originates in (is identical to?) American anti-Black racism. I know Rudy Giuliani mainly as a passionate advocate of the NYPD’s blatantly racist stop-and-frisk policy, which began while he was mayor of New York. This is a man who seems to take positive pleasure in systematically violating the bodies of Black men and boys in particular (Black and Latinx people of all genders were also unfairly targeted). At some unconscious level, my brain made the connection: a man who supports a policy whose main effect is to physically assault Black and Latinx people is someone who would be happy – thrilled! – to run Trump’s as-yet theoretical death camps.

Nonetheless, it’s taken me weeks to fully make the conscious connection between American anti-Blackness and American fascism. I’ve been reading books and articles on German and Italian fascism, frantically trying to understand enough to effectively fight American fascism. Gradually, I’m realizing that learning about American slavery, the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow laws, American lynching, redlining, the Black Panther Party, the school-to-prison pipeline, stop-and-frisk, anti-Black police violence, our refusal as a nation to own up to our racism and atone for it, and the construction of American whiteness and the invitation of successive groups to join it – all of that is preparation for fighting fascism too. We need to learn lessons from parallel (but not identical) modern struggles as well – Russia, Turkey, France, the U.K., etc. – if we want to be up on the latest tactics of fascist regimes. And the victims of American fascism include many non-Black people. But the history and on-going expression of American anti-Blackness is crucial to understanding and fighting our own home-grown brand of fascism.

In my opinion, any group that wants to be effective in fighting American fascism must have a leadership with a broad and deep understanding of the history of American anti-Black racism.

My request to you: please leave a comment on this post suggesting your favorite anti-fascists who have this knowledge, along with a link to their work. In the mean time, here are a few of the anti-fascists I support and follow on Twitter (note that the first tweet is from *2014*):

Why tech worker resistance is crucial to preventing large-scale human rights abuses in the U.S.

Today I signed the “Never Again” pledge along with hundreds of other tech workers. We pledged to take a variety of concrete actions to stop the U.S. government from using databases to target people for human rights abuses. One of those actions is “We refuse to participate in the creation of databases of identifying information for the United States government to target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin.”

Some people have criticized this pledge as empty because they claim these databases already exist and are available to anyone with the money to buy them. They often back this up with a screenshot from a commercial marketing data broker listing a few hundred thousand phone numbers or emails. They argue that tech workers are just fooling themselves by thinking that their actions as individuals matter now, after these databases have been created.

I believe that the resistance of individual tech workers against the creation and use of databases like this is highly relevant. I’ll briefly summarize my argument, then I’ll tell you my personal experience of working with one of these databases. I will finish up by going into detail about the lessons I learned from that experience.

TL;DR version: Many commercial databases are low quality and barely usable for the purposes of large-scale human rights abuses like mass deportations by race, religion, or national origin. Higher quality databases are expensive to create and update, and tend to be highly protected. Any existing databases require maintenance, support, and tools to keep them up to date and make them usable. All of these things are provided by tech workers. By refusing to do these things, we can materially block, slow down, and frustrate attempts to commit large-scale human rights abuses by the U.S. government.

Now for my personal experience with one of these databases. A few months ago, I volunteered with a political organization. My job was to send text messages to thousands of voters of a particular ethnicity in swing states order to encourage them to vote in the U. S. presidential election. To do this, I used a computer-based tool to send and reply to text messages. The list of phone numbers we sent text messages to was bought from one of the commercial marketing data brokers. The text messages we sent included the purported first name of the person owning the phone number.

The first thing I noticed is that the most common reply we got (after no reply at all) was “I think you have the wrong number.” Many of the people with these phone numbers did not even match the names that we were given to go along with them, and if the people owning them were our target ethnicity and location it was only by accident. I also noticed that a lot of the people we were texting were not of the ethnicity that we were targeting. We had one set of text messages that asked this question explicitly, but people also volunteered this information in their replies (sometimes using abusive Twitter hashtags).

We almost immediately started having problems with the software we were using. Some of the problems were volunteers having difficulty understanding how to use the software, but there were also out-and-out bugs that caused serious problems that couldn’t be fixed by users. The software programmers who wrote the text messaging tools had to make emergency fixes and edit the databases during our volunteer session. We ended up switching software tools entirely at one point. As one of the few tech-savvy volunteers, I spent a lot of time helping other volunteers figure out how to use the software and work around bugs.

This is just one person’s experience working with one database of people by ethnicity, and I’m sure there are better ones out there. But I also have over ten years of experience with data, software, and Murphy’s Law. Here are my beliefs about the role of tech workers in using existing databases of people by race, religion, or national origin:

  1. Many commercial databases are incomplete and error-riddled. These databases leave out a lot of people who should be in them, and include a lot of people who shouldn’t. This is fine if you are sending a mass marketing email, or targeting an Facebook ad. But if you want to send thugs to the doors of every person in that group (and not to people who aren’t in that group), you’ll need to put in a lot of work. Correcting these errors is extremely expensive because it takes human work and intelligence. (For example, the U. S. Census employs hundreds of thousands of temporary workers to create its gargantuan dataset.) It will require the cooperation of many individuals to make these databases usable for the purpose of deportation or other violations of human rights. We can refuse to do that.
  2. Databases of personally identifiable information need to be updated frequently. I’ve moved over a dozen times in my life. The DMV’s record for my address has been wrong more years than it’s been right. Gamergate can’t even get my address and phone number correct when I post it on my company web site. Updating these databases to reflect moves, changes in locations, new phone numbers, changes of religion, marriages, births, deaths, etc. will take ongoing support – from tech workers. We can refuse to do that.
  3. Higher quality databases tend to already have systems in place to make them harder to abuse. For example, the personally identifiable information in the U.S. Census data is protected by federal laws and every person who has access to it has sworn for life to protect the confidentiality of that data. Will that prevent it from being misused? Ha ha, no – but it outlines the importance of individuals refusing to be complicit in human rights abuses. A limited number of people can turn this data over for use by a human rights abusing regime, and they have already thought deeply about their personal responsibility in this situation. They can refuse to do that, and we can stand in solidarity with them.
  4. Databases of millions of people require tech support to use. Even if we had access to a magical database that updated itself with the name, location, ethnicity, religion, and immigration status of every human in the U.S., we would still need tech workers to build and maintain and run the tools to use that data. We would need tech support to help people use the tools. We would need technical writers to document the tools. We can refuse to do that.

I’m not one of the people who seriously believes that the cost of deporting millions of people will deter the Trump administration from doing it (one easy way to reduce costs: don’t deport people humanely). But history tells us that, whether you do it humanely or not, this kind of large-scale human rights abuse requires huge numbers of people working together with the full knowledge that they are committing human rights abuses. Tech workers are a crucial part of this system, and if enough of them refuse to do that work, we can have an impact on history.

In the end though, I believe the indirect effects of this pledge may be even more powerful than the direct effects. Tech workers are notoriously difficult to organize, so when we do act in concert, it’s a newsworthy event. In my experience, tech company executives will pay close attention to any cause powerful enough to get tech workers to pledge solidarity with each other and with the most vulnerable in society.

A post-election guide to changing hearts and minds

I just published a guide to changing the hearts and minds of lukewarm Trump supporters over at the amazing Captain Awkward advice blog. I took what I learned from teaching the Ally Skills Workshop and turned it into a step-by-step process for changing people’s minds effectively: identifying where you have the most influence, choosing who to spend time, finding shared values, and using compassion and vulnerability on your part to help the listener develop their compassion towards those who need it most. Here’s the introduction:

Many of us are grappling with how to use our skills and influence to resist the upcoming Trump administration and the hatred and violence that it inspires. As Captain Awkward readers, we’ve been practicing setting boundaries, standing up for our values, and making it awkward for the right person. We are uniquely prepared for a crucial part of the next few months or years: changing the minds of people who support the Trump administration, and standing up to the abusers they are empowering. This post teaches scripts and techniques to do these two tasks, along with the theory behind them. It’s for people living in the U.S., but it may be useful to people living elsewhere as well.

And now I will give you some strange advice: Read the comments on that post! Captain Awkward is a case study (along with Metafilter) in how positive and useful a comments section can be if you have a strong code of conduct and enforce it. Enjoy the unfamiliar sensation of reading the comments and enjoying them!

If you have read my last two blog posts, you know I’m not hopeful for the future of human rights in the United States (and around the world). I don’t believe that changing the minds of wavering Trump supporters will be anything like enough to prevent fascism and kleptocracy. However, I think any other effort will fail unless we drastically lower the percentage of U.S. voters who support Trump. That’s why I licensed that guide CC BY-SA – please feel free to copy, modify, and redistribute it without charge as long as you credit the authors.

If you like what you see on Captain Awkward, please consider joining me and becoming a monthly donor (or chipping in a few bucks now). Their work is crucial to the task we have before us.

Spreadsheet of signs of fascism

Several people have asked me to share the spreadsheet I mentioned in my previous post, the one I am using to track signs that the U.S. is governed by a fascist regime. Feel free to copy it and make your own modifications – it is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0 Valerie Aurora. Here is the current snapshot:

Obviously this is an incomplete list. I’ll be adding new things to it as new and more creative ways of being a fascist are thought up in Trump Tower.

I made this spreadsheet because I’m afraid I will normalize brutal and inhuman behavior, and wake up one day to find I am trapped in a cruel fascist regime – or worse, actively collaborating in it.

It is true that before November 8, brutality and violence were already a central part of the U.S. government and culture, and many people were already living daily in fear for their freedom and lives. What we lost on November 8 is the reasonable expectation that we could fix this kind of injustice through peaceful political change, in the style of the civil rights movement or the fight for marriage equality. Maybe our democratic institutions will survive the next four years, but I don’t feel hopeful.

2017-01-21: Update here.