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!

Caveats:

  • 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!

Materials:

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.

Materials:

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.)

Materials:

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!

Suicide and society: Where does responsibility for preventing suicide lie?

Every time a well-known person commits suicide, I brace myself for a torrent of well-meaning but patronizing advice to suicidal people on various social networks and blogs as the friends of the victim try to find something – anything – positive to do in a situation that is by definition past all help. Most often this takes the form of lecturing people to talk to their friends or family if they are feeling depressed or suicidal, mixed with a little “If only they’d known how much we liked them, they would have stayed alive!” That sentiment in particular is infuriating to many people who have been suicidal, since they are often aware that people love or depend on them and feel more guilt for knowing they are letting them down. It also trivializes suicidal feelings – oh, cheer up, people love you, okay!

For many depressed people, telling them “You should talk to a friend!” is worse than useless advice and may actually make people more suicidal. I argue that we, as as society, should take more responsibility for making people’s lives bearable, and focus on supporting more concrete ways to prevent suicide, like helping people contact professional help, supporting research and treatment of depression, and fighting for social justice.

Edited to add: This comic from Hyperbole and a Half does a much better and funnier job of getting across what’s wrong with “You should talk to a friend!”

What’s wrong with the advice we give to suicidal people?

Why is the “just talk to someone” advice so harmful? First, being told you need to talk to someone induces feelings of guilt and responsibility at a time when you are most unable to deal with an added burden. When you are depressed or suicidal, the very last thing you want to do is talk to people, especially if you have to do the reaching out, and if it is about something unpleasant. I wonder if the “Talk to a friend” advice comes from people who have never experienced that level of depression, or can’t clearly remember what it was like.

If that advice makes sense to you, I invite you to imagine the following:

For weeks, you’ve been dragging your way through life, filled with unending despair. Just thinking about talking to another person fills you with dread. When the phone rings, your stomach immediately leaps into your throat and you think, “Let it be a telemarketer.” Usually you just don’t answer the phone, or your email. Waking in the morning, your body feels like it is made of lead, and getting out of bed is a major accomplishment. When you do have to be around people, you frantically fake being normal, creating another reason to avoid society.

You’re afraid that if you talk to anyone about your feelings, you’ll be hospitalized (potentially a cure worse than the disease). The person you talk to might react by being so emotionally upset that you find yourself comforting them. In any case, you know talking about suicidal feelings will make them feel unhappy and sad, and probably won’t help yourself at all.

Say about this time you read on Twitter or Facebook, “So sad X died. Remember, if you’re feeling suicidal, talk to a friend!” What’s your reaction?

If it’s not anger, rage, and despair, try reading the paragraph on what it’s like to be suicidal again. Then there is “R U Okay Day“, an initiative to actively go out and ask people, “Are you okay?” I wouldn’t be surprised if it is useful for some set of people who are already close to asking for help for some life difficulty. But for many depressed people, it’s just another obligation, a requst to fake it for a well-meaning friend.

Simply put, talking to a friend with no expertise in depression or suicide is often worse than useless for most suicidal people. This friend is highly unlikely to have any training whatsoever in responding to suicide – the best you can hope for is that they know this and immediately help you contact a professional. And there are active reasons not to talk to a friend: they may react by being so distressed you have to take care of them, they may become depressed themselves, they may make ultimatums and threats, they may try to get you committed against your will. Hospitalization is a last resort: besides the unspeakable expense, danger to your career, loss of autonomy, exposure to potential abuse, and coercive medical treatment which may make you worse, you also lose your only comfort: the knowledge that if it gets too bad, you can make the pain stop and you are not trapped forever.

Your friend may react insensitively with useless advice like “Just get up earlier in the morning, I know when I sleep in I’m a little foggy the rest of the day.” They may try to guilt you into staying alive by reminding you of the people who will be hurt if you die, which just adds to the bad feelings. All of these responses are based on fear: I’m afraid this person will die and it will be my fault, I’m afraid because I don’t want this person to leave me, I’m afraid because I might be suicidal myself and this might push me over the edge. Often a friend’s reactions are designed to assuage the friend’s feelings of fear, not serve the suicidal person’s needs. The closer someone is to a suicidal person, the more likely they will have strong feelings that take priority over helping the other person.

What we should be doing to prevent suicide

Here’s what works for preventing suicide: medication, professional help, changes in societal views of depression and suicide, and supporting research and prevention. If you’re looking for a general purpose, day-to-day way to reduce suicide risk among your friends, you have many options other than inducing more feelings of guilt and worthlessness in your depressed friends.

Don’t stigmatize depression and mental illness: Don’t mock or make jokes about mental illness. Learn compassion for people whose brains are not working well. View it as what it is: a physical disease of a body part, the brain, that impairs the very ability to fix the problem. Talk about your own experiences with depression or other mental illness as openly is as safe for you. I deeply respect several of my colleagues who have gone public with their bipolar disorder or depression, but that isn’t an option for most people. But many more people can tell their friends about their experience privately. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen one person reveal that they are taking an anti-depressant, and then several other people (sometimes the majority) pipe up and talk about their own mood problems and treatments. So many of us are faking being okay, and when you realize you aren’t the only one it’s a huge relief: It’s not just me! Other people are going through this! Maybe there is hope and support.

Share information on contacting a trained counselor: The average person has no clue on how to respond to a depressed person, and frankly it’s a huge burden to dump on an unqualified person’s shoulders. Anything from a suicide prevention hotline number to a listing of counselors in your area to the email address or phone number of a professional therapist you trust can help. Finding a trustworthy therapist is often too much of a challenge for someone who is depressed (partly because there are unqualified, actively harmful therapists out there happy to take your money). If a friend asks for help, helping them find professional help is often the best thing you can do, especially finding ways that they can afford it since it’s usually incredibly expensive. Often there are programs to provide free or cheap mental healthcare to students, low-income folks, and similar – just keep asking.

Call for and support more research into prevention and treatment: Anti-depressants are big business, but they only mainly work for unipolar depression, have lots of side effects, and can cause suicide in rare cases. For some reason, drug companies don’t develop drugs directly for bipolar disorder, perhaps because the risk of death and therefore lawsuits is so high (lifetime risk of suicide in bipolar disorder is somewhere between 10-20%), so most of the drugs for it are off-label anti-siezure medications with major side effects. We still don’t understand what causes depression or bipolar disorder in any meaningful way. Drug development for bipolar disorder is unlikely to occur in for-profit pharmaceutical companies, so government grants and private foundations like The Bipolar Foundation are likely the only source.

When suicide is justified

Finally, I want to put in a word for suicide as a legitimate, reasonable option in some cases. If you can’t imagine a situation in which killing yourself seems like the best option, you simply haven’t suffered very much. Suicide is, in a sense, the last form of protest against suffering that is too strong to make life worth living. Sometimes that suffering is purely organic – there’s something wrong with your body and it’s caused by nothing related to society. But sometimes, suicide is a protest against being forced to function and give support to a society that is so unfair and unequal that it’s not worth staying alive.

Suicide as protest can unite an entire people and bring down governments – see the entire Arab Spring and the ongoing Tibetan protests. That’s part of why oppressive regimes often punish suicide so severely. A few examples: in medieval law in Europe up through at least the 17th century, the estate of a person who committed suicide was confiscated by the local government and not allowed to go to the heirs. Suicide was only decriminalized in the U.K. in 1961, and in most U.S. states in the second half of the 20th century. Many examples outside the Western world exist but tend to arouse “that’s a problem for them, not us” reactions in the people most like to read this blog, so I won’t mention them directly.

Suicide is a complex problem with many facets. Rather than subscribe to a self-centered fear-based worldview in which we believe suicide is always wrong for all people, we should educate ourselves more about the causes of suicide and how best to support people at risk of suicide. A blanket belief that suicide is always wrong, or okay only in cases of severe pain in end-of-life situations, is saying that suffering people have a responsibility to their family, friends, and society to continue to live in unbearable conditions, rather than saying that society needs to work harder to make people’s lives bearable if it wants people not to commit suicide.

How to help

If you want to help, you can:

  • Educate yourself about the causes of suicide
  • Develop compassion and empathy for depressed and suffering people
  • Treat depressed and suicidal people with respect
  • Fight stigmatization of mental illness
  • When safe for you, share your own experiences with depression and suicide
  • Research hotlines and qualified professionals
  • Help suffering friends by assisting them with tasks that are difficult
  • Call for more research into causes and treatment of depression
  • Donate to foundations doing that research
  • Support social justice movements that reduce suffering
  • Oppose punishment for suicide, either by law or society

I hope we can remember in the aftermath of a suicide: If you really want to help, don’t do things because they help salve your personal feelings of loss and guilt, do things that lessen the suffering and illness that cause suicide.