The demands of demonstrators across the country (and even around the world) are clear and are not controversial: The police in the United States are imbued with far too much power, typically via bloated budgets and laws designed to protect them, and routinely use their positions to kill and harm Black people.
Marching along and sharing these demands is one method of activism in this moment, but things that can be done while sitting at home—whether between public protests, or out of concern for the very much still-happening pandemic—are equally impactful. While the demands are broadly applicable, there are almost certainly locally specific measures you can support to enact change wherever you live. One way to do that is to follow the simple battle cry to “contact your reps!”
Contacting representatives is an easy thing to do, once you know how to do it, but who to contact about what can feel complicated or obtuse upon first approach (especially when everything is otherwise overwhelming). Here’s a nice place to start.
First, decide what you’d like to talk about
You may see local-specific demands on protest signs in your town, or from people you follow online, and those can be easily Googled (for instance, many signs around New York City protests demand the repeal of a law called called “50-a,” which allows NYPD to shield its records from the public).
But if you can’t readily identify which pieces of legislation are best to target, or which elections should be of particular focus, local organizing groups and campaigns (like your city’s BLM or DSA chapter) are a good place to start looking. In Austin, Texas, for instance, the Austin Justice Coalition (in addition to organizing local marches) has a list of action items for locals, including a list of reasons why the current police chief should be fired, and who to call about that.
Professional organizers will also likely have instructions on who to contact, how to contact them, and even what, exactly, you should say. Which really takes care of the whole thing. You can also, of course, follow local, statewide, and national orgs and campaigns on social media and subscribe to their newsletters (see the civil liberties and social justice sections here) to stay in the loop on how actions resolve, and what to act on next.
Grassroots activism can broadly attack laws and regulations, as well as budgets. Many organizing efforts are currently focused on defunding the police responsive to the protests, and if you’re curious about how much your city funnels into its department, that info is publicly available through your city government’s website (here is NYC’s budget, as an example).
Once again, it’s highly likely that an organizing group in your city already has an understanding of the budget and how it should be reformed, and through which mechanisms that is possible. It could be anything from signing a petition of support, or making specific demands that alter how city budgets can be used; In New York City, these demands include things like an NYPD hiring freeze, cuts related to abusive policing, etc. These will be slightly different in every city.
Then figure out who the appropriate reps are
If the measure you’d like to reform or support is a national one, meaning it’s in the hands of Members of Congress, the people to contact are your senators and House representative. Your two senators are easiest to find; go to Congress.gov, select your state from the dropdown list near the bottom of the page (beneath “Current Members of Congress”), and filter by “senators.” From there, you can click on their personal page to see what legislation they’re sponsoring and committees they’re assigned to, and find their office phone numbers and emails.
To find your representative, you have to first figure out which congressional district you live in. Congress has a Find Your Representative page, where you’ll type in your zip code (if your zip code overlaps with multiple districts, like many in urban areas do, you’ll be further prompted to enter your address), and be linked to your representative’s member page. This entire process can also be carried out and streamlined on dozens of organizing group websites, like Common Cause. Political apps, like Countable and Votespotter, can also help you quickly find locally relevant voting measures and info about your reps.
If the thing you want to talk about is local to your state (like the repeal of 50-a in New York), a similar process can be used to find your state legislators. Titles vary at the state level; in New York, we have assembly members and senators, while Texas uses representatives and senators. A quick Google search will help you identify your state legislative titles, if you don’t already know them.
You’ll again use your current address to find who your representatives in the state lege are, either through your state government website or a statewide organizing group. The same goes for finding your city council member, if your focus is something specific to your municipality. Your local government website will have a mechanism for typing in your address and locating who identifies you on city council.
While it’s tempting and may seem like the natural next step to contact reps from other states or districts, particularly in the case of apparent swing votes, this can actually be distracting and even damaging. Democratic organizing group Indivisible breaks this down well: “If you can’t vote for or against [a member of Congress] in their next election, they don’t care what you think—they are laser-focused on their district/state only.
Good staffers will ask for a zip code to ensure they’re speaking to an actual constituent. If they don’t, chances are your phone call is not getting memorialized in any way.” At worst, you’re tying up the lines and clogging the inboxes for people who are actually represented by that congress member, and are trying to be heard just like you.
Learn the best way of contacting them
Unless you have the personal line to your state governor or mayor, which would be extremely cool, “call your reps” will actually mean “call your representatives’ designated staffer.” Or maybe even…. “Email your reps’ staff.” According to Emily Ellsworth, a former congressional staffer, calling is best, because a large volume of calls is unignorable by staffers and their respective reps. But if you’re calling and calling and either can’t get through, or their voicemail box is full, the next best thing is an email, and something personal is better than a form letter (more on that later).
After that, try a letter to their state office (if they're a federal rep with another office in DC). Messages over Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook almost never get seen. All of this communication is fielded not the by rep, but their staffer; if you want to talk directly with your rep, the best way to do so is by showing up to one of their town hall meetings (schedule info should be readily available on their website or member page).
Again, local organizing groups that highlight the causes you care about will almost certainly have the best info on how to best reach out to the people who need to be contacted. Beyond that, overkill is better than doing nothing at all. National reps will have several means of contact on their government member page, and the same goes for state and local reps.
Ellsworth’s guide to contacting reps the smart way is applicable across all levels of government, just simplified for more easily accessible reps on the local level. If you get truly gummed up, Resistbot is a quick, easy way to find out who your reps are and can even contact them for you with no more effort than composing a text. The American Public Health Association has detailed instructions for contacting congressional staffers, as well.
Finally, search for available suggested scripts
Once you’ve completed the necessary steps of figuring out what you care about, and who to direct that care to, the final step is: Figuring out what the hell to even say. A non-evil and very good use of social media is that activists and organizing groups routinely share suggested scripts for contacting your reps or their staffers, written specifically to highlight certain issues and acts.
Googling something like “[insert issue] script” can be useful, if you can’t find something readily available online. Another good route is to simply ask activists or organizers in your area for tips on what to say. They want to help you with this. We mentioned personalizing your message, and you may notice that the burden of sending a personalized letter requires knowing what you’re talking about. You can tweak a form letter provided by activists who are knowledgeable, but isn’t the entire purpose of this learning what is actually going on and what should be done about it?
It’s worth mentioning that once you start calling reps, it’s easy to become….obsessed with calling your reps. These people want to hear from you. It is the very nature of their entire job to hear your concerns and represent you fairly. If they do anything else, you can always vote their ass out.
Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.