What can amateur radio offer the social justice movement in the United States? I approach this question through my limited knowledge of both. The aspect of social justice that I have in mind, at present, are public demonstrations against police injustice.1 I’ll organize my thoughts in a call-and-response format, sharing what I’ve learned about how amateur radio communications support events I’ve participated in and then speculating about how that might translate to supporting social justice work.

Camarillo Air Show

I volunteered at the 2021 Wings Over Camarillo air show. The Auxilliary Communication Service provided organizational support for the volunteers and provided some of their equipment for the effort. This included their communications trailer that was outfit with antennas, a hydraulic telescopic mast. With the mast extended, the trailer’s radios had receive clear transmissions from all volunteers and transmit clearly, as well. Without the trailer, the volunteers would rely on local public repeaters which were likely distant from the event and less likely to receive signals as clearly from the volunteers’ hand transmitters.

The trailer contains, among other things, working surfaces and chairs, two wall mounted large LCD monitors, at least four mobile single- and dual-band radios (2m and 70cm), a small gasoline generator, and various antennas though could be mounted to the trailer’s roof or mast. The trailer acted as a communications hub, with one volunteer acting as ‘net control’ on our event frequency, relaying message to and from other volunteers who were moving about the event with hand transmitters. Also in the trailer was one hand transmitter that the event organizers were using. ‘Net control’ could pick up that radio and talk with different event staff depending on the channel they chose (e.g., first aid, maintenance, security).

Most of the volunteers, who all wore yellow shirts and bright safety vests, would wander through an assigned event quadrant, keeping their eyes open for matters that deserved attention. These might include an oil spill, a person in distress, a lost child, etc. Encountering any of these would merit a notification of ‘net control’ by radio, and ‘net control’ would then pass on the message to the proper event authority. Only ‘net control’ could speak with the event staff through the event radio. The roving volunteers could only communicate with one another and ‘net control’ via their hand radios.

Volunteers also carried an Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) beacon that broadcasts their location to a network in a way that allows a computer in the communications trailer display the volunteer’s location on a map. In this way, ‘net control’ can see the location of all event radio volunteers at any time.

One volunteer was assigned to shadow the event director. This allowed rapid communication between ‘net control’ and the event. Another volunteer was staged at one of the entrances to the event. Past experience suggested that these non-wandering assignments had value, as they put people near wghere problems were likely to occur or be solved.

This delegation of communication duties and the use of a central coordinating hub, ‘net control’, was efficient and clear. The operation and communication of the radio volunteers was separate from the event communication, minimizing cross-talk and confusion. The volunteers maintained a high level of situational awareness at the event, and communicated anuy concerns to event organizers to handle. The volunteers were not expected or prepared to do anything else.

Translation to a social justice event

This kind of work is immediately adaptable to a social justice event like a rally or demonstration. Communications volunteers could wander around the area, along the peremeters and through the center, to increase situational awareness for the event organizers. Radio volunteers could help notice people in distress, problems with the facilities, and bad actors, reporting them to the event organizers.

Having a communications trailer would not be necessary, but someone in the communications group should be assigned the role of ‘net control’ to keep communications orderly and clear. That person would liaison with the event organizers if and when the volunteers discovered issues. Although a ‘net control’ spends most of their time waiting for calls from the other volunteers, when an issue arises, it will require net control’s full attention. For this reason, ‘net control’ should not be assigned other duties that might distract them from their role an communications coordinator and liaison.

The value in adding volunteer communications to an event include increased situational awareness and decreased response time by organizers to issues that require their attention. This will make the event safer for all participants.

Another indirect benefit comes from the fact that amateur radio operates on public frequencies and may not be encrypted. This means that anyone with a radio can listen to the traffic created by the volunteers. This adds transparency to an event, removing mystery and dispelling rumors that work against the credibility of the event.

Moorpark Country Days Parade and Street Fair

This was a relatively small parade in a small exurb of Los Angeles kicked off a street fair and car show. Radio volunteers supported the parade. The parade route might have been two miles long, and it crossed a moderately trafficed set of train tracks. There were three radio volunteers. One was the ‘net control’ who also roved around the parade area. The second was assigned to shadow the parade manager at the parade’s starting point. The third was assigned to ‘shadow’ the parade announcer’s2 station.

The second of these communicated to the third when there were changes to the printed and planned line-up of parade entries. The second also relayed questions and concerns by the manager when they learned their event radio (which was rented for a non-trivial cost) did not work.

The radio volunteers at this parade were more integrated into the operations of the event. They helped the event organizers deliver a professional and enjoyable parade that kicked off the street fair.

At this even, the volunteer radio operators did not have a fixed communication hub like the ACS communications trailer at the Camarillo Air Show.3 This meant their communications were limited by the low power of the hand held radios they used. This turned out to be a problem, as transmissions were unclear and the volunteers lost time when they tried to reconfigure radios to use a nearby UHF repeater. This was as much of a technology problem as it was an organizational and leadership problem.

Translation to a social justice event

This kind of support translates immediately to the context of a social justice event. Instead of a parade, imagine a program of speakers at a rally, and the radio volunteers can be assisting event organizers with the smooth presentation of the program. This is work that could be provided by a for-profit events management company who would likely own communications gear that would allow the coordination of staff all around the event area. But a knowledgeable group of volunteer amateur radio operators could do the same communications work for free.

It’s true that their communications would be in the clear and that anyone with the proper type of radio could monitor those communications. Any communications that should the event organizers want sheilded from the public could happen by other means (e.g., cell phone) and do not require amateur radio support.

Half Marathon

I’m signed up to volunteer at the Santa To The Sea half-marathon event this weekend. I will be on a bike with my hand transmitter and an APRS beacon, shadowing the last runner. My even call sign will be ‘Chase 2’. I imagine I will be providing the event with some degree of situational awareness, and I know that the event organizers will use my APRS beacon to see the tail end of the running pack so the route can be closed down as I pass.

A couple volunteers will be assigned to be in vehicles that will ferry people along the running route. There will be a radio volunteer at each aid station, the finish line, and the starting line. And there will be a handful of volunteers at a communications hub acting as ‘net control’ for radio communications and APRS control to monitor the positions of volunteers like me.

After I experience this event from the inside, I might have more to share about its operations.

Translation to a social justice event

Thinking about what kind of social justice event might be comparable to a long-distance running race, the first thing that comes to mind are the highly organized and angry protests that happened in cities like Los Angeles, Columbus, and Portland. Not having participated in any of these, I don’t have a feel for how much central organization they had. From afar, there appeared to be a lot of organic and spontaneous support of those events that may or may not have been coordinated. And by ‘support’, I refer to people bringing water for others at the demonstration, and individuals and groups who provided first aid. I am definitely not talking about coordination of agitators and those who want to pick a fight.

It seems obvious to me that large scale protests would benefit from a system of dedicated communications volunteers who would add to the event’s overall situational awareness and would facilitate communication between participants and those providing first aid and other types of help. Better communications would lead to a safer experience for participants. But I think amateur radio communications to add more to such events.

Radio operations could contribute to documenting the event. Operators could monitor for counter-protestors with violent intent and who might also use radios to coordinate. If the communications team had the hardware to do so, transmissions at the event could be recorded to create a record of the event. To the extend that law enforcement agencies have a record of violating the rights of protestors, amateur radio operators could play a role in monitoring unencrypted police and fire radio traffic. But the volunteers would also have a role in being a bridge between the event and public safety providers, too.

  1. These thoughts will be wildly extendable to other types of protests or demonstrations or public displays. 

  2. The announcers sat at a table with a PA system and provided commentary on the parade that the public could enjoy.] 

  3. The Ventura County Sheriff’s Deaprtment had a strong presence at the parade, and they had a mobile command unit stationed near the street fair. In the past, the radio volunteers had been given space in that trailer to set up a repeater to support volunteer communications. When I volunteered, our volunteer coordinator did not know that or chose not to take advantage of that resource.