Protesting has the power to bring about transformative change. During a historic election season, exercising that fundamental First Amendment right remains more critical than ever.
And for many people, the act of protesting serves as motivation to keep fighting. When we turn strong emotion into action—particularly, collective action—we rise up together even as we face down the immorality of those who would disregard basic human rights and the health of our planet.
But we must bear in mind that protesting in person is a privilege that not everyone shares. Some cannot chance gathering in groups due to health vulnerabilities. Some cannot afford run-ins with police due to their immigration status, family responsibilities, or job. And protesting remains uniquely dangerous for people of color—especially Black people—who continue to face intentional targeting and violence at the hands of police.
For those who are willing and able to show up and speak out, here is your guide to protesting safely and effectively.
Before You Go
Research any demonstrations you plan to attend.
Before committing to participate in a given protest, ensure it represents your values. Does it center those who are most harmed by an issue? Do its leaders prioritize nonviolence and have experience with de-escalation strategies? Do you feel comfortable supporting their demands? Answering key questions like these can prevent you from being a part of a disorganized, problematic, or unsafe event.
Protests are safer in groups. A buddy can alert others if you’re harmed or arrested—and help record any violations of your First Amendment rights. If you plan to go it alone, let a local friend or family member know when and where you plan to protest and when they should expect to hear from you again.
Pack a bag.
Prepare to stay awhile. Bring energy-rich snacks, like mixed nuts or protein bars, and plenty of water. (Looking to support other protesters? Bring extra and hand them out to those running low on supplies.) Pack a few days’ worth of essential medicines in the event you’re arrested, as well as some cash and multiple masks. While it’s a good idea to bring your phone in case of an emergency, follow our tips below for protecting your digital privacy. And, if you have the time, bring a sign. (Material you already have on hand, like flattened cardboard from a package, will do just fine as a poster board for your message.)
Be mindful of your phone settings.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s guide to protesting suggests encrypting your phone and turning it on airplane mode before demonstrating, since phones can leave behind bread crumbs of data that leave you vulnerable. (They can also be confiscated by authorities.) The guide also suggests turning off biometric passwords—such as fingerprint and facial-recognition IDs—which make it easier for police to access your device.
Be sure to check the weather forecast and wear layers as protection against the elements. Try to avoid making a fashion statement, though, and keep easily identifiable tattoos or scars covered to reduce your chance of being identified. Long sleeves and pants, gloves, and goggles can also help protect your skin and eyes in the event that you’re faced with tear gas or rubber bullets. (Opt for glasses instead of contact lenses, too, since the latter can trap pepper spray in your eye.) Wear comfortable, closed-toed shoes for marching and moving away from the crowd quickly, if necessary.
Know your rights.
The right to peacefully assemble is fundamental—and the police must facilitate rather than restrict you from doing so. Of course, there are countless examples of police violating that right, particularly for Black and brown protesters. You are allowed to document arrests and police action, including the use of excessive force, even if they ask you to stop. If you are arrested, you must be told why you’re being detained and be given access to a lawyer and your family via phone. (The National Lawyers Guild has a guide on what to say—or not to say—to law enforcement for both citizens and noncitizens.) Write down the numbers of an emergency contact and emergency legal counsel on your arm in permanent marker.
During the Protest
Follow the lead of organizers.
Those leading events typically have years of on-the-ground organizing experience. Look to them to start chants, guide marches along specific routes, and notify the group of any concerns. Above all, respect organizers’ requests, such as not to damage property. If the media approaches you for a statement or to be on video, point reporters to the organizers, who know best how to communicate the group’s message and demands. Be mindful of when to step back and give others space to speak out—particularly if you are white. People of color are more likely to be directly impacted by the issues at hand, so it’s the responsibility of white protesters to act as allies and to center the voices of BIPOC demonstrators.
While you may have every intention to demonstrate peacefully, realize that protests have the potential to become unsafe quickly. Opposition can range from drive-by hecklers to white supremacists looking to incite violence to intentional police brutality. With tensions high, stay aware—take notice of those around you and how they’re behaving. Avoid engaging with counterprotesters, who are often the source of escalation. And keep an eye on the exits, should you need to leave quickly.
Prepare to encounter law enforcement.
Incidents of police brutality remain common and often targeted or unprovoked. Read up on how to protect yourself from nonlethal weapons officers may carry, like tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons, all of which can cause lasting bodily harm. Remember that you have the right to photograph or videotape police actions, even if officers ask you to stop doing so. While police can order the dispersal of a protest, they should only do so as a last resort if the crowd poses a threat. If you are ordered to disperse and do not, you risk arrest.
Protect fellow protesters’ privacy.
Taking photos and videos at a protest can help spread a movement’s message and capture any violations of your rights. But it’s important to protect the privacy of fellow protesters by refraining from posting photos or videos in which others can be identified.
Slow the spread of COVID-19.
By now, most of us know the best practices to protect against the virus. Bring hand sanitizer to the protest and use it frequently. Mask up and socially distance as much as physically possible. Once you head home, assume that you are now at an elevated risk of spreading the virus, so take precautions to protect anyone around you who is more vulnerable to the virus and get tested if you experience any symptoms.
Support the Cause from Home
Aid protesters in your community and beyond.
Everyone has a role to play. If you’re unable to be out in the streets yourself, you can donate supplies, like hand sanitizer and bottles of water, directly to organizers. Or consider making a financial contribution to local bail funds or organizations like the ACLU that are working to protect your First Amendment rights. (The Community Justice Exchange has a directory of local bail funds, organized by state.) Join your local mutual aid to help build a community-based support system.
Keep up the momentum.
Take your activism to the next level: Through protesting, you’ll learn a lot about community organizing, media outreach, and policy advocacy, which can help you become a more effective environmental champion. As former ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) activist and current clean water advocate Brian Zabcik explained it, “Because our positions were generally unpopular, we learned how to be resilient. Because we sometimes won, we learned how to be occasionally optimistic. And because we couldn’t win without support from other groups, we learned how to form coalitions.”
Contact your elected officials.
It’s also critical to make sure that your representatives in office continue to hear from you by phone or e-mail. Sign petitions that address them directly. Write letters to the editor to share your message with the wider community. And most importantly, keep the long view. Our democracy depends on it.
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