The right to go out and make your voice heard without fear of retaliation or censorship is fundamental to democracy in the United States. Free expression of one’s beliefs is encoded in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which generally protects free speech, freedom of/from religion, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. Protesting – a time-honored practice of speaking out against perceived injustices – is a form of free speech and assembly and thus is protected by the Constitution. Whether you’re headed out in dissent or support, you should know what you’re getting into before you go.
Even if you think the protest is purely peaceful, others may not. Rogue groups like anarchists, paid inciters of violence, the police or solo up-to-no-gooders may all have a different idea. Before you head out to protest, you need to be prepared for anything that might happen. These tips are intended to keep you comfortable and safe but are not intended to replace listening to and following police direction, leaving an area if it gets unsafe or simply using common sense. Even the most peaceful protests can turn dangerous in an instant and people on any side can be injured or worse. Here is how to protest safely and legally.
Know Your Rights as a Protestor
The most important thing you can do before you join a protest is research. Foremost, you need to understand what rights you do and do not have. For example, The First Amendment give you the right to assembly, it does not, however, give you the right to gather anywhere you wish. The First Amendment limits the government from infringing on peaceful assembly in public places. When you’re in a large crowd of people marching it’s very easy to inadvertently go from a public space to a private one and find yourself in trouble with the police.
Know the organization holding the protest. Do they have a strong history of non-violent protest? Is the protest planned for a safe, easily accessible space?
Pick your words and battles carefully. You may be well within your rights standing where you are, but if you’re staring down a dozen police officers who want you to move, you’re fighting a losing battle. Sometimes it is better to comply with police direction first and argue the infringement of your rights later. You can’t help your cause if you’re injured or dead.
Here are a couple of good resources for dealing with police:
Know Your Rights Cards
Print out these cards and keep them in your wallet. They are an invaluable resource if you do find yourself in police custody.
Tips for Talking to the Police
It’s not uncommon for police to try and search cell phones or other devices at protests. This helpful quick sheet from the Electronic Frontier Foundation will help you understand your rights surrounding search and seizure requests from the police.
What to Wear to a Protest
- Wear tough and comfortable shoes. You’ll be standing for a long time and may be marching. Wear something that can get stomped on and still allow you to run if you have to.
- Put on layers. Layers not only allow you to easily adjust for temperature they also protect your skin and body. Long sleeves and long pants protect you from exposure to wind, sun, and rain. And if things go south, full coverage is a barrier between you and chemical agents and weapons.
- Bring shatter resistant goggles or glasses. These are especially important if you plan to be up front. These will protect your eyes from spit, rubber bullets, and pepper spray or tear gas for long enough to get our of a gnarly situation.
- Wear a backpack. Do not carry a wallet in your back pocket. A large crowd is a target for pickpockets. Carry a backpack instead. It’s also good protection of your core if things turn sour. Some protestors opt to carry a second backpack over their stomach as further protection, but I find that to inhibit comfort and mobility.
Note that I didn’t mention a gas mask. When putting on items like goggles or a gas mask, you start to toe the line between being prepared and giving the message that you expect trouble. In my opinion, putting on a gas mask is like putting on a target for the police. It’s also important to note that most gas masks don’t even offer protection from tear gas in the first place.
What to Bring to a Protest
In addition to identification and any permits you may be required to carry, it’s important to pack properly for a protest. Unless you’re a journalist or photographer, leave the delicate and fragile equipment at home. Pack only the absolute minimum you need to establish your identity, buy food or make a phone call if needed, and take care of yourself or your friends in any situation. Here’s what should go in your backpack.
- A simple first-aid kit. Even if things stay perfectly peaceful you will be in a large crowd. People fall, bump into each other or things, etc…
- Essential medications. Are you allergic to anything? Bring an epipen. Asthmatic? Don’t leave without a rescue inhaler. Bring along some eye drops, Benadryl and ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
- Baby wipes. Perfect for staying clean, removing spit, sweat, etc… Perfect for wiping your skin and face if you are exposed to gas or pepper spray. Avoid lotions or wipes with lotion as the oil can actually make chemicals stick to your skin.
- Paper and permanent markers. Just in case you need to document names, badge numbers, etc… Worst case scenario a marker will allow you to write on skin.
- Snacks and plenty of water.
- A bandana. If you do get tear gassed, a bandana soaked with vinegar can provide enough relief to remove yourself from the area without getting trampled.
The underlying story here is to bring as little as possible. You could be detained or in an emergency have to leave your belongings behind.
What You Should Not Bring to a Protest
- Don’t bring expensive camera equipment. Your phone is plenty good at shooting stills or video, don’t risk a DSLR at a protest unless you’re media. It’s a target for theft, an impediment to movement and can easily get damaged in a crowd.
- Anything that can be interpreted as a weapon. If police search you and find something they can interpret as a weapon you’re not going to have a good time. If you’re going to a protest thinking you might use a weapon, stay home. (includes swiss army knives, multi-tools, tactical pens, etc…)
- Anything illegal. Leave things like illicit drugs at home, unless you like getting arrested and diluting the message of your cause. This includes alcohol.
- Remove trash. Trash left from a protest is the oldest tool in the discreditor’s toolbox, don’t make it easy for them. If you brought it in, pack it out.
Know When to Leave a Protest
This might be the most important part of safely and legally protesting. You have to know when to pack up and leave so that you can fight the good fight another day. In a large crowd, it’s very easy to get caught up in the action, become part of the pack mentality and let things get out of hand. Don’t let the loudest voice in the crowd incite you to violence and don’t let paid actors rile you up. If a localized scuffle breaks out, know that the police will be coming, remove yourself to another area of the protest before they intervene. If the tone of the protest and the people around you start changing for the worse (people wearing all black with covered faces is a bad sign) remove yourself before things get bad. Read the signs and use common sense.
Don’t go toe to toe with the police. You will lose. Don’t antagonize officers or other protestors. You will go to jail. Don’t start an altercation with the opposition. You’ll just make trouble for everyone and hurt your message.
The important things to know if you’re going to go out and enjoy your right to protest safely and legally is to be smart, prepared, ready to listen to police direction and ready to get out of there on a seconds notice. Your goal should be to protest peacefully, protect yourself and be ready for whatever may happen.