11 Tips for Safely Attending Peaceful Protests
Take care of yourself and your fellow protestors while you’re supporting your cause.
In the last week, millions of Americans spoke out against racism and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement—and stepped out into the streets for protests, marches, and candlelight vigils in honor of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and thousands of other Black Americans killed in race-related incidents.
The First Amendment in the U.S. Bill of Rights guarantees the right of the people to assemble peacefully and protest, but raising your voice right now may still feel a little riskier than it did in the past. While there have been thousands of peaceful protests, at others, police attacked protestors with tear gas, rubber bullets, and police batons—and looters vandalized property. Plus, with COVID-19 still on the rise in many states, being in close quarters with thousands of other people during a protest could put you at risk of contracting the illness.
Don’t let those concerns keep you from participating in anti-racist protests, equal rights marches, or protests for other causes. With a little prep and care, you can protect your health while you’re protecting the rights of others. Here’s the lowdown on how to protest safely now, if you are able.
Important details about city-wide events are usually posted on social media and websites—check Facebook’s Events tab or groups like Black Lives Matter that are associated with the cause. At many protests and marches, organizers will encourage attendees to sign up for email newsletters and mailing lists; this is another way to stay up to date on future protests, marches, and other ways to support the cause.
Organizers' event posts will give you an idea of logistics (where to park, march route, timing, and names of any speakers), along with any rules about what’s allowed, if the protest is being coordinated in conjunction with local authorities.
Carrying several pounds of gear could weigh you down over miles of marching, so stash a few essentials in a backpack to leave your arms free.
What to bring to a peaceful protest:
- Your phone (Tip: Disable your phone’s biometric fingerprint or facial recognition ID capabilities if you’re concerned about police being able to access info, videos, or photos on your phone if you’ve been arrested.)
- Extra phone power bank to recharge your device
- Water bottle (a squirt top makes it easy to use it to wash away tear gas or pepper spray)
- Cash (for cabs, food, etc.)
- Hand sanitizer and wipes
- Face mask (and at least one spare)
- Granola, protein bars, or other nonperishable snacks
- First aid items, like adhesive bandages and pain relievers
- Small umbrella (can be used rain or shine, to keep you dry and cool)
- Pen and paper
It’s also smart to have goggles to protect your eyes if tear gas, pepper spray, or another irritant is released.
Choose sturdy walking shoes or boots that will protect your feet—the odds of someone accidentally stepping on your feet are pretty high. Dress in light layers, which allow you to peel off layers as the day gets warmer. A hat and sunglasses provide sun protection and potential protection against tear gas or pepper spray.
If you’re concerned about the possibility of tear gas or pepper spray, Amnesty International recommends skipping contact lenses and oil-based sunscreens, lotions, or moisturizers, which could allow the chemicals to stick to your eyes and your skin. A wet bandana worn over the mouth and nose could help minimize the impact of tear gas on your airways.
If you’re arrested or injured, you may not have access to your phone. Protest groups suggest writing your contact info on your arm with a Sharpie so you know it’s always available to you. Make sure the person you call can get in touch with loved ones or a lawyer, depending on what you might need.
Lightweight foam board is sturdy enough to make your protest sign easy to display and is easy to carry for hours. Come up with a message that resonates for you. The shorter the message, the better, so you can make it easier to read from a distance. Consider making a second sign you can share with a fellow protestor.
If at all possible, go with a few friends (or at least one other buddy). Plan ahead and arrange meeting spots along the march route in case you get separated from your group.
Expect most protests to be very well attended. You may need to park farther away from the march route to attend—that will also make it easier for you to head out if you aren’t parked in the thick of the protest area.
If you’re planning to use rideshares, cabs, or public transportation, make a plan B in case the protest shuts down your method of transport.
COVID-19 is still an issue, and you’ll want to help protect yourself and others. Spare masks allow you to change it out if your mask gets too sweaty or you encounter tear gas or pepper spray. (If you bring extras, you can share with a fellow protester, if someone forgot theirs or had theirs compromised.)
While the outdoor setting helps, attending these events does increase the risk of exposure to coronavirus.
“It will be very difficult to social distance, so even with a mask, there is some risk of potential exposure,” says Michelle Barron, MD, medical director for infection prevention and control at UCHealth in Aurora, Colo. “Additionally, because of varying temperatures and wind currents, individuals wearing masks are more likely to be adjusting them and may inadvertently contaminate them.”
Many recent rallies and protests have tried to enforce social distancing to help reduce the risk, but there are additional steps you can take. “If feasible, attempting to maintain social distancing in addition to wearing a mask is ideal,” Dr. Barron says. “Liberal use of hand sanitizer is also important. Also, trying to not adjust your mask frequently or touch your face and eyes with unclean hands.”
The Constitution protects your right to peacefully protest and your freedom of speech, and there are limitations on how the police can interact with you. Police do not have the authority to search you, and you are allowed to take photos, videos, or notes without the police confiscating them. If police stop you, you have a right to ask if you’re free to go—and if you’re arrested, you have a right to know why.
The ACLU has a full guide to your rights during a protest, and what to do if your rights are violated. (Basically—write down as much information as you can, including the police officer’s badge number and name.)
If you can’t make it to a protest, there are still ways to take part. Donate to funds that post bond for protesters who have been arrested, or provide masks, water, and food for protesters. Offer rides to and from the rally. Contact your representatives to let them know your stance on the issue and urge action. Write letters to the editor at your local paper, or create signs to post in your yard or for other protesters to carry. Join grassroots organizations and volunteer in initiatives such as phone banking and texting, voter registration drives, or fundraising. You don’t have to be present at a rally or protest to do your part to support the cause.