How to Protest Safely: What to Bring and What to Do
Reproductive rights in America may drastically change before the end of the year. A leaked opinion from the US Supreme Court laid out a path for overturning Roe v. Wade and allowing states to criminalize abortion. Certain legal experts note that the language used in the current draft from Justice Samuel Alito could further erode protections surrounding birth control, gay marriage, and interracial marriage.
This guide to safe protesting was originally written in 2020 during the nationwide outcry over police brutality, which overwhelmingly targets Black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade. Whether you’re marching for racial justice, reproductive rights, or climate conservation, our advice applies to most protests.
If you’re thinking about joining a protest near you, there are some crucial factors to consider: Police brutality is an abstract concept for some but a stark reality for others. There are ways you can contribute if you don’t feel safe protesting or are otherwise unable to physically do so. You can donate money, drop off supplies, or contact local legislators.
That being said, protesting is a right of all Americans under the First Amendment (more on that below). Before you head out, you should know that police across the country have acted with unnecessary force, including driving vehicles through crowds, partially blinding a photojournalist, and macing children. The list goes on and on.
If you still want to join in, we’ve gathered some advice, as well as a list of items you may want to bring with you. Be careful, and stay safe.
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What to Bring (and Not Bring) to a Protest
It’s smart to have supplies on hand for a day of protesting. We recommend the following. You probably have everything you need around the house, and if not, these items will likely be accessible at your local stores. We’ve included some links to online retailers for your reference.
- A bag and/or backpack: You’ll need something small and durable. I, Louryn, use a cheap daypack from Walgreens for most supplies, and I also strap on a belt bag, which I use to hold the essential items I’d need if I were to lose my backpack. Use whatever you have on hand that lets you keep your hands free. If you don’t have anything, we have a list of our favorite fanny packs. And while your bag should be big enough to hold all the supplies you need, be sure to avoid anything too bulky.
- Water: There’s a good chance that your protest will include a march, so you need to pay attention to proper hydration. Carry drinking water. Bring the biggest bottle that you can fit in your bag. Water can also be used to clean wounds and flush the eyes of anyone who’s been hit with chemical gas or pepper spray.
- A face mask or bandana: There’s still a pandemic going on, with over 1 million Americans dead from Covid-19. Take precautions and cover your face with a mask or bandana. Face coverings also have the benefit of shielding your identity from cameras and police surveillance. (We have a separate guide about digital privacy during protests.). Bring an extra mask if you have one.
- A hat and/or sunglasses: Aside from shielding you from the sun during a long day of marching, hats and sunglasses can obscure your face from surveillance and protect your privacy. If you wear a hat, and you’re interested in further protecting your identity, keep the brim low.
- Snacks: You are likely in for a long day. Pack lightweight, nutritious, protein-rich snacks. Jerky, energy bars, and nuts are all good picks.
- Protest signs: If you want to carry a sign, there are some things to consider. Ensure that your slogan is in big, bold letters that can be easily read from far away. Short and punchy sayings are arguably better than a block of script. Poster board is flexible, but stiffer foam board is more durable. You can affix paint-stir sticks or other flat, wooden sticks to the sign using strong tape to create a handle. You might want to make extras to hand out to fellow protesters. Don’t litter—when you’re done with your sign, dispose of it properly, or donate it to another protester.
- Suitable clothing: It’s a good idea to wear all black, both because that’s what the organizers of most solidarity protests suggest and because it helps you blend in with a crowd. It’s also recommended that you cover any tattoos, if you can, and that you hide your hair if it’s dyed a distinctive color.
- A change of clothes: If you’re protesting on a particularly hot day, you may want to have extra clothes. These can also come in handy if you’re exposed to substances that can hurt your skin or if you’re splashed with paint, gross road water, or other people’s sweat. I usually carry a pair of shorts, a tank top, and an extra pair of socks in my backpack.
- Hand sanitizer: You might find yourself holding hands with a stranger, grabbing onto gunky street signs, or tripping and falling into a puddle. All these scenarios coupled with Covid-19 make hand sanitizer an essential thing to carry. Most stores now have at least some form of hand sanitizer in stock, but we also have a guide on making your own.
- Good walking shoes: This is nonnegotiable. Wear closed-toe shoes that are broken in and good for walking long distances.
- Your ID (maybe): If you’re detained, not having your ID on you might keep you stuck for longer. However, in some states, you might not have to show the police your ID if they ask for one. Use your best judgment, and consider looking up the laws for your state for more specific guidance.
- Your phone (maybe): To protect your privacy and prevent surveillance, the best thing you can do is leave your phone at home. Consider using a secondary or burner phone instead. If you want to bring your phone, avoid using traditional phone calls and texts if at all possible. Signal is a secure, end-to-end encrypted messaging app that offers the option to delete messages after they’re sent. You should also disable biometric unlocking, like FaceID or fingerprint features, and use a six-digit passcode instead. If you do need to carry your primary phone, keep it turned off until you absolutely need to use it. This will make it harder for law enforcement to track your movements.
- Cash: Just like your phone can leave digital breadcrumbs indicating your whereabouts, using your debit or credit card will make it easier for the authorities to track your movements. Instead, bring cash. Separate your bills; stash some in your bag, and keep some on your person, either in your shoe, your bra, your pants pockets, or somewhere else secure.
- A power bank: If you or members of your group will have a phone, you need to make sure that you have a way to charge devices. Other protesters may need to charge their gear as well. If you don’t have one already, I really like this option from Anker. The company also makes another good power bank that’s a bit smaller.
- Other things you may want: A cooling towel. Duct tape or gaffer’s tape. A flashlight or a headlamp. Ibuprofen. Goggles. Blister-prevention patches. Extra hair ties. A pen and paper. A Sharpie. A laser pointer. Bandages or other first aid supplies. Ear plugs. Saline solution. Extra face masks. A copy of emergency phone numbers and a card declaring necessary medical information that someone may need to know if you’re unable to tell them yourself (for example, if you have asthma or if you’re hard of hearing). Medications that need to be taken on a schedule (in a labeled prescription bottle if possible) with the understanding that you may be away from home much longer than anticipated.
Before You Leave
We asked some organizers and civil action experts about key things to understand about protesting. Here’s their advice.
Do not go to a protest without knowing what it is you’re fighting for. Don’t show up and ask someone there to educate you. If you’re an ally, do the work yourself and study as much as possible—not only about the actions you’re protesting but the context around them. You might know that reproductive rights are threatened, but do you know about the historical fight for access to abortion in America? There are several books you can read right now to gain more knowledge about this topic.
Realize It’s Not About You
Tony Williams, a member of MPD150, a Minneapolis-based coalition that has studied the history of police activity and seeks police-free alternatives to community safety, shared crucial advice for anyone who is not personally impacted, but wants to attend a protest. “The most important thing to realize—especially if you’re a white person going out for the first time to protest police brutality against Black people—is that you’re showing up in solidarity with other people,” said Williams. “It’s not your job to decide how things should go. It’s your job to show up and listen and be in support. Deprioritizing yourself is an incredibly important part of the experience.” Be prepared to amplify what others are saying. Be prepared to listen. If you aren’t comfortable with potentially physically intervening, shielding vulnerable protesters from police violence, and listening more than you speak, your efforts to be an ally are likely better spent elsewhere.
Get in the Right Mindset
Mental preparation is important. Protesting can be physically grueling and emotional taxing. You may experience sheer joy. You might cry. You might get angry. You might get scared. Most likely, you’ll experience all of the above. Take the time to prepare yourself before heading out. Make sure to drink some water, apply sunscreen, and eat a meal.
Know Your Rights
In the US, it’s entirely within your rights to peacefully demonstrate in public. The basic act of assembling and protesting action by the government is unquestionably protected, according to the First Amendment Coalition, a California-based nonprofit that’s committed to protecting freedom of speech. Also, as a general matter, “people have the right to film or otherwise document things that are happening in the public space,” says David Snyder, director of the FAC. “If police demand that you turn over your notes, I would say that you can assume they don’t have the right to seize that.” That said, if it comes down to a matter of force and you are physically outmatched, you may have to weigh the risks to your immediate personal safety, potentially have your notes or phone stripped from you, and pursue legal action later on. Also, Snyder notes, the First Amendment to the Constitution does not protect protesters who engage in unlawful activity, which includes destroying property or assaulting other people.
Form a Group
If you can avoid it, don’t protest alone. It’s important that you go with at least one other person so you can have each other’s backs. There is strength in numbers. Know your “roles” within the group before you go so you can be prepared for anything. For example, maybe one of you is prepared to drive the group home if the situation gets dicey, maybe one of you has first-aid training, or maybe one of you is hyper-observant and prepared to monitor your surroundings to keep tabs on the vibe. Stay close to your group. Meet up beforehand, stick together the entire time, and leave the protest together. If you don’t have a group, check social media sites—there are probably discussions where you can find people to meet up with locally.
Make a Plan
There will be a lot of people and a lot of emotions. You need to have a plan for what to do if the situation escalates. Pick a spot to meet if your group gets separated for a certain amount of time. (For example, if you get separated for more than 30 minutes, you meet back at a designated street corner.) It might be smart to have a few spots to meet at in case one is inaccessible. You should also have multiple routes planned for if you need to leave and streets are blocked off. Is there a curfew where you live? Have previous protests in your city escalated to violence? Will there be portable bathrooms stationed along the route, or should you map out places to relieve yourself after chugging water all day? Prep a plan.
Take Out Your Contact Lenses
If you’re exposed to tear gas or pepper spray, contacts will make the experience much worse. Wear glasses if you have them. If you wear contacts, protect your eyes with sunglasses at the minimum, though ideally you’ll be wearing goggles or keeping them handy. For the same reason, avoid wearing makeup or oil-based products like lotions, as the irritants in dispersion measures deployed by police can stick to them.
Write Down Emergency Numbers
Write down your emergency contacts’ information. Write down the number of emergency legal counsel—several law firms offer pro bono representation for arrested protesters. Research the firms in your area. You may also want to write down the number of a local bond fund. You should have two copies of these phone numbers on your person—write them in the notepad stashed in your bag, on the hem of your shirt, or on a notecard that you keep in your pocket. As a redundancy, you can also write them somewhere on your body (like your forearms), preferably in permanent marker.
While You’re at the Protest
Once you arrive and join in with your fellow protesters, follow this advice on how to behave and how to stay safe.
Study Your Surroundings
You can designate a certain person in your group to make this a top priority, but regardless of who you’re with, you should maintain awareness of what’s going on around you. This is important for numerous reasons. Is someone wearing steel-toed boots, a colored armband, and a hearing device, and also showing the outline of handcuffs in their pocket? That person might be an undercover cop. Is someone carrying a bag of supplies emblazoned with a big red cross? They might be a street medic. Did a protester fall down and get hurt while marching? Open eyes and ears will help you react more quickly when needed.
Help Those Around You
If you’re marching, you’re probably going to be in close proximity to a few dozen other protesters. These are the people you’ll be chanting with, walking with, and closest to if the situation escalates. Be friendly with them. Offer them water if you’ve got extra, or hold their stuff while they tie their shoes. Solidarity can start small. Remember that you’re in a massive crowd; assume your actions are being watched and that your words are being listened to.
Consider the Ethics of Taking Photos
It is your right to take photos at any protest in the streets or on public property. However, a protest is not a social media photo op. You should avoid taking photos of protesters that clearly show identifying information like their faces or their tattoos, since those photos could make them vulnerable to abuse or retaliation. Law enforcement may also respond with force if you point your camera at them, even though it is well within your rights to film their actions.
A Note on Engaging With the Police
If you’re white, you can use your privilege to your advantage. Your presence in the crowd can prevent more police brutality against people of color and Black people in particular. You can shield people of color with your body if necessary and if you’re comfortable doing it. You can also film arrests and police activity in general—it’s your right to do so. But we can’t prepare you for every situation you’ll encounter. Study up on the effects of the nonlethal weapons that could be used against you. Do what makes you comfortable and what makes sense at the time.
What to Avoid
When you’re protesting, the actions you don’t take can be just as important as the actions you do. Here’s some advice about what not to do while demonstrating.
Humans, just like other animals, can be profoundly influenced by this tricky thing called collective behavior. When you’re in a group, your brain takes cues from said group, and you’ll react to things based on how the group reacts. This is why, if someone starts running while you’re in a crowd, you automatically get the urge to run as well. You might not even know why they’re running, but a message in your brain says, “OK, it’s time to go.” Running also draws attention to yourself and those around you, which isn’t ideal at a demonstration where protesters are being targeted for violence. For these reasons, it’s important that you refrain from running while protesting—you might incite a panic, hurt someone, or hurt yourself. If you need to move quickly, that’s OK, but try to avoid running if you can help it. If you need to leave the larger group, move quickly and calmly to the edge of the crowd, out of the throng of people. When returning home, try to find a side street or a route that’s out of the way, and stay with your smaller group.
Don’t Police Other People’s Behavior
You are going to see a lot of folks behaving in a lot of different ways. If somebody’s behavior makes you uncomfortable to the point that you’re considering asking a fellow protester to stop doing something, it’s time to leave. This includes emotional public speaking, tagging, looting, or provoking the police. If you aren’t comfortable with what’s happening, take that as your cue to head home.
Don’t Participate in Protest Tourism
Do not travel to another location to protest. Now is the time to strengthen your ties with your own community. You can still donate to organizations in locations close to your heart, but when it comes to physical actions, your energy and efforts are best spent within your own locale.
What to Do If …
We can’t prepare you for every possible scenario. In unknown situations, your common sense and your best judgment should guide you. But for the circumstances listed below, these tips may help you form a plan.
… You’re Exposed to Tear Gas
Tear gas is a thick, powdery fog that sticks to moisture like saliva, sweat, tears, and mucous membranes and causes an intense burning sensation. If gas is used, it’s important to stay calm, because panicking will worsen the effects. Follow airplane rules: Help yourself before helping others. If a tear gas canister is deployed, move away from the cloud, quickly and calmly. Try to keep your breathing slow and even. If you’re able, try to help those around you move away from the cloud. Tear gas is heavier than air and eventually falls, so move to higher ground if you’re able.
You’ll need to flush out your eyes. The best thing to use for this is water. Protesters and street medics have used what’s called a LAW solution, which is a mixture of 50 percent unflavored liquid antacid and 50 percent water. Protesters and street medics have also used a baking soda solution consisting of a teaspoon of baking soda for every 8.5 ounces of water. These solutions are fully effective only if they are thoroughly mixed. Blinking rapidly encourages natural tear production and can help flush the eyes. Do not use milk; it’s less effective, can spoil quickly, and can cause infections, especially in eyes. You should also blow your nose and spit—and avoid sniffing or swallowing, as this may worsen symptoms. Change your clothing as soon as possible. Take a shower as soon as possible too, but use cold water, as hot water can make the burning sensation worse.
… You’re Exposed to Pepper Spray
Some of the same advice applies here. Move away quickly and try to remain as calm as you can. Change your clothes as soon as you can. Avoid touching your face or any other area that was exposed. Pepper spray is oil-based, so it can be trickier to remove, and it spreads over the skin easily. Water will help with symptoms, but it won’t remove the irritating oils. LAW solution, baking soda solution, or diluted “no tears” shampoo are more effective.
… You Encounter a Violent Police Officer
Say as little as possible. You are not obligated to have a conversation with the police. In most states, you need to give an officer your name and address if they ask for it. This is why it’s important to look up the specific laws for your location before the protest. Stay calm, keep your hands where officers can see them, and consider filming the interaction as unobtrusively as possible as a safeguard. You may be able to make a plan with the members of your group where those not involved in a police encounter can film it as a bystander. Try to write down or remember the officer’s badge number and any defining characteristics (like height, eye color, or tattoos) if the badge number isn’t visible.
… You Encounter the National Guard
Listen to and follow the orders being dictated by the National Guard. If you are planning to engage in civil disobedience, be prepared for the very realistic scenario of encountering crowd-dispersal measures like tear gas or less-lethal rifle rounds, and getting detained or arrested. Understand the consequences that may pertain to you specifically; if you’re undocumented, a person of color, or belong to any marginalized group, your course of action here may be different from that of a white protester. Use common sense, take cues from the protest organizers, and keep your safety and the safety of others around you in mind.
… You’re Arrested or Detained
Since you did your research before you left, and you know your rights, you’re prepared for this. According to the ACLU, you should say you wish to remain silent, and immediately ask for a lawyer. Do not resist arrest, even if you think what’s happening is unfair. Write down the badge number of your arresting officer, if possible. Ask for a phone call. Note that arrests during protests don’t always follow the typical pattern of arrests that might ensue from something like a traffic stop. You might be left waiting for hours without access to a phone. You might not have any information about what’s going to happen next, or when. Try to stay as calm as possible, and follow instructions given to you. If needed, you can pursue legal action once you’re home and safe.
… You See Someone Getting Arrested
If you witness an arrest or police brutality happening in public, you have a right to film it. Do not intervene physically, and do not try to hide the fact that you are recording. If you’re white, your presence alone may deter additional police brutality, and filming interactions may further bolster that deterrence.
After the Protest
If you were motivated by a specific cause or call to action, don’t just go home after you’ve marched and consider it done. Follow up with the organizers and ask if there’s more action to take or how you might continue to push local leaders toward policies you consider more just. Even if you weren’t able to show up in person, there’s still a lot you can do from home, says Lila Eltawely, who sits on the board of the Minneapolis-based advocacy group Reviving Sisterhood. “Buying supplies and food for people who are on the ground works too. It’s all a chain,” she says. “Protesting is on a spectrum. Some of us have the ability to go outside and hold up a sign, and some of us are not able to. So whatever helps the overall goal of the current situation helps.”
Additional reporting by Reece Rogers.