The United States has a long, ugly history of police brutality, specifically and overwhelmingly targeted toward black people. In the wake of last week’s killing by Minneapolis police officers of the unarmed black man George Floyd, and in response to the recent killings by police of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Tony McDade in Florida, solidarity protests have erupted nationwide.
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 up some advice, as well as a list of items you may want to bring with you. This advice applies to most protests, but we’ve also included specific information regarding solidarity protests with Black Lives Matter and similarly aligned groups. Be careful, and stay safe.
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What to Bring (and Not to 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 $10 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. Temperatures are climbing across the country, and you’ll likely be chanting, 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. 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. And if you don’t have an extra, here’s how to make a cloth face mask.
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.
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 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 a non-black 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 a senseless tragedy took place, but do you know about the history behind the countless other events like it? This Twitter thread offers some excellent guidance. There are also several books you can read to gain more knowledge about racial justice.
Realize It’s Not About You
“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,” says 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. “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,” Williams says. If you aren’t black, you shouldn’t be speaking over black protesters. Think about that. Be prepared to amplify what others are saying. Be prepared to listen. If you aren’t comfortable with potentially physically intervening, shielding black 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 against 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 are offering 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 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 Peoples’ Behaviors
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.