Your Definitive Safety Guide to the Protest Marches: 21 Tips You Need to Know
Like many of you, I am abhorred by the “Unite the Right” rally that resulted in 19 people injured and the death of Heather Heyer. Two Virginia State Police pilots also died in transit to the march. To openly share your voice in dissent in this nation is part of our inalienable rights as human beings and American citizens.
No one wants a violent confrontation when they are marching peacefully. Everyone wants to go home safe at the end of the day. Ms. Heyer’s death is a reminder to all of us that protesting peacefully, as part of nonviolent action, can be dangerous and deadly. With all the technology we have developed, still, there is no statement like a small group of thoughtful citizens committed to changing the world, to paraphrase Margaret Mead. This includes physically standing or marching in protest of a specific concern.
As a security consultant, I am frequently asked how to stay safe while protesting and parents often ask how to keep their teens safe while protesting. I was recently asked about what safety tips I keep in mind when protesting this weekend. Below are safety tips to keep in mind for the various demonstrations and rallies taking place in our current climate.
Before and after the rally take time for self-care. Protesting on topics we are passionate about can be draining emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. Be sure to support these needs by meditating, praying, visualizing a peaceful rally, or releasing negative and draining energy.
Remember to leave weapons at home. Anything that could easily be used as a form of protection, like mace or switchblades, could be viewed a weapon by law enforcement.
Do not touch a police officer or police car. Depending on your geographic area it can be an automatic arrest. There may be a lot of out-of-area cops brought in for marches this weekend. They may be unfamiliar with the area and its citizens.
You will also want to know where law enforcement officers are located. Know where are they standing/walking around, so that if something happens you will know where to go in an emergency. I would suggest also keeping any valuables, large purses, and expensive cameras at home.
Is one location of the march safer than another part? Generally, in large crowds it’s safe to be on the sides for a quick exit if needed. However, that varies depending on the geographical environment and potential threats.
In case something (assault, verbal argument) happens is there a way to make yourself less of a target? If an emergency erupts the best way to make yourself less of a target is to immediately walk away. Don’t run; just walk away quickly. Look for law enforcement and get out of the immediate general area. Additionally, make sure you don’t leave alone.
What do you do if you meet an agitator? As with many marches, or with many rallies or demonstrations, there may be counter protests that occur. If this happens the most important thing is to be respectful. However, if an agitator were to come up to you, remain calm, keep a far enough distance so that they don’t touch you, if they get too close ask them to step away. Say, “back up” in a firm voice. Ask for law enforcement support if needed. Be prepared to move quickly away from a direct threat that maybe in front of you or to the side. Always be aware of what is going on behind you as well. Stay focused on your immediate environment and try not to get sidetracked by your phone or other distractions.
Tips for handling mob mentality in emergency. Pay attention if you hear sirens: Which direction is it coming from? Where is the vehicle going? What happened? Is it a police car or an ambulance? Also, don’t always follow the crowd: Assess what is going on if the crowd stops moving or starts to immediately change direction. Observe a specific action that can justify why you would decide to choose to go with, or against, the rest of the crowd.
Photo of Leshia Evans by Jonathan Bachman
What if law enforcement uses inappropriate force? This is a very common concern for protesters. The best reaction to physical force by a police officer is disengagement. There is nothing more powerful than an iconic image of a protester standing peacefully in front of law enforcement. For example, the above image, by Jonathan Bachman, of protester Ieshia Evans, at a Black Lives Matter rally in Baton Rouge, LA. In that case demonstrators formed a nonviolent blockade. Recording the incident on social media is another option. Though it is legal, several states have proposed making it illegal to videotape law enforcement. Remember that law enforcement does have the latitude to make an arrest based on their discretion.
Carry $50-$100 in cash: If there are arrests, the ACLU recommends carrying cash can help pay for bail. Law enforcement may release you without arraignment if you pay a cash processing fee.
General rules for staying safe while protesting: Don’t go alone. Travel in groups; I can’t stress this enough. First, it won’t be as much fun if you’re alone. Second, anything can happen — your phone battery can die, or you can fall and hurt yourself. These things will be much easier if you have someone by your side. Third, be respectful with protest signs. Be mindful of signs being in people’s way and their visibility to see the stage or potential threats in the immediate area. That could easily be an irritation that can evolve into a miscommunication.
Immediate eruption of violence: If you happen to be in a position where things start to get out of hand, meaning people are pushing and shoving or someone produces a weapon, leave the area immediately. I’m sure there will be law enforcement all over the place; be sure to keep your eye out for where they are and go up to them and let them know what is occurring. This will ensure the safety of everyone and will help to make sure that this march is a success.
Time/Location: Confirm the time/location of the march. Check the weather and wear appropriate clothing.
Look at the map of where the march will start and end. Know where the closest subway stations and parking areas are located. Know where the closest restaurants, banks (ATMs — or bring enough cash) are in relation to where you will be. This will also assist with any bathroom breaks you may need. This can easily be done by accessing Google Maps prior and during the march.
How do I keep my teenager safe who is attending with friends? Your teen should be with a group of people you know and trust. If you don’t know the friends they are going with, perhaps suggest everyone come over your house and have an “impromptu” review of safety tips. Get at least 1–2 of their friend’s phone number. Ask your teen to check in when they arrive at the march and to check in every 90 minutes. This should be easy by utilizing a timer on their phone. Ask them to check in when they leave and are safely traveling back home.
Have a portable way to charge cell phones. If you are an Apple person, a mophie would be a good option. If you have an android carry an extra phone charger. This is especially important if you plan to be out all day. This is even more important for teens checking in with their parents throughout the day.
What protest signs are appropriate? For the most part, all protest signs will probably be appropriate. You may want to keep it upbeat, positive or thought provoking. However, it’s up to the individual. If you’re going to bring a sign, sticking to the themes of what we’ve been hearing and talking about: eradication of hate groups, love trumps hate, black lives matter, promotion of diversity, etc. I think you’ll be fine.
Social media safety: Just remember you may be attending a high-profile march. Something many people will see as a political event whether you do or not. Only post pictures you would feel comfortable with everyone seeing (parents, boss, child). Be mindful of any pictures you wouldn’t want a boss or potential employer to see. This is important for your personal safety as well. Of course, social media has become an important form of documentation for live events, such as the utilization of Periscope or Facebook Live. Again, post what you think is most important while taking these precautions. However, remember that, on some level, you are giving up your right to privacy. It’s possible someone else could unintentionally include you in a photo or video-record you.
What if I am over 65 and I am attending the march? If you have attended many rallies before, you will remember it can be exhausting. Be sure to bring all the medication, and water, you will need for the day. Wear clothing appropriate for the weather. Come with at least one friend; do not come alone. If you have any type of health concerns be sure to wear your medical alert bracelet, or be sure to tell your friend so that they are aware.
What if I have a disability and I am attending the march? If you are attending the march and you have a disability I would stress that you should not attend alone, and that you carry something that lets people know what disability you have or indicates what medication that you’re taking (if any). I’m sure that there may be a specific area for people with wheelchairs.
What is the best source of transportation to get to the march? Review road closures, and traffic patterns for the day of the march.
Most importantly, enjoy, be safe and have fun! No one should feel fearful of protesting especially in the Unites States, debatably the oldest democracy in the world. Protesting is the oldest, and possibly the most important, demonstrated act of civic engagement in this country other than voting. Please send questions, or share incidents and concerns to Jessica@purepoint-international.com.
Jessica Robinson is CEO of PurePoint International and writes frequently on safety and security topics related to holistic security, personal safety, and gender and race.