How to Stay Safe During a Protest

BIPOC protestors

Verywell / Nez Riaz

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When George Floyd was killed, countless Americans took to the streets to protest his death and bring awareness to racism in the United States. In some cases, the protests were peaceful and unifying. In others, they were chaotic and dangerous.

Protests, regardless of the intention behind them, attract all types of people, each with different motives. Things can quickly turn from an atmosphere of solidarity and purpose to one of chaos and uncertainty. Before you participate, understand your rights, prepare in advance, and know how to stay safe at a protest.

Know Your Rights

The First Amendment protects your right to assemble and express your thoughts and opinions in the form of a protest.

Where You Can Protest

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), it's important to know that the police and other government officials are allowed to place certain restrictions on the exercise of those speech rights. The ACLU advises protesting in "traditional public forums," such as streets, sidewalks, and parks.

You also can speak out in front of government buildings as long as you're not blocking access to the building or interfering with the other purposes of the building. Private property owners can set rules for speech on their property. So you shouldn't stage a protest on private property, including a privately-owned business. Stick to the sidewalks and other public areas if you want your message to be heard.

The Police May Get Involved

It's also important to remember that counter-protesters have free speech rights too. Although the police must treat both groups of protesters equally, they are allowed to keep two opposing groups separated, especially if there are safety concerns.

Likewise, police are permitted to break up a gathering if there is "clear and present danger of a riot, disorder, interference with traffic, or other immediate threat to public safety." But they must clearly inform protesters of the dispersal order, including how much time they have to disperse, the consequences if they refuse, and what exit route they can follow, before ordering them to leave or arresting them.

You're Allowed to Take Photos

When you are lawfully present in any public space, you have the right to photograph anything in plain view, including federal buildings and the police. On private property, the owner can set rules related to videos and photos. So if you are on private property you must abide by their rules. Breaking them could result in issues for you.

Police are not allowed to confiscate or demand to see your photos or videos without a warrant. They also cannot delete any of your data under any circumstance. But they can order people to cease activities like these if they are interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations.

How to Prepare For a Protest

If you are thinking of joining a protest, think it through and make plans to stay safe. While it's important to show support and have your voice heard, it's equally important to ensure you are making good decisions.

Go With Other People

Amnesty International suggests that if you are going to protest, it's best to go with a friend or a small group. Likewise, make sure you have everyone's contact information. Some people find that writing these numbers on their bodies with a permanent marker is the best option in the event someone's phone gets lost or broken.

Discuss where you will meet if you get separated and how you plan to exit the protest area if things turn chaotic. If you are not able to attend the protest but still want to support your friends, you could offer to be someone's offsite contact should something happen, like they're injured or arrested.

Make Informed Decisions

Before attending a protest, make sure you know who is organizing it and what the plan is. Also, make sure the group you join is promoting a cause that you support and is not giving mixed messages.

Think about the risks, opportunities, and legal implications in order to weigh the pros and cons of participating. You also want to be sure you know about instructions like where to meet, park, and so on.

You should also consider whether you want to bring your mobile phone with you. While having a phone is a good safety measure, it also can be used to infringe on your privacy, especially if your phone is set to tag your location in photos and videos.

As a safety measure, you may want to be sure your phone is password protected. You can disable your fingerprint and face recognition capabilities for signing in. This way, no one can access your phone without the passcode.

Be sure to back up your phone and delete anything that you don't need to have with you. You can always put the information back on your phone later if you need to.

Find Other Ways to Lend Support

If you are unable to attend a protest due to work, health concerns, or childcare issues, there are still ways for you to participate. For instance, you can support an organization that helps protesters with needs like bond funds.

Another way to support the protest is to provide snacks and water for the people that you know who will be attending. You could even put together small care packages with a few first aid items like bandages and pain reliever.

You also could write letters to your local representatives urging them to take action. Or, you could volunteer with local organizations by running a phone bank or raising funds. The key is that you don't have to be present at a protest or rally to support a cause.

What to Take With You

When it comes to attending a protest, the key to staying safe is to be prepared. One way to do that is to make sure you not only pack light but that you bring things that you will truly need.

Health and Safety

Bring items that can help protect your health and safety during a protest. You might consider:

  • Face coverings. A face mask that covers your nose and mouth can help prevent the spread of illness. Consider bringing a few masks so that you have extras should one get dirty or contaminated.
  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Keeping your hands clean is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of illness. Be sure you have enough to get you through the day.
  • Water bottle with soapy water. According to the New York City health department, you can use the soapy water to rinse off contaminants like pepper spray. Of course, after rinsing with the soapy water, you will need to rinse with plain water as well.
  • Medications. In addition to pain relievers and a few bandages, make sure you pack personal medications like inhalers and epi-pens.
  • Sun protection. Regardless of whether it's a sunny day or not, it's important to protect your skin. Bring sunscreen, lip balm, a hat, and possibly even an umbrella to provide some shade.

Personal Items

It's important to pack light, especially because you will likely have to walk a long distance. Protests are usually attended by a lot of people,

  • Identification. Although you don't need to bring your entire wallet, it is important that you have necessities like your state-issued ID or driver's license. You also will need your insurance cards in case there is an emergency.
  • Plenty of water. Ideally, bring your water in an insulated cup with a squirt top. Avoid sharing it with other people. Consider filling up a spray bottle with water to help keep you cool.
  • Snacks. Try granola bars, protein bars, or other non-perishable snacks. Choose something lightweight and portable that will sustain you until you can eat an actual meal.
  • Cash. Having a small amount of cash on hand is important, especially if you need to take a cab or buy a snack or water from a local vendor. There is no guarantee that you will be able to use a credit card.
  • Portable charger for your phone. If you decide to bring your phone with you, be sure that you have a portable charger and cord as well. There likely won't be a lot of places to charge your phone should it die, so you should have a backup of your own.
  • Glasses. Amnesty International advises people not to wear contact lenses due to the risks associated with tear gas and pepper spray. Likewise, you may want to consider wearing shatterproof swim goggles if you think you will be in an area where tear gas is likely.

A Word From Verywell

Protesting comes with varying risks depending on the area, the situation, and the cause. While there are things you can do to reduce your risks, realize that even though you fully intend to protest peacefully, this does not guarantee your safety from injury or illness. It's important that if you decide to protest, you do everything you can to protect yourself.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Know Your Rights: Protesters’ Rights.

  2. Amnesty International. The Right to Protest: Resource Packet for Staff and Members.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). COVID-19: How to Protect Yourself and Others. Published March 8, 2021.

  4. New York City Health Department. How to Protest Safely During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Published November 4, 2020.