How to Stay Safe During a Protest

woman wearing mask protesting

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When George Floyd was killed recently, 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, and in other incidences, they were chaotic and dangerous.

And although you may attend a protest expecting it to be peaceful, this is not always the case. Protests, regardless of the intention behind them, attract all types of people each with different motives. So, things can quickly turn from an atmosphere of solidarity and purpose to one of chaos and uncertainty.

This article will help you understand your rights, how you can prepare in advance, and provide tips on 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. For this reason, they advise 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.

Keep in mind though that private property owners can set rules for speech on their property. So, you shouldn't try to stage a protest on someone else's 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 counterprotesters 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, the ACLU indicates that the 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 people 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

Additionally, 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.

Also, 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, it's important to 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. Here are a few suggestions on things you can do to prepare in advance.

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 the numbers on their bodies with a permanent marker is the best option in the event someone's phone gets lost or broken.

You should also discuss where you will meet if you get separated and how you plan to exit the protest area if things turn chaotic. And, 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 what special instructions they offer 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 backup 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 or other groups.

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 consider volunteering 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 the 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. Here are some suggestions on things you should consider taking with you:

Health and Safety Items

Protesting during the COVID-19 pandemic poses some unique health and safety concerns that you need to address. Here are some things you might consider bringing along:

  • Face coverings. As hot as it is, it's still important to cover your nose and mouth with a mask to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19. Consider bringing a few extra masks as well 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 of preventing the spread of the coronavirus. So, be sure you have enough to get you through the day.
  • Water bottle with soapy water. According to the NYC health department, you can use the soapy water to rinse off any 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 packing some pain relievers and a few bandages, make sure you pack your 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. So be sure to 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. So, you may be walking a good distance before you get to your destination. Here are some personal items you should consider bringing with you:

  • Identification. Although you don't need to bring your entire wallet, it is important that you have the 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, you should bring your water in an insulated cup with a squirt top. And, you should avoid sharing it with other people. Also, you can fill up a spray bottle with water to help keep you cool.
  • Snacks. Consider packing 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.

Special Considerations

This summer presents some additional dangers for protesters as the country wrestles with how to contain the coronavirus. If you're planning to attend a protest, it's important that you take steps to protect yourself from getting the coronavirus.

Social Distancing

Even though it's not always easy, if you can stay socially distanced from people you do not know, this will help you stay safer and reduce the risk of getting COVID-19.

Try to be mindful of where you're standing to make sure you can stay as far from people as possible. If you're unable to, make sure you keep your mask on and refrain from unnecessary contact with other, even friends and family.

Keep Clothing and Personal Items Clean

Other steps you can take to protect yourself include bringing a change of clothes to change into before you get home. You can place your dirty clothes in a garbage bag and load them into the washer when you get home. Or, keep them in the bag until you get to the laundromat.

Once you get home, leave your shoes outside or disinfect them. You also should take a shower and wash your face as soon as you can. Although taking these steps is not going to do much to keep you from getting COVID-19, they do help you protect anyone in your home that did not attend the protest.

Limit Shouting

The NYC Health Department suggests that protesters use noisemakers, drums, and written signs to communicate their messages. They urge people to limit how much they yell or chant in order to reduce possible exposure to others. Keep in mind that shouting is like coughing and could potentially spread the virus from anyone who is asymptomatic.

A Word From Verywell

Protesting comes with varying risks depending on the area, the situation, and the cause. Consequently, it's important to know how to stay safe in any situation, especially when you're protesting during a pandemic.

And while there are things you can do to reduce your risks, you need to realize that even though you fully intend to protest peacefully, this does not guarantee your safety from injury or illness. For this reason, it's important that if you decide to protest, that you do everything you can to protect yourself.

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Article 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. Published 2020.

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

  3. NYC Health Department. How to Protest Safely During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Published June 8, 2020.