How to prepare for a protest in the US

Try to stay safe, aware and ready at all times while demonstrating.

by Douglas Greenwood
03 June 2020, 9:20am

As protests in reaction to the many black people killed by police officers (most recently George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Ahmaud Abery) continue to be staged across America and around the world, violence from the police and the military remains an imminent threat.

The reactions from police in the US have been extreme and perhaps the most naked display of state violence in the country in years. Countless horrifying acts by those policing the protests have been captured on camera, from arresting and shooting at journalists, to brutally dragging peaceful protestors through the streets and [warning: violent video] tearing off their masks to spray them with pepper spray.

The UK is far from immune to such systemic abuse of police power. The deaths of Mark Duggan, Rashan Charles, Edson Da Costa, Sarah Reed and countless others are directly linked to the excessive use of force implemented by British police. Those in power continually fail to protect black people in this country. The recent death of Belly Mujinga -- who was spat at while working and later died of coronavirus -- is a testament to that. In London, and across the country, many plan to march in solidarity with those doing the same across America, while highlighting the UK’s own urgent need for change.

There are some dangers involved, many unavoidable, in protesting in the US right now. The risks are twofold: violence and mass surveillance from the police force, and the health implications of mass demonstrations during lockdown. Anyone attending one of the forthcoming protests needs to be prepared for what’s to come. Here are some tips on how you can do that, whether you’re facing violence or navigating a crowd in the midst of a pandemic. Remember to read widely and often. The current situation is shifting faster every day.

To protect yourself from harm

Hide your face
Surveillance through CCTV and body cameras on police officers is rife in areas of protest. Obscuring your face helps to avoid being detected and traced. In the US, The Drug Enforcement Administration has been given the power to investigate people attending the current protests, as of last Sunday, as per a two-page memorandum obtained by BuzzFeed News. Facial recognition is being used by the Met Police in London (despite the fact its reliability is poor) so obscure your identity as greatly as possible.

Wear nondescript clothing
As mentioned above, surveillance cameras and undercover police units will use your clothing and any tattoos as a marker if they’re looking for you. Wear plain, block colours that cover any markers on your body. Blend in.

Protect your eyes
The protests Stateside, particularly in New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, have seen police forces and the National Guard using physical violence against those participating as a deterrent. Tear gas and rubber bullets are common weapons. In areas where these are being deployed, wearing eye coverings -- many people are suggesting safety goggles -- helps to prevent debilitating tear gas or permanent eye damage. Protestors in the US have already felt the effects of this.

Bring plenty of water
Stay hydrated -- that’s simple. But also be prepared to have to remedy the effects of tear gas and pepper spray should they be used against you. Tear gas is more common in the US than the UK, but the Met Police did come close to implementing it during the 2011 riots after Mark Duggan’s death and it’s not illegal in either country. A water bottle with a nozzle is best. According to the CDC, if you or someone you’re with is attacked with noxious sprays or gases, tell them to blink it out as much as possible, then hold their eyelid open (with clean hands) while spraying clean water from the inner corner of your eye pointing outwards. Continue for 10-15 minutes. If pepper spray is used, follow the same steps. Studies show that baby shampoo is not always effective to break down the oils in the pepper spray formula, despite claims. Milk is also not proven to be more effective than water, and as it's not sterile, could cause an infection.

Avoid wearing contact lenses
Tear gas and pepper spray stick to contact lenses, intensifying the burn rather than shielding your eyes from them. Avoid wearing them, and if you’re attacked with pepper spray or tear gas, remove them before rinsing.

Protest alongside people you know and trust
Stick with a tight group of people who know where you are at all times. It’s easier for you to keep track of a handful of people rather than a horde of them. Make sure you know where your friends are being taken to, should they be arrested.

Write down your emergency contacts
If you are arrested or injured, you will need to ensure that you have a way of getting in contact with someone who can help you. Write this down on your arm in a strong marker to ensure you don’t lose it or that it can be confiscated from you. For those in America, this is a helpful list of pro bono lawyers who will help protestors.

Take any arresting officer’s names and badge numbers
Brutal tactics are being used that can cause injury to anybody who’s arrested. It’s important we hold these people to account. If you are arrested, ensure you or someone close to you takes down the arresting officers’ name and badge number, and that you document all injuries in the process.

Keep your phone on airplane mode and disable touch/face ID
Digital surveillance is terrifying and commonplace. Keep your phone on airplane mode while protesting. Be near those you need to be in contact with instead. In the US, it’s against the law for police officers to ask you to open your phone using Face ID, but that doesn’t rule out opportunism and a bending of the rules in a high pressure situation. While they can hold your phone to your face, they cannot ask you to forfeit your passcode as, in the US, it’s a violation of the fourth amendment. Ensure you’ve switched over everything before you arrive at a protest. Opening your phone may lead others to become police targets too.

Be careful when taking photographs and videos
Police can scour metadata to find out information about protestors after images have been posted online, so ensure you aren’t posting pictures that reveal faces. A guide on how to do that can be found here. Make sure that what you’re documenting captures injustice, but does not show the face of any protestor who may risk repercussions if they’re captured on film. Seek permission. Think twice before live-streaming, and make sure the environment is safe.

To protect yourself against coronavirus

Always wear a mask and gloves
Being in large groups of people during a pandemic can make social distancing far more difficult to manage, so it’s important to cover your face to avoid the spread of water droplets. This is an effective measure if everyone adheres to it. While the risk of coronavirus spreading through objects (doorhandles, mail, newspapers, groceries) is low, human-to-human contact is still the main method of transmission for coronavirus. Wear gloves in case you come into contact with someone who may be asymptomatic or carrying the virus.

Stick with a tight group
The current rules on social distancing in the UK are likely to be used as an excuse to arrest and fine protesters. To help combat this, protest with people you know so that the rate of transmission, should the virus be present, is low and shared between your small group. Coronavirus is highly infectious, but protecting yourself and others during a protest is feasible if you take the right steps. Similarly, consider going into self-isolation for 14 days after a protest, if possible, and choose just one march to attend if you can. Infections spread fast, but there are many things you can do to keep yourself and other protesters healthy.

These things matter, regardless of the circumstances

If you’re not black, listen to black voices
Understand that while this isn’t your space to lead, you have a responsibility to do your bit. You can show solidarity and march alongside black people without centring yourself in a protest. Do your part, but remember this is a fight that is, if you are white in particular, happening because of the actions of your people. Use the privilege you have been afforded to amplify the words and actions of black people.

Stand strong, stick together
Protests have always been vital in the fight for equality. What you’re witnessing now is no different: change comes when you demand what you deserve, and make the right people take note. Stick together, support each other in the fight. The rights of black people, and our future relationship with the police, rest on these protests and the wider movement. And if you’re white, don’t forget about this. Stay conscious. Check in on your black friends. Donate.

Black Lives Matter
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