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Safety While Protesting: Protesting & Supporting Protests Safely

Staying Safer While Rising Up

The fight for a better world is a dangerous one. We cannot guarantee our safety in this moment.  But, there is time-honored activist knowledge that can help us stay safer: know how to protest, do your research, and evaluate new information carefully.

There is a lot of conflicting information about how to stay safe while protesting. To support our many students and colleagues who are out in the streets or supporting street demonstrations, the librarians of Seattle Central College have pulled together the best evidence we could find about dealing with the safety hazards of direct political action. There is a distinct lack of research on many of these subjects, so we humbly present this as best practices.  If you have resources that should be included or replaced please contact us and let us know:

Protesting Safely During a Pandemic

Safety While Protesting


Mitigating the risk of COVID 19 while protesting

The recommendations below come from the Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County Protestor Safety Guide, along with additional recommendations from infectious disease experts at the University of Washington :

  • Although outdoor gatherings are lower risk than indoor gatherings, the larger the gatherings and the longer you are there, the higher the risk of catching or spreading COVID-19. Furthermore, situations where people are shouting or singing can spread more of the virus into the air.
  • To limit your exposure wear a face mask, gloves, and even cover your hair. For further protection, cover as much visible skin as possible without hindering your vision.
  • Demonstrate consistently alongside close contacts and moving together as a group, rather than extensively intermingling with multiple groups.
  • Wash hands frequently
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Avoid touching objects and surfaces that others have touched.
  • Carry hand sanitizer and use it often, especially before or after touching anyone. Consider bringing enough to share with fellow protestors.
  • Staying at home when sick, and using other platforms to oppose racism for high-risk individuals, and those unable or uncomfortable to attend in person.

If you can't be in the crowd, there are other beautiful ways to struggle:

Dealing with Tear Gas and Pepper Spray

image of gas mask

There is a lot of conflicting advice about how to deal with the effects of tear gas and pepper spray in the moment.  Based on the best evidence we could find, rinsing the eyes, from the tear ducts outward with clean water or sterile saline solution for 10 minutes is the evidence-based approach. From a 2020 article on PubMed:

The face should be wiped to remove any particles before being washed. Copious water irrigation with soap should be used to remove contaminants. If there is significant skin breakdown, saline irrigation is the best choice.

Be Prepared:

  • Bring a sports bottle with clean water to rinse the eyes
  • Wear goggles if you can
  • Bring anyone who is sprayed away from the crowd because they will not be able to get out of the way on their own
  • A bandana soaked with cider vinegar or lemon juice placed over the mouth can help temporarily
  • Do not touch or rub your eyes or face
  • Change clothes as soon as possible; particles can stick on clothes for months

For more detailed information, see the Vision Change Win Get in Formation Community Safety Toolkit section on tear gas and pepper spray

Self Care to Stay in the Fight

As adrienne maree brown says in her post Caring For Ourselves as Political Warfare,

protests and actions can give us the highest highs and the most gut wrenching terrors or deepest disappointments. in the midst of wildly inspiring actions and protests happening worldwide, there is increasing racialized violence and the urgency of trying to grab this moment, the feeling of pressing up against our edges.

To stay in the fight, we have to take good care of ourselves and those around us.  Here are some resources for politicized self care to keep us all in the fight.

Here are some "rules" from a veteran activist that are good to keep in mind for long-term political work. To see an explanation of "the rules" click on the link below the list.

Image that says "shit you should know vol 1."

  • The first rule, of course, is don't get caught.
  • If by some chance the first rule is violated, there’s the second rule, which is admit
  • Once they realize that you're not going to say anything, rule number three comes into
    play, because they'll start asking you to name other people. So, rule number three is don't name
  • Rule number four is never ever put it in writing.
  • Rule number five, is a corollary to that, which is always get it in writing.And always
    getting it in writing means basically working off your own paper.
  • Rule number six is always ask the question advantageous to yourself.
  • So rule number seven has to do with strategy.And that is, you have to always keep the
    enemy in front of you...Because without a clear understanding of opposing forces, you will have no strategy, no effective strategy.
  • So rule number eight is always keep your passport valid.
  • Rule number nine. It's an important rule; rule number nine says,“Even though they tell
    you that all your questions will be answered, all your health care needs will be taken care of and
    everything will be fine; never ever go to the stadium.”

Phone Safety

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County have excellent advice on how to think about phone safety at a protest.  Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have provided user data to companies that market to law enforcement.  EFF says that through cell phones, "those engaging in protest may be subject to search or arrest, or have their movements and associations mapped. They could become targets of surveillance and repression."

Should you bring a phone to a protest?

This is a personal question to ask yourself, since a phone is often a key to getting help, getting around, and maintaining your safety plan. Your phone can also be confiscated by the police, and used to track your movements.

If you do bring a phone
  • Remove fingerprint unlock and FaceID. Replace with a strong password. This will make it harder for the police to force you to unlock your phone. For more details on this, see the EFF's Protester scenario.
  • Turn off Wifi, bluetooth, and location services and put your phone on airplane mode.
  • Install a secure messaging app like Signal, but remember, your communication will only be fully encrypted if you are texting with someone else who is using signal.
If you don't bring a phone
  • Make a concrete safety plan beforehand and stick to it.
  • Make sure that other people know where you are and when you're supposed to be there, in case something happens.
  • Make sure you know your way around, and how to get home from the action.
  • If you can afford it, consider using a burner phone that is unconnected to your identity, and has never been turned on at your house. For more details on this, see the EFF's Protester Scenario.

Here's another guide to quick measures you can take to make your data more secure at a protest.

What to Wear to a Protest

Water  in  a  plastic  bottle  with  squirt  top,  to  drink  and  to  wash  off your skin or eyes+ Energy snacks+ Identification and/or emergency   contact information+  Enough  money  for  pay-phone,  food, transportation+ Watch, paper, pen for accurate documentation of events+  Inhaler,  epipen,  insulin  &  several  days of prescription medication+   Menstrual   pads.   Avoid   using   tampons - if you’re arrested you may not have a chance to change+ Basic First Aid Kit+ Wet Wipes and tissues,  Shatter  resistant  Swimming  Googles  and a N95 Facemask+  Comfortable,  protective  shoes  that  you can run in+  Clothing  covering  all  your  skin  to  protect  from  sun  and  pepper  spray  exposure+  Shatter-resistant  eye  protection  (i.e.  sunglasses, swim goggles, or gas mask)+  Bandana  to  cover  nose  and  mouth  soaked in water, lemon juice or vinegar, it  can  aid  in  breathing  during  chemical  exposure+  Fresh  clothes  in  plastic  bag  (in  case  yours  get  contaminated  by  chemical  weapons), A hat to protect you from the sun and from chemical weapons

More advice on what to wear and bring from the Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County Protestor Safety Guide:

  • Wearing all black or clothing without distinguishable logos/monograms are useful for staying anonymous.
  • Makeup and masks can confuse facial recognition software. Time to bring out the facepaints!
  • Ear plugs can protect your ears from flash bombs, loudspeakers, and other loud sounds.
  • Goggles can help protect your eyes from pepper spray and tear gas. However, pepper spray can still affect the exposed skin on your face and can spread to your lungs. 
  • Gas masks will keep your lungs safe, if accessible.
  • A waterproof watch is a great way to keep time when it feels unsafe to reach for your phone.
    • Anything with your private information.
    • Anything that can be construed as a weapon.
    • Jewelry, watches, sacred objects.
  • If you are bringing a phone, carrying an extra battery pack can be helpful, since phone batteries drain quickly in a crowd.
  • ACLU recommends bringing ID and health insurance if you have them, but know that you may not be legally required to show it.

Know Your Rights

It is important to know your rights, but be aware that police might lie or break the law in order to detain and intimidate protestors.

If you're worried you might not remember your rights in a moment of pressure, consider writing them down or printing them out to bring with you.

If you are being questioned by police and are uncertain, ask "Am I being detained?

  • If they say no, leave.
  • If they say yes, remember you have the right to remain silent. State clearly out loud "I am exercising my right to remain silent."

Staying Together and Getting Help

Make sure someone knows where you are!

  • It is best to go with a group
    • If you are with a group, stay together, and do frequent head checks to make sure no one has been lost or arrested
  • If you are alone, make sure someone knows where you are
  • Write important phone numbers on your arm
    • The number of someone who can help you if you are hurt or arrested (multiple numbers are best). Those people should know:
      • Your full legal name and date of birth
      • Any medications you need within 24- 48 hours, and any allergies you have
      • The locations and numbers of central booking, local jails, precincts, and hospitals
      • The contact information of other family and friends
    • The number of the National Lawyers Guild--Seattle Office:  206-658-7963.

Be Aware of Organized White Supremacist Groups

Graphic from Political Research Associates' guide Paramilitaries at Your Protest: An Activist Field Guide to the Far Right

While the most likely perpetrators of violence against protestors statistically remains uniformed police, there is an increasing chance that protestors will encounter armed members of white supremacist/white nationalist militias or counter-protestors. There is well-documented overlap between police and independent militant groups, but some militia members intentionally seek to sow confusion by claiming to be there to protect protestors from police. These are the names of some groups to look out for:
   - 3%
   - Proud Boys
   - Patriot Prayer
   - Oath Keepers
   - American Wolf
   - Boogaloo
Many of the followers of these movements wear body armor and carry guns. Some wear Hawaiian print shirts. The Center for Analysis of the Radical Right tracks the behavior of these groups and the symbols they use that might help identify members:

This long-form article goes in depth into the ideologies and tactics of right-wing militias:

This news article with photos of militia members in Utah gives an example of what to look for:

The intention of these groups is to sow confusion and fear. We are bringing attention to them on this page in the hope that awareness will increase your safety. Protesting in these times is both dangerous and absolutely necessary.

An anti-fascist, anti-racist local organization that keeps tabs on known local right-wingers that show up at protests is the Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club. They also use tactics to move these militia members away from protestors.