6 Ways to Protest Safely

The Riveter's in-house columnist educates herself.

Last Saturday I got ready for my first Black Lives Matter protest since the killing of George Floyd (and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery). This was a youth-led march across Golden Gate Bridge that was organized by 17-year-old Tiana Day of San Ramon, so I didn’t give much thought to it being anything but peaceful. As I laced up my tennis shoes and gathered my things, I found myself suddenly very unsure. Wait, am I completely unprepared? Images of police brutality in other cities flashed through my mind — of an elderly man being knocked to the ground in Buffalo, youth being shot at with bean bags in Austin, women batoned in New York City and crowds tear-gassed in Philadelphia and Washington D.C. If the same thing happened in San Francisco, I’d be so fucked.

The Golden Gate Bridge protest, like so many others, did indeed remain peaceful. While the first demonstration I ever attended, the 2017 Women’s March, was (unfortunately) a one-and-done experience, the Black Lives Matter protests will hopefully continue on, like many significant demonstrations in history have done before them, until change happens. Because of my lack of education and my white privilege, I didn’t know until recently that the Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 382 days, The Freedom Rides lasted 7 months, Greensboro Sit-ins went on for half the year and the Birmingham Movement lasted 37 days. We have so much work to do to dismantle systemic injustice in this country that hopefully these past two weeks of protests are only the beginning.

We must keep showing up. I must keep showing up. Not only in the work of anti-racism, but in the work of voicing our opinion and showing this country that I will join my Black community members alongside them in fighting for their lives, their dreams, their futures. Luckily, we get to do that through our right to protest. Since my experience at last Saturday’s powerful assembly, with the backdrop of some of the world’s most iconic landmarks, I decided to delve into the questions we’ve heard from our community about how to protest more safely. The reality is, I was wildly unprepared for anything to go awry, but hopefully this information will help you like it did me. Let’s do the work to keep showing up, and to do so safely, whether it’s your first protest or your hundredth. 

Pack to Protest

I’ve always been a believer in planning for the best but being prepared for the worst. In a best-case, peaceful protest scenario, our common sense is pretty much enough: comfortable shoes, nondescript clothing in layers, no jewelry, hair back, money, keys, water and identification. However, we’re not in normal times, and if police decide to respond to demonstrators forcefully, the scene can become violent, quickly. Listening to The Daily episode, Why Are Police Attacking Protesters, reminded me just how fast everything can spin out.

If something were to turn violent, before my research I would have been so unprepared. How do you recover from tear gas? Why shouldn’t you wear contacts? Why do I need a washcloth? I wouldn’t have known. Because depending on your municipality, different police forces might use different tactics and we need to be prepared. has step-by-step information for how to prepare before, during, and after — but I found their section on “what to do if things go wrong” particularly enlightening. It included a variety of things I hadn’t been forced to think about until these past few weeks, but now am taking very seriously for future demonstrations. 

This graphic (shared by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Instagram) is a great visual reminder of what to wear, bring (and not bring):

Have a plan

As I walked toward the Golden Gate bridge with my friend Lisa, we talked about how at her last protest, she ended up completely alone. For a variety of reasons, she was suddenly isolated in a sea of 10,000 people. This can happen to any of us, whether the protests stay peaceful or not. Like having an “emergency escape plan” with your household, my deep internet research informed me that I should do the same with whomever I protest. Here’s some questions I’ll be asking my protesting peers the next time I go:

  • What is our plan for before and during and after the protest?
  • What path do we want to take to take to exit in case of emergency?
  • What is our meeting spot in case we get separated?
  • Does everyone have their emergency contact and a legal support hotline number written out and on them? You can find an appropriate number here. 

Be smart about your phone

I’m so dependent on my mobile device that I didn’t even know my own partner’s number by heart (until last week). Even if everything goes perfectly right in a protest, with so many people in one place, your cell service can still go out. And on top of that, in certain situations your phone, including the tracking information on it and the data attached to photos you take, can be used against you. Here’s some things I learned that you should consider doing before the protest:

  • Turn off location services or enable airplane mode so you cannot be tracked. Along with these ideas, FastCompany compiled more ways to take your mobile security seriously. 
  • Be mindful of your surroundings. Don’t get so caught up or distracted by your phone that you lose sight of what’s around you. Stay present, for your safety and for the cause for which you came. 
  • Wired has great tips on how to protect yourself and others. For example, delay posting your photos, and when you do, post screenshots of your photos so it wipes your personal information clean. Don’t post images of people that are identifiable, and consider taking measures to protect their identity also. 

Keep your health in mind

While we’re fighting against the 400-year pandemic of institutionalized racism, we’re in a COVID-19 pandemic, too (one that also disproportionately kills Black people). Some reminders that epidemiologist Ellie Murray shared on Twitter:

It’s smart to get tested after you’ve been to a protest, too. Cities like San Francisco are providing free pop-up COVID-19 testing for anyone who has attended protests.

Additionally, if you’re like me and have basically no experience with emergency medical response, the CAT911 team in Los Angeles put together this presentation from a street medic training, that includes everything from how to recover from tear gas to emergency assessment of others and MUCH more.

Consider the kids

I don’t have kids, so this didn’t even cross my mind until a colleague mentioned the conversation among her friends about whether or not to bring children to the demonstrations. The protest I attended in San Francisco was youth-led, as many have been. This Washington Post article gave some thoughtful tips for deciding what is right for you and your children, which included this consideration: 

  • “How can parents know when the activism is too much? If it is causing your child distress — anxiety, anger, conflict with peers — it’s time to back off,” Hill said. “When our own passions start to interfere, then we have to remember to let our kids be kids and not little culture warriors.” 

And you can do critically-important racial justice work at home by talking to your kids about race and racism. This is an NPR article about how white parents can talk to their kids about race and these anti-racist kids’ books are helpful too.  

Use your privilege to provide safety

If you are white like me, understand that your skin color can be a safety tool for others. It may be uncomfortable to grapple with, but your whiteness makes you less likely to be targeted by police violence and thus you can use that privilege to provide safety. I overlooked this fact in initially drafting this post: My colleague Caitlin reminded me. It’s another data point in how much unlearning I have to do (even when I’m learning). When you show up in the right ways, you can use your white privilege to provide safety to your fellow Black protestors, like these white women did when they formed a human shield in Louisville. Ultimately, it’s important to understand our role as a white person in a Black movement, and how to be a better ally while we’re there by listening, researching, and educating ourselves about what we’re a part of and why. We’re guests. This VOX article was immensely helpful in understanding how to best do that. 

If we’re going to fight against the systemic racism embedded in institutions like the police, we have a long road of demonstrations ahead of us. It’s best that we come prepared. 

Want to learn more about protesting safely? Join Maxie and a (soon to be announced) medical expert for a live, virtual conversation in our online community on June 18th.

Maxie McCoy is a facilitator of women’s stories. She’s the author of You’re Not Lost: An Inspired Action Plan for Finding Your Own Way, which Refinery29 has called one of the top career books for women. Committed to the global rise of women, Maxie specializes in creating meaningful content and programming experiences for The Riveter. Her work has been featured on Good Morning America, TheSkimm, Forbes, Fortune, INC, Bustle, Business Insider, MyDomaine, Women’s Health, Marie Claire, Billboard, CNN and many more, as an expert in women’s leadership.

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