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Tips for protesting safely

Some protests are calm and joyful gatherings suitable for families and children. Some are rowdy and noisy but with little risk of violence erupting.
Protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, February 2011
© Amnesty International UK

Some protests are calm and joyful gatherings suitable for families and children. Some are rowdy and noisy but with little risk of violence erupting. Others are tense from the start, build in tension as they progress, and become dangerous. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to protests. They need to be assessed case by case.

It is also important to acknowledge that nothing can guarantee safety while protesting. The actions of other protesters or police behaviour cannot always be predicted, and you may assess that participating is not worth the risks. Later in the course we will talk about other actions you can take instead.

The following tips are intended for protests with clear risks or threats. Not all will apply to your context.

Know who, what, why

Before joining a protest, research its topic, purpose, and the people/groups/organisations behind it. It might seem intuitive, and it often is, but sometimes it gets tricky. For example, you might join a climate crisis march by an organisation you trust but you don’t agree with their specific demands at this protest. Other times, you might disagree (or be undecided!) on methods planned for the demonstration. Will there be counter-protesters?

Know who you are you going with

Friends, family, a school or university club, a feminist cooperative or another affinity group… whoever you are joining, think about meeting points (start, end and in an emergency), how you will identify each other and focal contact points. Swap emergency numbers and medical information with at least one other person in the group. Make sure you have an emergency contact who is not at the protest and check in regularly. Agree key steps in case of a medical emergency, arrest or other scenario.

Know your surroundings

Look at the map and make notes of landmarks and reference points useful in emergencies. Identify start/finish points and ‘exit’ points; the nearest hospital or health checkpoint; and toilets.

Planning for possible scenarios

  • What has happened at other recent and/or similar protests in the area?
  • Do you have useful contact numbers, for example a lawyer if you are risking arrest?
  • What are steps to take when someone gets arrested?
  • Agree a check in system. Will you use online messaging apps or other means?
  • Will counter-protesters show up? Who are they and what are their tactics?

Agree on roles

If joining with family and friends: who will drive and create signs?

If part of an organised group: who will map the route and identify ‘safe’ exits? Who will work on mobilising people/community/affinity groups; and develop slogans, signs and chants? Who will be a key contact, on the frontline or a security monitor?

Be mindful of your wellbeing. Only take on responsibilities you are comfortable with; start small and move on gradually to more demanding roles as you gain experience.

What to bring

This will depend on the risks you anticipate, and the tactics used by police in your region or nation.

  • Water bottle
  • A charged portable charger (power bank)
  • Energy snacks
  • Identification documents and emergency contact card
  • Cash – just enough for a pay phone, transportation, food (do not bring too much)
  • Basic first aid kit – if you’re with a group, one person (or team) is typically responsible for first aid support, but it is useful to carry basic supplies with you
  • Essential care supplies, and any prescription medicine you need
  • Menstrual pads – avoid using tampons, in case of arrest you might not have the chance to change it
  • Wet wipes and tissues

What to wear

  • Shatter-resistant eye protection – you can use swimming or ski goggles or gas mask
  • Comfortable, protective shoes that you can run in
  • Comfortable clothing covering all your skin (to protect from sun and gas/spray exposure). Don’t wear things that can be easily grabbed

Before you leave home

  • Make sure your phone is charged
  • Keep it light – a heavy bag may slow you down and wear you out
  • Inform others of any medical condition
  • Eat
  • For any of the above-mentioned items, bring a supply that will last longer than the planned duration of the protest
  • Plan according to the foreseen scenarios

During protests

  • Be vigilant and alert – the situation can develop rapidly and it is important to be responsive
  • Stay together – a golden rule of protesting is never stay alone, and never leave someone else alone
  • Take breaks – eat, drink water, rotate shifts for demanding roles if you’re part of a larger group
  • Watch for signs of physical or mental exhaustion in yourself and others. If you spot even a slight sign of fatigue in yourself, try to rest, take a step back or even leave the protest area. You help no one by jeopardising your health
  • Be ready for emergencies – plan ahead for scenarios and agree on mitigation actions and key steps before taking to the streets

Keep in mind

  • Know your surroundings – take a moment to locate landmarks, emergency exits, meeting points, and other critical areas
  • Write key numbers on a piece of paper, on your arm, or pin it in a chat. If you or anyone is arrested it’s important to have these to hand
  • Check your equipment and supplies – the beginning of a protest is typically the calmest time to do this

What if tensions arise and clashes erupt?

If you feel you are not prepared with logistics, do not have enough capacity, or do not feel ready (for whatever reason), take a step back. Remember your emergency exits – and use them.

If you decide to be (or stay) at the forefront where clashes are more likely, make sure you are ready: check your equipment, identify fellow activists, consider whether you would like those around you to know your name, and alert your emergency contact person.

If you choose to monitor the events, try to find a safe location and capture as many details as possible: film, write, take pictures, note down names or descriptions of people arrested and the police officers arresting them.

Check out these tips for nonviolent security and de-escalation.

© Amnesty International UK
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Protect the Protest: Using Our Rights to Freedom of Assembly and Expression

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