If you have never attended a protest before, doing so for the first time can be kind of daunting. I was lucky enough to start as a teenager, before I was afraid of much, but I definitely sympathize with those who find the idea intimidating. I wanted to put together some of my perspective as a regular participant in, though never leader of, mass protests.
A little about my experience: I have participated in both spontaneous and well planned protests. I have been in big mass marches like the Millennium March on Washington and in many small marches and protests. I have participated in one large-scale occupation, at the Wisconsin Capitol in 2011. Some protests I have been in have been unchallenged by police, while others (especially BLM protests) have been more adversarial, though I have never been in a situation where riot control tactics like tear gas have been used. I have taken one official training on civil disobedience, but have never been arrested. Yet.
In fact, for many people my experience may be exactly what you hope to gain – participation in protests without ending up in dangerous situations. That’s pretty reasonable. While movements sometimes need people who are willing to take more serious risks, they also need boots on the ground, bodies in the crowd, people willing to show up and be heard. Protesting is less dangerous than many people think, and it is absolutely possible to do it and protect yourself at the same time. Once you’re comfortable with the safer parts of protesting you may want to re-assess your risk tolerance and decide if you are willing to take on more risk for greater possible impact, but I want to encourage you to get out there for the first time.
With all of that said, here are some tips that will make your first protest go much more smoothly.
It’s okay to leave. Protests last for hours, days, or weeks. Some occupations last months. Participate for as long as you are able, but it’s okay to be done when you’re done. The cause will still be there after you take care of yourself. You will be more effective if you don’t burn out at your first protest!
You may also want to head out if the police give a dispersal order. They are supposed to do this before using riot control measures like tear gas, so if you follow a dispersal order you will decrease your risk of encountering violence. Many people will refuse to obey a dispersal order, and there are often good reasons to stay, but try to make this decision for yourself ahead of time rather than getting caught up in the moment.
You can help protests without marching. Not everyone is physically able to spend their day walking, but there are other ways to contribute. Sit-ins, die-ins, and vigils may be more appropriate for some. Bringing food and water to hand out to protesters is incredibly helpful. If you are artistically inclined, designing signs is a great option. Financial support, if you have the means, is powerful. Movements have many needs and it is likely that you have a skill that can help.
If you do want to march, have appropriate footwear. You need shoes or boots that will make you comfortable on your feet for as long as possible, and that will protect your feet. Sandals are an absolute no-no, as your feet will get stepped on. If you have work boots or combat boots that you can be on your feet in for several hours that’s great, but even tennis shoes are a much better idea than sandals or heels. Weather appropriateness is another consideration. If you are prone to blisters make sure you have whatever you need to prevent and treat them.
Dress for the weather. As I write this winter is approaching and I live in the northern United States. Wearing layers will be important for me as I go out to Trump Tower this fall and winter. Marching is exercise, and without layers I will either overheat or freeze. Your challenges may be different, but keep in mind that you want to prevent sunburn, getting soaked, overheating, getting cold, and especially dangerous heat exhaustion and frostbite.
Carry food and water. You don’t want to have to leave a protest just because you’re hungry. Throw a few sandwiches, granola bars, and a water bottle in your backpack. Don’t carry so much that the extra pack weight is a strain, but you don’t want an empty stomach. Having water is especially important, as protesting is physical and dehydrating. If you can carry enough to share with those who didn’t bring food and water, even better. Water and cough drops can help keep your voice working through all of the chanting.
Stay sober. Alcohol and drugs at protests absolutely unacceptable. Keeping a clear head is essential to your cause, your safety, and the safety of those around you. Do not carry illegal drugs on your person during protests, as they will get found if you are arrested and put you in a worse legal situation than you would be otherwise.
Know the location and how to leave. You don’t want to depend on your cell phone if you need to get out of an area quickly. Try to get a handle on the area you’re protesting in as well as you can, and keep track of which direction you’re facing. Traffic around a protest is likely to be badly backed up so being able to leave on foot is important. In Chicago I use the trains to and from protests, and if area you are in has a rail system it’s usually better to use it. If you must use a car to get there, carpool with others, make sure you know how to get back to your car, and be prepared to sit in traffic for awhile. Be prepared to leave your car and exit the area another way if things get heated.
Don’t escalate. Keeping a calm head isn’t always easy. We protest because we care about something, so it’s easy for anger and passion to get to better of us. Pay attention to your emotional state and responses, and take a time out if you find yourself getting worked up. It is especially important to keep this in mind if you find yourself facing your opposition directly. I knew it was time for me to take some time away from the Wisconsin Capitol when I found myself (and several others) screaming at a Fox News journalist. Letting your emotions get away from you puts yourself and those around you in danger, so remember to take deep breaths and consider separating yourself from the situation if you need to. It is especially important for people with relative privilege in a protest to avoid escalating the situation. Unfortunately I often see young white men confront police or antagonistic bystanders at protests, putting those less privileged people around them at higher risk of retaliation.
There are sometimes good reasons and ways to escalate the intensity of a protest, but it takes experience and planning to do this appropriately. Let those who are organizing an event determine the tactics that will be used. Any larger organization planning a protest will likely have instructions listed on social media or their website with guidelines for behavior.
Know your rights. For those in the United States the ACLU has excellent information on your rights as a protester. The National Lawyer’s Guild has a more broad guide for dealing with law enforcement. Look for more information specific to your state, or from the organization that is running the protest.
Have fun! Protests are actually often a lot more fun than you might expect. There is something incredibly empowering and positive about being with a bunch of people working for the same goal as you. The mood of different protests can vary, but much of the time you will likely leave feeling positive, if tired. Focus on the bystanders who agree with you and give high fives to those who offer them. Just because the reason you are protesting is serious doesn’t mean you can’t keep a positive and cheerful attitude while doing it.