People gather outside Boston's City Hall to call for police department reform this month.
People gather outside Boston's City Hall to call for police department reform this month.

Tatiana Becker had been an animal rights activist in college but, she says, grew “jaded” over the years and, before last week, hadn’t attended a political protest in over two decades. 

Even after seeing—and being deeply troubled by—the video in which George Floyd, a Black man, died in police custody after white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, Becker limited her expressions of solidarity with racial justice activists to Facebook posts. “I saw protesters getting pepper sprayed and shot with rubber bullets,” she explains. “I feared for my personal safety.” 

Then an African-American friend challenged her to get more involved, says 39-year-old Becker, who is Hispanic. So on June 2 she dipped her toe into the ongoing protests in Pasadena, Calif., a town outside Los Angeles, where she lives and owns a recruiting business. 

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“It was very peaceful. I was very impressed with the leaders. It began with a kind of prayer,” she says. “I very much felt at home in that community of protesters.” So much so that she joined three more local marches that week, and convinced several friends—until then passive observers—to accompany her. 

Becker appears to be one of many Americans who are being spurred, for the first time or the first time in a long while, toward political action by Floyd’s death and the broader issues of police violence and racial injustice it instantiated. 

But also like Becker, some of those people may have been hesitating—some because of violent images they’ve seen of recent clashes between police and protesters, but others simply because they aren’t quite sure how, when, or where to participate, or what to expect if they did. 

To help answer these and other questions, we talked to experts in organizing and activism as well as law enforcement to put together the following suggestions and resources.

Understand the Risks

Attending a political protest right now does involve taking some risks.

COVID-19 is a big concern, of course. With a contagious respiratory virus circulating, there is simply no risk-free way to stand and march among crowds of people chanting in unison. That said, you can minimize your exposure by staying outside, wearing masks, maintaining social distance from your fellow protesters, and taking other precautions as detailed in this CR guide to protecting yourself from the virus while protesting.

There’s also the potential for physical violence, Becker’s peaceful experience notwithstanding. Even resolutely peaceful protesters have been forcibly arrested in recent weeks—though these instances have slowed in recent days. However some protests have involved violent confrontations between demonstrators and the police. In certain cities, police have employed tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and other forceful and potentially dangerous crowd control tactics. And in select places, looting has taken place, which can raise the risk of injury via broken glass or other means.

Situational awareness can help mitigate this risk as well, says Jawanza Williams, lead organizer at the New York state nonprofit VOCAL-NY, which advocates on behalf of low-income people. “Be aware of what’s happening around you and the temperament of the situation, and know that it can change quickly,” he says. “People should not feel guilty about leaving if the general body politic doesn’t feel right.” 

Chief (ret.) Frank Straub, director of the Center for Mass Violence Studies at the National Police Foundation, agrees. “Be aware of the dynamic of the crowd, the ebb and flow. And if things are going in a direction you’re not comfortable with, it might be a good time to leave,” he says. 

Conflicts between police and protesters, he adds, have been more likely to occur at night than during the day, especially in cities where police were asked by local officials to enforce curfews—many of which have since been rolled back.  

If you ultimately decide you’re not comfortable with these risks, there are other ways to support the cause of racial justice and contribute to the fight against police brutality, including financial donations. 

Picking a Protest

As with many social movements today, the wave of popular demonstrations that’s emerged in the wake of Floyd’s death is a diffuse phenomenon, largely lacking in centralized national leadership. Events tend to bubble up organically from hundreds of local organizations that are only loosely affiliated with one another, if at all. Comprehensive schedules are hard to come by, even on a local level. 

In that environment, says Williams, social media is by far the most important tool that organizers use to get the word out about upcoming events. 

The single best source for up-to-date info is Twitter, which (after creating an account) you can search using terms such as “Black Lives Matter,” “George Floyd,” “police violence,” “protests,” “march,” the name of your city, and time frames like “today,” “tomorrow,” or “this week.” Facebook is another good source; search the same terms using the “Groups” and “Events” tabs. 

Another good strategy, Williams suggests, is to research local organizations that “amplify your values” and follow their social media updates on both Twitter and Facebook. You might start by looking for your city in this list of local Black Lives Matter chapters around the country, which included links to their respective websites, social media feeds, and associated hashtags. 

Finally, team up with like-minded friends to keep one another informed of upcoming local demonstrations. There’s a good chance you won’t happen to hear about a given local event, but it’s unlikely that all your marching mates will miss it, too.  

Buddy Up

Speaking of teaming up, you should avoid protesting alone. Williams recommends that everyone—but especially young people—attend their first protests in the company of a local organization that shares your values and can help protect your safety and your rights. 

If that’s not possible, he recommends a buddy system in which you and your compatriots travel together before, during, and after the demonstration; watch each other’s backs; and be prepared to get help in the event that one of you gets arrested or injured.  

But if you do attend a protest alone, says Williams, at least tell someone where you’re going and set up a time to check in and a strategy for locating you if you don’t get in touch. 

Gear Up

“I basically prepared like I was going to an outdoor concert,” says Anton Smith, a 21-year-old college student who attended his first protest last week in Stratford, Conn.

Indeed, the physical demands of a demonstration or march include a lot of time on your feet, exposure to the elements, and limited access to food, water, and bathroom facilities—so experienced activists like Williams recommend planning ahead and showing up well-equipped. “Think about the unique needs of your body under those kinds of conditions,” he says.  

At a minimum, you’ll need good closed-toed walking shoes; comfortable clothing that protects you from the sun; a face mask or bandana to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 infection; and a sturdy but light backpack to carry supplies. 

A range of online guides, including this one posted by the NAACP, offer tips on what those supplies should—and should not—include. 

Into the backpack should go a lot of bottled water; some high-energy snacks; an ample supply of hand sanitizer; a spare face mask; an ID, credit card and enough cash to buy something from a vendor on the fly and cover a taxi ride home; a hat to protect your head from the sun; at least two days worth of important medications (in case you get arrested); bandages and basic first aid supplies; pen and paper for taking notes; a phone charger or power bank (if you bring a phone; see below); and a printed list of emergency phone numbers, which should include that of a lawyer or at least a responsible adult not at the protest who can be relied on to get you a lawyer. (Another backup precaution is to write your primary emergency phone number on your skin with a Sharpie, in case you lose your gear, especially if it isn’t committed to memory.) 

What not to bring? Expensive jewelry. Contacts lenses (wear glasses instead). And “nothing that can remotely be misconstrued as a weapon,” says Williams.

Some veteran activists also recommend gear and supplies that will protect you if police employ tear gas or pepper spray in response to your protest. That includes goggles capable of sealing out liquids (like swimming goggles), heat-resistant gloves, and an extra change of clothes. This guide has tips on what to do if either substance gets in your eyes. 

If you are carrying a sign, make them out of stiff poster board or foam board. Skip heavy wooden handles, which can cause injuries in a crowd; thin wooden sticks (like the kind sold for stirring paint) will work. Short simple phrases written in large, bold letters are most effective. You can see various examples of signs being carried recently on Essence.com and Insider.com

What about your cell phone? Despite the obvious advantages of having one—communicating with others at the protest and outside it, accessing mapping and ride share apps, and taking photos and videos—some experts advise leaving yours at home to protect your privacy and prevent police surveillance. If you do bring your phone, use these tips from CR on protecting your privacy and security during a protest. The short version: Consider disabling GPS, WiFi and Bluetooth, as well as any biometric unlocking features; putting the phone on Airplane mode when not in use; and using an anonymous “burner” device instead of your own.

Know Your Rights

The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees your right to assemble and express your views through protest. But, as noted in the ACLU’s “Know Your Rights” guide, police and other government officials are allowed to place some restrictions on those rights in the interest of public safety, protecting private property, or traffic control. 

How these sometimes conflicting interests balance out in the moment depends partly on things like local regulations and the physical characteristics of the location. But in general your free expression rights are most clear-cut in “traditional public forums” such as sidewalks, parks, public plazas (in front of a government building, say) and streets—as long as you are not blocking access or otherwise interfering with the usual purpose of the location. (By contrast, you can protest on private property only if you have the permission of the property’s owner.) 

Protests typically require a permit if they involve large numbers of people or amplified sound, or if streets need to be closed or blocked off to accommodate marches. Without such a permit, police can ask protesters to move elsewhere for safety reasons or to allow others to pass. But police can’t use the lack of a permit to prevent protests that arise in response to breaking news events.  

If you are in a public space and abiding by the law, you have a right to photograph or record video of anything in plain view, including police officers. (The law around audio recordings is a little more complicated and varies by state.) And police officials are not allowed to confiscate or delete any of these materials, even if you’re arrested. 

Police cannot shut down a protest except as a last resort and unless there is a clear danger or threat to public safety. If officers do issue an order to disperse, they must give protesters clear and detailed notice and a reasonable amount of time and an exit route to comply. 

What to Do If Conflict Arises

Of course, knowing your rights does not mean you’ll always be allowed to exercise those rights. You may find your efforts at expression in direct conflict with police directives to, say, leave a particular public space. And amid the emotional intensity of political demonstrations—especially those focused on the issue of police misconduct—such directives are not always delivered clearly and in accordance with civil rights principles, which can result in further escalation of tensions between police and protesters. 

Straub, who spent more than 30 years in law enforcement at state, local, and national levels, recommends that as a matter of personal safety, you attempt to comply with most police officer directives in the moment, even if you believe your rights are being violated. “You may not be aware of the reasons for the order, and hopefully they are valid,” he says. Either way, he adds, “right in the middle of a police action is probably not the best time for a philosophical debate.” 

If you are stopped by a police officer, the ACLU recommends an approach of de-escalation: Keep your hands visible (to make it clear you are not holding a potentially dangerous weapon) and calmly ask the officer if you are being detained. 

If not, calmly turn and attempt to walk away, says Williams. If you are put under arrest, ask to speak with a lawyer and otherwise remain silent. 

Don’t consent to a search of your belongings, photos or videos, the ACLU advises. The police can’t legally demand to view, and may not delete, the digital contents of your devices. 

If you believe any of your rights have been violated, the organization further suggests that you document everything that you can, including the officers’ names, badge numbers, and the law enforcement agencies they work for; take photographs of any injuries; collect contact information of any witnesses; and include all that information in a written complaint to the agency’s internal affairs division or civilian complaint board.

For legal help, the National Lawyers Guild maintains a list of its local chapters, many of which have legal support hotlines and may be able to send legal observers to demonstrations on request. And look in advance for other local nonprofits that provide legal services to protesters, like GoodCallNYC, which maintains a 24/7 hotline (833‑346-6322) and will connect callers to family members and free lawyers with a single call.