From Filming to Interacting with Law Enforcement: How to Stay Safe at a Protest Abroad or at Home
We’ve talked about what to do when you go to a demonstration, but sometimes, even if you plan carefully, not everything goes according to plan. By their very nature, political events are stating an opinion, often on a controversial subject, and always in opposition to someone, whether that be the government, a public figure, or society in general. Featuring voices for opposition means these events can be targets for police action or aggression from other civilians, regardless of whether it’s lawful or just.
What can you do to stay safe?
Know your rights.
Laws vary by city, state, and country, so it can be difficult to keep up with your rights. Ask group leaders or legal observers if you think there’s something amiss. Remember that in many places law enforcement officers (LEOs) are required to identify themselves in some way — verbally or via a badge or serial number. If this is a right where you are protesting, ask LEOs to identify themselves. This can sometimes cause them to become angry, cover their badges, or claim you’re not entitled to that information, but it can also be a deterrent.
If you witness something that seems off, film it or take photos. You can decide later whether the footage is valuable, but if you don’t record it, accusations of misconduct by law enforcement can be tough to prove.
As many Americans have learned this past year, even if there’s a video and many witnesses, it’s not always enough. Know your rights when it comes to recording. Consider using an app like Periscope to livestream the event, so others can both participate from afar and speak up if there is a violation of rights.
Have an escape route.
This is important in two ways. First, you want multiple options for physically leaving the area in case things go sideways. The path most often used is the one LEOs will probably shut down first, and you don’t want to be caught without options.
You also want to be able to exit quickly. This means packing light and having comfortable footwear, as I mentioned before, but also carrying cash and a public transit pass. You don’t want to be fumbling in your bag looking for your bus pass, reliant on a cell phone, or stuck in an area so packed with people that the ATMs are out of cash.
When it comes to technology, long protests mean draining your batteries, especially if you’re taking photos or videos. In some cases, including rather famously in Cairo in 2011, the government may restrict internet and cell phone access to prevent demonstrators from communicating with each other or the outside world. You don’t want to be reliant on a device that could become non-functional in order to get home, find your friends, or get help. Write down phone numbers, and pick a place away from the action to meet up with friends in case you’re separated.
In the event of tear gas or pepper spray, do everything you can to cover your eyes, nose, and mouth; many people find a bandanna useful for this, which can also help protect your identity. Avoid wearing contacts, as well as lotions, petroleum jelly, and any oil-based skincare products, since tear gas becomes trapped inside them, amplifying pain and potential damage. Don’t rub your eyes or swallow, and try water and saline to rinse your eyes, as well as something like milk, canola oil, or lemon juice to rinse your skin.
Don’t be fooled by some crowd-control methods like tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and LRADs (sound cannons). While they are often referred to as non-lethal, that’s not always the case, and some go so far as to violate the Geneva Protocol.
These methods can do serious damage, especially to anyone pregnant, elderly, or with serious auditory or respiratory issues. Likewise, while the water hose is no longer used in the States due to its association with abuse of civil rights protesters in the 1960s, it is common in many other countries. There are also some countries where beating protesters with batons is commonplace, such as in Russia.
Finally, beware how law enforcement attempts to control the movements of demonstrators. Metal barricades; horses; and blockades made from officers, bicycles, or motorcycles can all be used to redirect protesters. Sometimes the goal is to keep them away from highways or other high-visibility areas, but its purpose can also be kettling, a technique where police trap protestors in one area and restrict access in and out. This can prevent much-needed food, water, new demonstrators, and medical supplies from getting to protesters in an effort to make it untenable for them to continue demonstrating, or to arrest them en masse. It can also be carried out with force, potentially injuring people in the crowd.
As scary as it is, it’s a good idea to prepare for the possibility of being detained or even arrested by law enforcement. Look up contact information for free legal services that specialize in political opposition, such as the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) if you’re in the United States. Save them in your phone, and have them on paper as well. Some folks even recommend writing numbers on your body in permanent marker, since your possessions will be collected from you if you’re arrested.
When it comes to the actual act of arrest, there are a few things you can do, although it’s imperative to note that you could do everything right, from following the law to being perfectly polite, with no guarantee of your safety or fair treatment from law enforcement. You not only have to make sure you’re not resisting arrest, you have to go above and beyond, since it’s common for law enforcement to tack the charge onto trump things up for folks espousing a belief they see as trouble. Lay face down, make no sudden movements, and repeat, “I am not resisting arrest.” If you have anything that could be considered a weapon in your possession, politely let the officers know before they find it themselves.
Make sure that folks know your arrest is happening. If you’re in a crowd, try saying your name or phone number. Have a plan with your friends beforehand, and make sure you all have one another’s emergency contacts and social media handles. In the event of an unlawful or unjust arrest, photo and video evidence disseminated widely on social and traditional media is sometimes the only way to pressure the government into doing the right thing, even if they are the ones breaking the law.
Protect your digital devices.
While you are completely within your rights to film and photograph police, that won’t prevent them from trying to stop you or confiscate the footage. While in many countries they aren’t allowed to break or operate your devices, protesters who are detained often report that footage was deleted or devices were broken by LEOs.
In some countries, participating in a protest can lead to losing your visa, even if you were not arrested and did not violate any laws. Protecting your identity could be a priority if you fear reprisal from the state or fallout with your employer, landlord, or social circles for being associated with a certain cause. This is especially important if the cause is related to LGBTQ identities, minority groups, or an organization that has not been sanctioned by the country you’re in, since these groups are frequent targets of unfair discrimination.
Even if your personal safety or legal status is not at risk, consider how your presence could affect others. In what is sometimes known as tourism apartheid, countries that rely heavily on tourism keep locals separate from tourists, in an apparent attempt to keep them safe and keep the business coming in. While foreigners from certain countries, especially the U.S., are often able to be freed or extradited due to their citizenship, locals have no such protection.
Ultimately, only you can determine how far you are willing to go for your beliefs, or to observe the demonstration of the beliefs of others. Stay safe, and remember: We learn the most about a government or society by how it treats those who disagree.
What are your tips for staying safe while demonstrating? Share with us in the comments.