Washington DC — This story was updated on May 29, 2020.
You’ve made the decision: you want to participate in a protest.
In the wake of the high-profile deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Dreasjon “Sean” Reed, and Ahmaud Arbery, there are protests happening virtually every day across the country.
But knowing how to navigate a protest (or rally, demonstration, or march, or direct action) can be overwhelming if you’ve never done it before. After attending dozens of demonstrations in the nation’s capital, I’ve learned a few lessons along the way. Here are some guidelines that you can use to create your own protest toolkit and help you get the most of your protest experience. (Be sure to also wear a mask to protect yourself from COVID-19. And if you want to protect yourself from surveillance, check out this YR Media guide.)
Know before you go
It’s always good to have a general sense of the protest before you head out. Know where and when it’s happening, and know who’s leading it. Know how you’re getting to and from the protest. This means making sure you know the nearest public transit stops, having your fare card ready to go, or having your ride-share apps handy.
And if the protest you’re attending includes a march, make sure you have a general idea of where the march route is. Doing this pre-protest research will allow you to see if there are public bathrooms nearby and places to eat before or after.
If you have a physical disability, find out if the protest venue is accessible to ensure that you will be able to participate fully. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the organizers or ask questions through a Facebook event page.
Importantly, memorize an emergency contact number. Mine is my mother’s cell phone, which I know she will answer even if she doesn’t recognize the number.
Also, plan to attend with your friends and family! Protests are much more meaningful surrounded by people you care about who also care about the same causes. Even if you go alone, let them know when and where you’ll be protesting and when you’ll be home.
As the protest approaches, you should begin to research poster ideas tailored to the cause you’re demonstrating for. Depending on the issue, you can Google image search things such as “Jewish protest signs,” “protest sign puns,” or “activist slogans.” This can also work with chant ideas!
I also have a poster-making kit I keep in my closet that includes poster board, letter stencils, markers, paint, tape, rubber bands, and glitter. If you’re planning on attending multiple protests, this can be super convenient to have ready to go.
What to wear
It’s also good to know the weather you’re expecting beforehand, as wearing the wrong type of clothing can ruin your experience. For all protests, comfort is key.
Buttons and flags are great because you don’t have to carry them -- you can tie a flag around you like a cape!
In cold weather: Wear lots of layers, snow boots, wool socks, a hat, gloves and a scarf. I’ve worn leggings under my jeans when I knew it would be windy outside of the Supreme Court. Bring hand or foot warmers if you have them!
In rainy or wet weather: Invest in a clear umbrella! This is good for many reasons: you can see the speakers at a rally and people in front of you at a march. It also keeps you from blocking the view of people behind you. You can also write on it or hang flags off of it. Some other must-haves: rain boots, a raincoat, and clear trash bags to put your signs in and still see them.
In hot weather: Layers will save your life. Throwing on a thin cardigan to block the sun has saved me from many a sunburn. Wear comfortable sandals, too, and bring extra sunscreen. A hat and sunglasses are always helpful as well. Don’t be afraid to bring an umbrella for the sun in hot weather too.
What to bring
The goal is to bring as little as possible. The less you have to carry, especially in your hands, the better. So I recommend a small, lightweight backpack or drawstring. Even a fanny pack works. Some protests recommend clear backpacks like this one.
I also bring a small bottle of sunscreen, a hair elastic, a reusable water bottle with water in it (I once made the mistake of bringing an empty water bottle with no water fountain in sight), a phone charger and a phone battery power bank like this one in case you’re battery dies.
Don’t forget your posters and rubber bands to roll it up with afterwards. If you’re like me, you like to collect cool posters from different organizations at the march, so rubber bands can come in handy for this purpose.
Light snacks, such as granola bars or trail mix, can be a lifesaver if you’re expecting a long day at the protest.
If you’re into photography or journalism, or just want to document your experience, bring a camera, but make your backpack your camera bag, if you can. There is no need to bring multiple bags that you will have to keep track of throughout the day.
Lastly, and most importantly, bring some form of ID -- a government-issued one, if possible. If you’re going to a demonstration and willing to risk arrest, keep your ID on your body: in your bra, pocket or even your shoe. Upon arrest, your bags will be taken from you and kept separately from where you will be held.
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What to do during the protest
One of the most important parts of taking part in a protest is documenting your experience. Take tons of photos and video that you can use to amplify the rally’s message on social media. Look at the incredible people around you who also felt compelled to march and speak out for what they believe in. Take pictures of good signs so you have ideas for next time. Record an amazing speaker. Take notes.
But documenting the day should not come at the expense of your health and wellbeing. Reapply sunscreen as needed. If you’re congregated in a place like outside the Supreme Court or the U.S. Capitol, the sun can be brutal. Stay hydrated and take a snack break.
Last but not least, make sure to take all of your trash with you. If you brought it to the protest, you can take it home with you and dispose of it yourself.
Remember to stay with your group or let people know where you’re going. Your safety is the most important thing. Listen to the organizers of the protest and do what feels comfortable to you. If that means leaving if the crowd gets too big, taking a sit break down the block or staying for the rally but not the march, that’s absolutely OK. If that means being willing to be arrested for an act of civil disobedience, that’s OK as well. Do what is right for you.
Protesting is patriotic and has been part of this country’s history before the U.S. was technically even a country. Knowing how to make the most out of peaceful protest can only strengthen your experience as well as the message you’re putting out into the world.
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