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Regardless of your political beliefs, if you or your loved ones decide to participate peacefully in a protest march or demonstration, we want all of you to be as safe as possible and to be prepared to make wise choices in case the situation starts to become violent or dangerous. In the social disruption of these troubled times, we are getting questions from worried people such as, “My 21-year-old daughter wants to be part of the protest marches in our community. How can I prepare her to take charge of her safety?” Or, “I feel very upset about what is going on right now in our country. Even though I have never gone to a demonstration before, I feel that I must in order to be true to myself. What do I need to keep in mind?”

Even though gathering with others to get attention for issues important to us is our right in a democracy, joining a public protest has the possibility of putting us at greater risk of harm. By making safety plans, we can reduce these risks for ourselves and others. The following recommendations apply Kidpower safety planning strategies for an individual considering participating in a protest or demonstration.

1. Think First and Stay Aware – Is what is happening upholding YOUR values?

Even peaceful protests might cause great offense to others who believe differently or major inconvenience to everyone in the area. The reason that people gather to protest is that sometimes offending with your beliefs and inconveniencing people with your actions is the most effective way to create the change necessary to address major social problems.

Most people organizing and participating in these demonstrations have peaceful intentions and do not condone threats, violence, or the destruction of property. Many protestors have put themselves at risk to protect people being attacked physically or threatened with harm and to prevent businesses and homes from being vandalized.

We need to pay attention if things change and be prepared to stay true to our own values. As a young woman, I remember being in a truly inspiring meeting with thousands of people advocating for justice. Unfortunately, the very charismatic leader suddenly started leading the crowd in chanting, “KILL, ________ _________!” Even though I hugely disagreed with the politics of the person he was naming and completely agreed with the cause the leader said he was standing for, I was there for a peaceful protest, not for threatening to kill anybody. As hard as it was, while thousands of people joined the leader in his chant, I quietly left the area.

Sometimes public gatherings seem to be advocating for causes we completely believe in and then turn out to be about something very different. Once when I was in college, I joined a march that I had thought was against war and then found out was supporting a very popular professor who I knew had severely sexually harassed many women, including myself. This time, as unwise as it probably was, I turned around and went in the opposite direction, walking right through the people marching.

Before you choose to show your support by joining a public gathering, be prepared to change your plan if things are going differently than you had planned or become more dangerous than you had expected. Changing your plan might mean leaving, or, if you are in a position to take leadership or willing to take the risk, might mean speaking up to stop the unsafe or unethical behavior. And, once you get to the protest, stay aware and mindful. Notice if things start to change in a direction that you believe is wrong.

2. Be Prepared – Manage your Emotional Triggers

Strong feelings such as anger over perceived injustice can inspire people to act in powerful, meaningful ways. The key is to channel your anger so that you are in charge of it instead of it being in charge of you. Remember that speaking up in ways that are both powerful and respectful is more effective and safer than shouting insults or threats at someone who is upset with you or who is trying to stop the protest.

Being triggered with strong feelings can make it hard to think clearly and might lead to your taking actions that you later regret. People who speak and act from an emotionally triggered place can accidentally make problems much more dangerous for themselves and others. Especially if going to protests is new for you, it can be easy to get so caught up in the emotions of the people around you that you lose control of your own feelings. And, when you are confronted by people objecting to the protest in ways that are unfair and destructive, it can be tempting to act towards them the way that they are acting towards you and other protestors.

Your first job when you start to get emotionally triggered is to take charge of your feelings so that you can make wise choices. To support clear thinking, calm yourself using Kidpower strategies or other methods that work for you. Avoid using substances that might interfere with your mind staying clear. Prepare ahead of time to stay aware, calm, and mindful so you are ready to make wise choices about what you want to achieve, do, or not do as a participant in a protest. Practicing in advance ways to calm yourself in possible moments of danger that may arise during a protest will help you speak and act in ways that support safety.

3. If you go with others, plan how you will ‘Stay Together’

If you are going to a protest with others, talk directly and specifically about what ‘Stay Together’ means to you. Will you be on the same block? Will you be in arms’ reach?

Practice how you will communicate with calm, confident voices. Practice saying phrases out loud. For example, because it’s easy to get separated in a crowded or chaotic space when one person stops, practice touching each other and saying things like ‘Wait, we need to stop.” Or, “We need to turn back.”

If you get separated, decide where and how you will meet up – and include back up plans just in case something unexpected happens. If you end up deciding to have your phone with you, consider possible benefits of downloading area maps of the region. Practice pulling up and looking at the maps while your phone is in airplane mode so you build your confidence using digital maps without online access.

Accept that something might go wrong with your phone – you might lose it, break it, or have it taken from you. Factor this possibility into your safety planning so that your safety plans include tech-free solutions.

4. Make a Safety Plan: Ensuring that you are okay and can get help if needed

Especially if you are going on your own, tell people who care about you what you will be doing. Arrange so that someone will check in on you at a certain time to make sure you are okay. Make a clear, specific plan with them about what they should do and whom they should call if they cannot reach you to verify you are safe.

Whether or not you go with others, imagine you do not have your phone close by – and so cannot look up your contacts. Are you able to recite three different phone numbers to call to reach people who care about you? Memorize and write down important information. No strategy is perfect – a piece of paper with contact information might get dropped or damaged, for example. So, making a variety of plans will give you more options.

5. Take Charge: Plan ways to protect your body

Protests in this time of a pandemic combined with social unrest come with risks that are outside your control. Make plans to take charge of the things that ARE in your control. Protect others and yourself by thinking carefully about following medical advice for wearing masks, staying outside, and keeping some distance between you and others when possible. Consider the risks and benefits of things you might wear, including types of masks, gloves, goggles, face shields, hats, protective clothing, and footwear.

Practice using anything that is different. For example, if you decide you will wear gloves and you also decide to bring your phone, are you actually able to use your phone with the gloves you chose? Practicing these basic strategies at home will help you feel more confident later.

Consider what you are putting IN and ON your body. If you use topical lotions such as sunscreen, take time to learn how they might react with chemicals such as tear gas- or, consider not using them. If you use contact lenses, take time to learn how they might affect your experience if chemicals are in the air.

6. Just in Case: Plan ways to protect identity for yourself and others.

Often, we learn later that, legally or illegally, people in public gatherings have had their identities captured by people in position of power who might retaliate. Even if you are not that vulnerable, remember that protestors whose identities you share might be. Be mindful and make careful choices about protecting identity in different ways, such as:

Physical appearance: Accept that others can take pictures and record and that people in positions of power may have access surveillance technology. You do not have control over what they do with data or images of you that end up in their possession. Take charge of the things that ARE in your power. For example, you have the power to choose basic clothing items so that you blend in rather than standing out. You can learn what others are wearing and make safety plans that factor in what you learn.
Vehicles: If you are using a vehicle to travel to a protest, accept that license plate numbers can be captured not just by photo/video but also by certain kinds of surveillance technology. Even if you think this might not be a direct concern for you, take time to think about whether the vehicle is connected in any way to a household that includes people who have been involved with or impacted by systems such as incarceration or immigration. Could the use of this vehicle in connection with this protest possibly cause a safety problem for others, such as a loved one who is undocumented or on parole, later? Taking time to think about this in advance – and adjusting your plans accordingly – can help prevent some kinds of harm later.

Digital devices: If you have your phone, accept that there are many ways people can learn about you from your phone. Consider whether you will leave it at home and perhaps carry a prepaid phone instead. In that case, you need to take time practicing using the prepaid phone so you can use it confidently even if you are feeling fear or pain.

If you decide to keep your regular phone with you, take time to learn what actions you have the power to take that might be protective for you. Settings related to fingerprint or face ID and location services can be changed. Learn and practice how to change settings. Take time to identify and practice other strategies that could be helpful and protective, such as how to take photos without unlocking your phone.

Device features and apps: Think first before using your device to take or post photos of other people. Photos and videos can be a powerful and important tool for speaking up about safety problems – and, posting images of others also includes risk for the people whose images you have captured.

Think first before you communicate through apps. While you might need and want to do this, accept that anything that gets a ‘digital footprint’ could be captured and shared. You can research what you might use to protect yourself with encryption – and, the habit of thinking first before you put words out into the world remains a powerful safety strategy, even if you truly believe your communications are encrypted.

Consider whether you might or might not want to use apps that are designed for sharing information with organizations. If you decide to use an app such as ACLU’s Mobile Justice app for this purpose, practice until you are extremely comfortable using it.

7. Plan what to bring, how you’ll carry it, and what you can let go

There are many things you might consider carrying ranging from identification, food/water, money, writing implements, and digital devices, to medication, menstrual supplies, and first aid.

Take time to learn from others familiar with the situation you’re considering entering. What do they recommend participants carry, and why?

Remember that you can bring identification and cash without bringing your full wallet. Think carefully about each thing you decide to carry or leave – and be able to verbalize why you have made each choice.

At Kidpower, we have taught thousands of people, ‘safety is more important than stuff.’ No matter what you plan to carry, make and practice a safety plan for what you will do if you drop it, if someone takes it, or if you need to leave it in order to run to safety. Practicing ‘leaving stuff’ will make it easier to act quickly if you need to.

8. Make a Safety Plan for possible arrest or detainment
You might face detainment or arrest in a protest, even if you were planning to avoid having this happen by leaving before things got to this point. Just in case, take time to research what you might need if you are detained for a few hours or even a few days. What medications do you use? What numbers could you call? Where could you put money for bail so that friends or loved ones wanting to help you are not struggling with a financial barrier?

Again, these safety tips are for anyone who decides to peacefully participate in a demonstration or protest march, no matter what issues you are speaking up for or against. We hope this information will help you to stay safe, stay well, and stay true to yourself.

Additional Resources:

Triggers, Emotional Attacks, and Emotional Safety Techniques
Know Your Rights – and Practice Skills, Too
Amnesty International Pocket Guide for Staying Safe During a Protest
Surveillance Self –Defense Pocket Guide for Protecting Your Data

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Published: August 7, 2020   |   Last Updated: August 7, 2020

Co-Author Irene van der Zande is the Executive Director and Founder of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International, a global nonprofit leader in safety prevention education, positive communication, and advocacy serving over 6 million people of all ages, abilities, and walks of life worldwide since 1989. Irene is the author of numerous books and articles including the best-seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels. Co-Author and Program Co-Director Erika Leonard manages our California center, trains and mentors instructors, is a master instructor herself, and is a Kidpower International Senior Program Leader.