Taking to the streets in protest — bullhorns or banner in hand — is an American tradition. Whether marching for the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, each demonstration has added to the history of free speech and assembly that began in the Boston Harbor in 1773 and continues today with protests taking off across the country in response to grand jury decisions on Staten Island, N.Y. and in Ferguson, Mo.
Peaceful protest is a right that’s broadly protected by the First Amendment, but recent events serve as a tangible reminder of the difference between protest and riot — one democratic and productive, the other anarchic and devastating. Here, some key tips that every protester should keep in mind before taking to the streets.
1. Know your rights.
Thanks to the Bill of Rights, you have the right to gather and peacefully protest. You don’t need a permit to protest in a public space like a park, sidewalk, street or plaza, the American Civil Liberties Union reminds activists. However, law enforcement may limit a person from protesting on private property (like an abortion clinic or power plant) unless its owner gives their consent. You’re also allowed to pass out pamphlets, as long as pedestrians are free to pass by without being “physically and maliciously detained” and no building entrances are blocked, the ACLU says.
Additionally, “you never have to consent to a search of yourself or your belongings,” the group adds. An officer may pat you down to search for a weapon or search your belongings if you are under arrest, but otherwise a warrant is required.
If you witness someone else being arrested, don’t interfere or threaten the officer. That will only escalate the conflict and could land you in a pair of handcuffs, charged with obstruction of justice, disorderly conduct or interference with an arrest. Instead, write down the officer’s badge number and photograph or videotape the incident to document any misconduct. (You have the right to photograph anything “in plain view” from a public space, according to the ACLU.) Police officers may not confiscate or delete anything from your camera, nor can they demand to see your images without a warrant. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) offers the free Stop and Frisk Watch app for both iPhone and Android that allows bystanders to document an arrest with video or a written survey that is immediately sent to NYCLU’s offices.
2. Realize when you’re on the wrong side of the law.
Legally, an officer can arrest you for not following orders. If you are asked to keep clear of a certain area, for example, it’s in your best interest to cooperate with the order — even though you may legally have a right to be there. You won’t find out if you were correct until you’re before a judge.
That’s not to say that civil disobedience — for refusing to get up from a sit-in at an intersection or disobeying a command — is not a powerful symbol. But you need to be aware that you could be putting yourself in danger.
“We go into a protest knowing that there is a chance that we will get arrested, tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets, or billy clubbed,” says a protest guide written by students at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. “This isn’t to be dramatic, but realistic. Fear will make the streets anxious and we probably won’t accomplish much.” In case of a confrontation with riot police, you may want to carry a plastic bag with bandanas soaked in vinegar or lemon juice to neutralize tear gas, the guide suggests. Don’t rub your eyes or panic, it adds; instead, rinse your eyes with water until the burning passes.
3. Have a backup plan.
During the Occupy Wall Street protests, Brooklyn software designer Jason Van Anden developed a free phone app called I’m Getting Arrested, which sends a prewritten text message to friends and family if, you guessed it, the cops are threatening you with arrest. The app, which was named by PC Magazine as a top app of 2011, is only available to Android users. (Due to Apple policy, the app won’t function on iPhones.)
Once you’re in a jail cell, you won’t be allowed to use your cell, so make sure to take other precautions. Write the number for a pro bono attorney on your arm and on a piece of paper so you can call once you are at the precinct. Take advantage of your Miranda rights to know the charges against you, to speak to your attorney or have one appointed and to appear before a judge to ask for your release until the trial.
4. Be respectful.
“Stay calm, be polite, and don’t run,” the ACLU recommends. When thousands (or more) of fed-up protesters crowd into a public space, the situation can rapidly get out-of-hand. Cops want to keep order, and sometimes a few rogue troublemakers don’t have the same intentions. Treat officers with respect, and you’ll likely receive the same treatment. Most importantly, never physically resist an arrest.
5. Come prepared with supplies.
Protests are all about making your voice heard. Drawing a quick sign on poster board or printing out a slogan from your computer can amplify your message. Whistles, pots and pans, drums, tin cans, sticks, a megaphone or even coins in an empty bottle will all help you literally increase your volume. Wear shoes you can walk in, comfortable layers of clothes and sunscreen. Avoid items that could be interpreted as a weapon, like a Swiss army knife or any blunt object, and leave all alcohol and drugs at home.
6. Find fellow activists on social media.
Twitter and Facebook are now the places where movements coalesce. Over the past month, hashtags like #EricGarner, #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe proliferated across the web, accompanied by calls for demonstrations. Those tweets organized like-minded activists to meet at New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza in an effort to shut down the annual Christmas tree lighting and to clutter the floors of Grand Central Terminal with a “mass grave” of bodies within a few quick hours.
Be sure to tweet your whereabouts and why you’re out. After all, there’s no use holding a demonstration if no one hears you. “You can see that it’s not just five people standing in Times Square — it’s people marching throughout the city,” Marcus Messner, a journalism professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, tells the Wall Street Journal. “The immediate visuals we’re seeing on Twitter and Instagram help people overcome that barrier to getting out and protesting.”
If there’s action rising up at multiple spots across a city, stick to one trusted source for location information or you may find yourself fruitlessly chasing different marches.
7. Channel the momentum.
The weeks after a protest can feel like a letdown. Nothing’s changed, you might say, but remember that social progress moves at a glacial pace. (Case in point: Seven decades passed between the convention in Seneca Falls and the day women finally gained the right to vote.) Maintain your involvement through letter writing campaigns or boycotts; study the cause you’re fighting for. And keep marching.