How to Stay as Safe as Possible While You Protest

Sarah Jacoby

Nationwide, people are protesting not just the murder of Black people by police (George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are recent examples) but the many years and generations of violence at the hands of police and the state that have led to this moment.

Protesting can come with varying risks, depending on the situation. It’s important to know how to stay safe at any protest, but the stakes are especially high at a moment when protestors are at risk both from police violence and from COVID-19. And while there are certain things you can do to try to mitigate those risks, unfortunately even protesting peacefully in these situations is not a guarantee of safety—particularly for Black protesters. As we’ve seen in recent days, numerous protests across the country have been met with militarized and violent police responses, including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, and charging toward the crowd on horseback or in a patrol vehicle.

This is not meant to deter you from protesting but to make you mindful of steps you can take to try to protect yourself while exercising your rights. Here are a few things to keep in mind to stay as safe as possible.

1. Go with a buddy.

If you can, go to the protest with a buddy or a small group, Amnesty International says. Make sure everyone has everyone else’s contact information handy (perhaps written on your body in permanent marker or on a piece of paper if you decided not to bring your phone), and make a general plan for how long you want to stay, where you’ll meet if you get separated, and where your exit routes are.

Check in regularly with your group to make sure no one gets lost. If you do lose track of someone or find out they’ve been arrested, that’s your cue to to reach out to their contacts and possibly coordinate legal help.

Additionally, if you’re not able to attend or are uncomfortable attending a protest yourself, you can offer to be someone else’s offsite contact in case something happens to them. This is a great way to participate without being physically at the protest.

2. Wear the right clothes and bring the right gear.

You’ll want to aim for comfort and protection, meaning you should wear shoes you can walk in for hours at a time, and potentially run in; clothing that covers as much of your skin as possible; a face mask; and, if you anticipate tear gas or projectiles, protective goggles, Amnesty International says. Given the current circumstances—where many protests are erupting into police violence without warning—protective goggles along with your face mask seem like a good idea.

Be sure to bring your ID, emergency contact information, cash, snacks, and water—ideally in a bottle with a squirt top that can also be used to rinse your skin or eyes. You may also want to bring a change of clothes if you’re expecting tear gas, as the irritants can linger in your clothing.

One common and preventable issue street medics see is the worsening of chronic health conditions, Emily, a nurse practitioner and street medic with Chicago Action Medical, tells SELF. So if you have a medical condition like diabetes, asthma, or severe allergies, bring the medical items you need to stay safe, which might include things like glucose tablets, a rescue inhaler, or an EpiPen.

3. Look to the organizers for specific instructions.

Although big protests with tear gas and cars on fire get the most media attention, there are many different types of demonstrations occurring out there right now, Ben, a wilderness EMT, nursing student, and another street medic with Chicago Action Medical, tells SELF. The risk level isn’t going to be the same at every one.

That said, it’s certainly not always possible to anticipate how the police will respond to you and your fellow protestors—Monday night’s protests in Washington, D.C., where National Guard troops and U.S. Park Police used pepper balls and smoke canisters on peaceful protesters so that President Trump could get a photo op at a Church, is one such example. But you can look to the organizers for specific instructions about what to wear and how to prepare ahead of time as one way to at least better understand what to expect.

4. Know that police violence is a possibility.

If you’re at a protest that is likely to have a police confrontation—which is the case for many of the protests currently happening around the country—various forms of police violence are one of the biggest threats to consider, particularly if you are a Black person.

Around the country, police are using pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets and injuring protestors during arrests and physical altercations—like pushing them to the ground or striking them with batons. As we’ve seen from various reports, it’s oftentimes the police themselves who instigate violence, which means that even if you’re protesting lawfully and following police orders, you’re still not safe from harm at their hands. Of course protestors can try to avoid situations that are escalating, but ultimately this is not really something that’s in your control.

Tear gas causes really unpleasant symptoms like stinging and burning in the eyes but also pain in the lungs, chest tightness, headaches, and nausea, SELF explained previously. Wearing airtight eye protection like goggles will help protect your eyes. But don’t wear contact lenses, as they can trap the gas between the lenses and your eyes, Emily says. If you are exposed to an irritant like tear gas, “ultimately the easiest simplest thing [to wash it out] is just plain water,” she says. “It mechanically pushes the tear gas residue or pepper spray out of the eyes.”

But even without an intervention, know that the effects of tear gas are generally temporary and the most important thing is to remain calm and remember it will pass, Ben says.

When it comes to rubber bullets, studies show that being hit with a “kinetic impact projectile” like this has a real capacity for harm—especially if police are shooting them at areas like your eyes, head, or neck. Even if they just cause skin injuries, these can be painful too. Wearing thick clothing, like denim, and covering as much of your skin as possible will help provide a bit of protection.

One of the most common injuries people get while protesting are related to handcuffs or zip ties that have been put on too tightly, causing nerve compression. There’s not much you can do to prevent these injuries, but it’s important to clean any cuts or scrapes in the area with soap and water and try to massage and stretch your arms and wrists in the following days, Chicago Action Medical says. You may find it useful to apply things like St. Johns Wort oil, which can have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effects. The symptoms should gradually go away. If you have a loss of feeling in your hands, you should seek medical care immediately.

5. If you’re injured or there’s an emergency, don’t hesitate to flag down a street medic.

Street medics see and are trained to deal with everything from “live rounds to boo-boos,” Ben says, so know that no matter how minor or severe an injury may seem, a medic can help you get the care you need.

Even if all you have is a scrape, a lot of us probably know how to wash it and bandage it effectively on our own, but “given the context and the intensity, it’s often very helpful to have someone else that can do that,” Emily says. “[We’re] providing care as much as [we’re] providing support.”

And in the event of an actual emergency situation, street medics will facilitate with EMTs to get you appropriate care—but only with your consent. They will also talk you through your options, and if you’re unsure, they can help you figure out what you want to happen, Emily says. If you do decide to go to a hospital, they can help advocate for you as you enter the traditional medical system.

6. Reduce exposure to and transmission of the coronavirus.

It’s a cruel reality that Black people are forced to protest for justice during a global pandemic that also, in the U.S., disproportionately affects Black people.

Those who protest undoubtedly know the health risks they are taking, which underscores just how vitally important this fight is. But for those who do decide to protest, it’s good to know that there are ways to minimize the chances of being infected with the virus and ways to help prevent spreading it to those you live with.

While social distancing will likely be difficult to maintain, try to stay six feet away from others if possible, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says. Definitely wear a mask covering your mouth and nose during the protest. Bring extras in case yours falls off or gets wet or sprayed with tear gas, or just to hand out to your fellow protestors. Also bring hand sanitizer with you if you can.

After the protest, wash your hands with soap and water. Consider changing your clothes, washing your backpack, and washing your shoes in the laundry (if your shoes are washable) to prevent bringing the virus inside as much as possible. If you can’t wash these items immediately, you can wipe them down with a disinfectant. However, experts say measures like these are less important than things like social distancing, hand hygiene, and wearing masks. Finally, if you develop any COVID-19 symptoms in the 14 days following the protests, get tested as soon as you can and self-isolate in the meantime.

7. Be on the lookout for dehydration and heat exhaustion.

Preventable issues like these are by far the most common issues that street medics see at protests, Emily says, and it comes down to basic self care: dress for the weather, drink water, bring a snack, et cetera.

But as temperatures and humidity increase, it becomes more and more important to watch out for the symptoms of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. These symptoms may start with thirst, lightheadedness, and fatigue, street medic group Chicago Action Medical explains. If you notice these, it’s important to rest (ideally in shade or with a fan) and rehydrate.

From there you might also experience cramps, dizziness, vision changes, and fever. This is where things start to get worrying. Rest in the shade, rehydrate, and use cooling ice packs. If someone showing symptoms of dehydration also starts to appear confused or less responsive, consider it a medical emergency.

8. Take care of your mental health.

The health effects of attending a protest where you may be injured don’t end when you leave. For many, there will undoubtedly be lingering mental health effects related to witnessing police violence and injuries. Any intense emotional experience like that can trigger some feelings like anxiety, anger, guilt, and many, many other things, North Star Health Collective explains. So it’s crucial to remember that your need to care for yourself will continue and will likely include caring for your mental health.

In fact, Ben says that a crucial part of street medic training is helping people assess their needs and beginning the debriefing process as well as connecting them to organizations in the community that focus specifically on mental health.

How that actually looks in practice may be different for different people. You may need to give yourself a day to recoup and focus on eating nutritious meals, getting good sleep, and engaging in activities that bring you joy. It might mean speaking honestly and openly with the caring, active listeners in your friend group. Or you may need to seek out professional therapy to process what you’re going through, perhaps with a mental health professional who specializes in working with Black clients.

But note that this is not meant to be a way to ignore what’s happening in the world—especially for white people. It’s a way to recover and recharge so that you can come back and continue to devote your time and energy to this fight.

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Originally Appeared on SELF