How to Protest Safely

October 11, 2011

I have been watching the protests on Wall Street and around the country with interest, and I have a few tips collected from privacy advocates on how to protest safely. To be honest, it is not clear to me what the protests are about (and it doesn't seem to be clear to most protesters either), but it is within our rights to joins groups in such actions, and I was wondering how one avoids the legal and other troubles that sometimes come with that decision.

I researched what privacy experts recommend, and compiled a few suggestions for you. I hope you'll know what you are protesting when the time comes; it seems that it would be more likely to succeed that way. Of course some protesters want to be arrested to make a point. But you may want a quieter role, and you may not want unfair retribution from police or others. If so, read on...

1. Disguise Yourself

Surveillance has become the tool of choice for police monitoring gatherings of people, so if you want to protest safely, disguise yourself. I just finished reading about a protest here in Colorado where I live, and the police not only had video of the entire event, but they later zoomed in on the faces of the protesters and offered a reward for identification. They then went after those who were identified, handing out fines and trespassing charges (apparently the gathering was not limited to public property). But they had to have someone recognize the faces first. New facial recognition technology may soon make that step unnecessary. Expect there to soon be a database with your face in it, and a program that can match it to your photo in a crowd.

A hat and sunglasses is the minimum disguise. When it is legal (see number 2) you can wear a mask or paint your face as well. The latter works best if others are doing the same; otherwise it draws attention to you. Wearing clothes that you do not normally wear is smart too. Buy cheap items from a thrift store if necessary, and if the protest happens to get violent (see number 3), throw the clothes away later--but somewhere other than at home.

2. Know the Rules

In reading a story about the Wall Street protests I discovered that when protesting in New York City you are not allowed to wear a mask or paint your face. Obviously in that case you would use other means of disguise, or subject yourself to the possibility of arrest. Learn about the limitations on free speech where you plan to be active, and avoid breaking the rules.

3. Have Your Own Plan

The organizers may have their own ideas about how to protest, which might cross legal lines. In addition, agitators within the gathering could steer the crowd into illegal territory. While it sometimes makes sense to gather with others to protest injustice, it also makes sense to have your own plan for doing so. In other words, do not just go along with the crowd. If things are getting too crazy, quietly step out of the group and move away. You did your part, and unless getting arrested is in your plan, there is no reason to stay until the trouble starts. Know how far you are willing to go and plan your activity based on that.

4. Don't Advertise

Again, some people want to cause trouble that will get them arrested. If you, on the other hand, want to cause trouble without getting arrested, or just want to peacefully make a statement through your presence, don't tell all your friends you were there. You can argue for a cause without telling people what you are doing about it. If the crowd turns violent and there are arrests, it is better that nobody knows you were there. I assume you do not want to join in the violence, but that doesn't mean the police won't want to question you if you were present. Maintaining you privacy is usually the best plan.

5. Be Prepared

This is a very general suggestion, but here are few specifics... Try to protest when you don't have important appointments (or work) the same day, just in case you are arrested. Bring a small bottle of water in your pocket, both for hydration and for rinsing out your eyes if you are pepper-sprayed (as several innocent women were in the recent protests). Dress for the weather and know how you will leave the protest area (taxis may not be readily available if there are thousands of people around looking for a way home afterward).

Follow these suggestions and think on your feet. That's how to protest safely.

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