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How to Prepare and Stay Safe While You March

This weekend, people around the world will take to the streets to protest the inauguration and stand in solidarity with the Women's March on Washington. A representative from the ACLU explains how to stay safe while exercising your First Amendment...
Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Whether you plan to protest the inauguration in DC, join the Women's March on Washington the next day, or participate in another form of local action, there's something you need to have: a plan.

Marching can be intimidating, and taking a public political action always involves some amount of risk. Though expressing your First Amendment right should be simple — you walk, you shout, you go home — knowing your rights and being prepared for unexpected circumstances can help you confidently and effectively exercise your right to free speech. If you intend to engage in civil disobedience, having a plan in case of arrest is especially vital.


"The First Amendment is kind of like an old car that you keep in your garage and everyone once and awhile you have to take that car out and drive it to make sure it still works," says Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, Executive Director of the Washington DC chapter of the ACLU.

"So many people are coming to DC for the first time, and this may be their first rally or their first protest," she says. "But they have been moved to make their voices heard, and that's what's so exciting."

Read more: Meet the Former Undocumented Immigrant Running for Congress to Fight Trump

For those who may be intimidated by the scope of protests around the country during the upcoming inaugural weekend (the Women's March alone is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of participants), Hopkins-Maxwell emphasizes the importance of preparedness.

"One of the most powerful things about the First Amendment is exercising the right of the First Amendment. We'd hate to have people chill their own First Amendment rights and not have their voices heard because they fear things may happen. So educate yourself before you come, make a plan, and hopefully everyone goes home safely."

Below are some tips on how to make a plan, alongside some basic information on protesters' rights.

If you're going to be in DC, learn about the different law enforcement agencies.

"People have to realize that DC is home not only to local law enforcement, but we're also home to federal law enforcement agencies," says Hopkins-Maxwell. "Those range from the Secret Service to Capitol Police to the Parks Service that takes care of the Mall." On the day of the inauguration, all these agencies will be present, as well as law enforcement agencies from outside DC proper and National Guardsmen providing support as well.

It's important to familiarize yourself with these law enforcement agencies for a couple of reasons. "For example, we know through social media that there's going to be a 'queer dance party' in front of Mike Pence's house," says Hopkins-Maxwell. "If the Pences are home, there's probably going to be Secret Service in front of their house, and if Secret Service asks you to clear an area, regardless of whether that ares is public area or not, you are required to clear that area."


She also notes that knowing which agency you're dealing with in an interaction will be important should you need to report an officer's behavior. Also, if you want to engage in civil disobedience, it's important to know who you're engaging with because it may make a difference where you are taken if arrested.

If you're part of a marginalized community, know your rights to protect your safety.

"If transgender individuals are coming to DC, they should know that if you engage with a law enforcement officer in the District of Columbia, DC law is that that officer will abide by the gender identity of the person," says Hopkins-Maxwell. "And then if that person for any reason is arrested, they will abide by the gender marker on any identification. So if people are coming and they haven't updated their gender marker on their driver's license or things like that, we would recommend that they do."

If you're protesting elsewhere, look up the local laws on the issue first.

"If people are immigrants, if they are not from the United States, they should memorize their A number, or their immigration number, if they have one," she says. "If people are undocumented and they plan on engaging in civil disobedience, they should be aware that, whether they're undocumented or not, that may have consequences. So we would advise making a safety plan." Here are some resources in that vein from the National Immigration Project.

Determine a meeting place in case you get separated from your companions.

Don't count on your phone to connect with friends or family if you get separated in a large crowd. Especially in DC, there will increased cell and streaming activity. Hopkins-Maxwell recommends having a meet-up place and a schedule, as well as writing down phone numbers in case service is disrupted.

Know the lay of the land.

If you're going to be in a new city or different part of town that you're not familiar with, do some research about the location of the protest or march and figure out how to navigate ahead of time. Getting the lay of the land will be nearly impossible when the crowds arrive. If you'll be in DC and you've never been there, here's a helpful map that will give you some important information about the area of the Women's March. Wherever you are, know where you might be taken if you're arrested, know where local hospitals are, and try to have a sense of how to get home.

Have someone to call.

If you get hurt or arrested, or even just lost, have someone you know (and perhaps a legal resource) to call. Write that number on a piece of paper, or even your arm.

You can photograph in public.

In a public setting, you are allowed to take photos. You are allowed to record police. The ACLU has an app for recording police conduct that includes a guide on knowing your rights, as well. It's also a good idea to put a passcode on your phone so that if you are detained, police can't search through it. Some sources also recommend removing thumbprint passcodes because police can physically force your thumb onto it.

Bring as little as you can.

Many events will have limitations on what you can bring, including the Women's March in DC. Know what the regulations are so you don't get turned away. Also, anticipate you might lose everything you're carrying on your person and don't bring anything you can't replace. The ACLU does recommend bringing $100 and at least three days worth of essential medication (in its original bottle). If you are arrested, it's important to be prepared in case you are detained by the police for an extended period of time.

Be informed about local marijuana laws.

Remember that in most places, marijuana is illegal, and even in DC, it's not fully legal. "You're not allowed to smoke in public and if you're smoking in public that's a violation," points out Hopkins-Maxwell. "But since we do have federal law enforcement, if you're smoking in public, say, on the Mall, that's a federal violation because with the park police you'll be under federal jurisdiction." For those traveling, here's a list of various local marijuana laws across the US.

Know how to handle tear gas.

It's unlikely that tear gas will be used by police, but it is a possibility. Here's a guide for how for to deal with exposure. Tips include staying calm, not rubbing it in, and getting your contacts out as quickly as possible. Have a pair of glasses on hand just in case.

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Common sense will help you avoid situations where you don't feel comfortable and protections exist so you can safely and effectively exercise your freedom of speech. It's one of the benefits of living in a democracy. In 2017, it's especially important that you take advantage of them.