DOs and DON’Ts: A Guide to Your First Protest

DON'T get pepper-sprayed, DON'T get arrested... DO remember to have fun, though!
February 13, 2019, 9:00am
from the 'Fuck The Tories' protest, 2015
(Photos via Jake Lewis)

Despite the British government's best efforts to turn peaceful protest into a terrorist activity, you can still just about get away with holding a placard here without the looming threat of a lifetime in prison. And that’s quite good really, because – from snogging in the aisles of Sainsbury’s to getting stark bollock naked or throwing on a Batman costume and breaking into Buckingham Palace – campaigners have long used all sorts of tactics to grab people’s attention and change their minds. The most fundamental form of protest has, though, remained the same for centuries: demonstrations and marches in the streets, a mass coming together of people in public which has time and again proved impossible to ignore. Remember Iraq! Remember tuition fees! Remember the badgers!

The power of protests like this comes from their simplicity – just turning up means you can play your part, because how much can you really fuck up standing still and looking angry? That said, there are tips and tricks that can make attending a little easier, ways to minimise the risk of getting KO’d by the police or losing all your mates when you run into Pret for an egg pot and a wee. So if you’re one of the thousands of school pupils and students skipping class this Friday for the Youth Strike 4 Climate demonstrations in 40+ British towns and cities, here’s a helpful list of dos and don’ts if this is your first ride on the social justice rodeo.

DO: Try and prepare a few answers to simple questions in your head about why you're here today: what are you protesting? Why did you miss double chemistry? Is climate change really so bad? You’ll almost certainly be asked by suited-and-booted City workers, journalists, and confused-looking tourists trying to make their way to Madame Tussauds. There’s really no need to be an expert in the specific scientific details, but being able to articulate yourself will help to win people round (plus, a viral video of you answering "so why are you protesting?" with a blank expression and a sound YouTube uploaders will term 'worlds_longest_uhh' is never a good look when you're trying to change hearts and minds).

DON’T: Forget to print out a bust card if there’s a chance police might be lurking – these are little slips of paper with advice about your legal rights. Familiarise yourself with basic information, e.g. if you are arrested then make sure to say "no comment" to all questions until you’ve spoken to a solicitor. And scrawl a phone number for a lawyer onto your arm in permanent marker in case the printout goes missing: it might prove invaluable if it all kicks off.

Do: Bring a portable speaker! Take some pictures! Make friends with other like-minded people skipping class! Ultimately, standing outside a building and walking from A-to-B are quite boring and mundane tasks – even if you’re doing them for a good cause – so find ways to lighten the mood and pass the time. Yes, protests are serious things with serious aims, but they’re also chances to have a laugh. That's why you always see a lad there doing diabolo.

DON'T: Get into a fight with a police officer if you can avoid it. I get that they’re annoying – lads who browse "tactical watches" in the Argos catalogue and still put "milk monitor" on their CV can't really help but be – and they are especially pricks when they kettle you (trapping you in an enclosed area) for no reason at all, but punching them in the face does little to placate them. That said, one might well try to have a fight with you. If they do, take down all of their details and seek some professional legal advice (look at your arm!) ASAP.

DO: Spend some time making a placard to carry with you. As long as you don’t opt for something weird and embarrassing, signs can be a powerful visual display of your beliefs, and they can help passers by decipher a protest from a fun run or sponsored walk. Big public protests are also about making headlines, and journalists love an easy “Here Are The Best Placards We Saw” story. Placards (wooden sticks and thick card) can also be used as a defence mechanism if an authority figure tries to fight you (see above), and are a great way of sticking out to your mates in the crowd if you get split up.

fuq the tories

DON’T: Join in with the drum circle. Do not! Do not! Do not! Even if you think you’re doing it ironically, I promise that you will only encourage them. See a drum circle? Stay away. You have been warned.

DO: Make sure someone brings some flares or smoke grenades to let off en route: they serve little practical value whatsoever, but are great for creating a vibe / dramatic effect. And what is a protest if not "a fairly large get-together made purely for dramatic effect"?

DON’T: Worry too much if a march or demonstration veers off in an unexpected direction; protests are supposed to be disruptive, so there’s no harm in keeping the authorities on their toes. Sure, there’ll be a plan in place, but others might have their own actions or splinter-protests planned. Protests, like parties, are at their best when they’re hard to contain and control.

DO: Bring a little flask of milk along, or a handful of those UHT sachets you can nick from cafés: it’s good for splashing in your eyes to relieve the searing pain of being tear-gassed, should it happen. If you don't get tear-gassed, you’re in luck: you leave both with your sight intact and some lovely warm milk for the journey home.

DON’T: Be afraid to engage in civil disobedience or direct action: attention-grabbing stunts like sit-downs and road blockades have long been used by activists to make themselves noticed. It’s 100 percent true that taking a seat in the middle of a busy road on your own is an awful idea and you definitely should not do it – even if you really do hate climate change – but if thousands of people refuse to be moved they become hard to ignore, so then maybe you should.

DO: Make sure to pack all the essentials: food, a refillable water bottle, a portable phone charger, extra layers and toilet paper too. Having to run into Tesco to buy a bottle of Evian means you might end up losing your spot in the march, and single use plastics aren’t Good 4 Climate at all.

DON’T: Hold back from posting all across your social media: if enough people start sharing online it’s easy to get the protest trending, and it won’t be long before your message is reaching people all across the world. Activism is also very hot in 2019, and will do really good things for your #personalbrand.

DO: Buy my book, please. It’s called Resist! How To Be An Activist In The Age of Defiance