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How to Protest Safely During a Pandemic

Here’s how to protect yourself and others as you put your body on the line.
01 June 2020, 1:52am
How to Protest Safely During a Pandemic
Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

We’ve witnessed some truly hideous shit during the course of this pandemic: police brutality, economic collapse, callous disregard for our most vulnerable populations, terrible behavior from politicians and lies from megacorporations whose profits are only increasing. There is a lot to be angry about, and a lot worth protesting.

Until this week, the highest-profile demonstrations happening in the United States amid the pandemic were anti-lockdown protests demanding that businesses like gyms and tanning salons reopen. Populated mostly by conservatives who full-on deny the threat of COVID-19, desperate to return to “normal,” their demands have been heavily covered and their views have slotted neatly into the ongoing Culture War narrative. Other protests, such as drive-by demands to free prisoners, online climate and COVID-19 awareness activism carried out by college students, or a small handful of demonstrators opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline, have been able to comply with social distancing guidelines, according to the ACLU.

But in the wake of the deaths of Tony McDade, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers, people across the country have begun taking to the streets to protest police brutality and call for the abolishment of law enforcement agencies. Of course, being in close proximity to other people right now comes with COVID-19 risks… But we have arrived at a point where it is apparent that many of us are also immediately, existentially threatened by violence at the hands of the state. And people in the privileged position of not experiencing law enforcement as a direct threat have a moral obligation to support others who don’t have that same privilege.

Here’s how to do that in a way that minimizes the risks involved, both to ourselves and the people we fight alongside.

Follow protest precautions and best practices from non-pandemic times

The advice that circulates whenever demonstrations spring up is all still applicable now—the threat of avoiding COVID-19 exists alongside modern privacy and safety concerns. Use apps like Signal or Whatsapp to communicate with organizers. Turn off your cell phone’s location data (or get a burner phone and leave your regular device at home). Bring an ID, cash, and note cards with “In Case of Emergency” contacts. Read more about protecting your digital privacy while protesting here, and more about what to bring to a peaceful protest and why here.

Additionally, be prepared for law enforcement to deploy “crowd control tactics” like pepper bullets and tear gas (because they’ve already done so in Denver, according to local news reports).If you or anyone around you is hit with pepper spray or pepper bullets, flushing the affected areas with milk or water and keeping them exposed to fresh air is the fastest route to relief, according to ABC News. Popular Science reports—in a guide to getting tear gassed that’s absolutely worth reading in full—that wearing eye makeup or contacts could increase irritation resulting from tear gas (because tear gas is made up of particulate matter, not gas, contacts or makeup could trap those particles in your eyes!). It might be a good idea to skip those if you’re heading out.

Pack a couple of water bottles, in case you or anyone else needs a quick face wash. PopSci also recommends concocting a water and baking soda solution (three teaspoons of powder for every 8.5 ounces of liquid), used by protestors in Hong Kong, to help neutralize tear gas’s effects.

Assess your personal COVID-19 risk, and the risk of those you live with

It’s hard to resist the urge to be with each other right now. While the desire to protest state-sanctioned violence alongside other members of your community is different from, say, wanting to meet up with someone from Tinder—more urgent, outward-facing, and community-oriented—we still have to take stock of our personal risk when deciding whether or not to join in-person action.

Ask yourself: How old am I? How old are the people I live with and around? Do I, or any of the people I’m in regular contact with, have comorbidities that could increase the severity of a COVID-19 infection? What is the infection rate in my state, city, or community? Is it increasing, or decreasing? How widespread is testing, and how many of those tests come back positive?

It’s worth noting that most COVID-19 transmission takes place indoors, among households. That’s why experts are recommending our social lives resume outside before we start congregating in restaurants, gyms, and nightclubs again. The same principle applies to protesting: Outside, in fresh air, is going to be safer than any demonstration indoors (like the one in which a bunch of guys brought guns into Michigan’s capitol last month).

So, if you’re not participating in action remotely, plan to demonstrate outdoors instead. Still, it’s important to remember that the coronavirus risk outside is not zero, and it will increase if you are, say, arrested and held by police.

Only you can decide if the risk is worth it—if the threat of violence from law enforcement and the state as a whole is bigger than the threat of COVID-19 right now. It’s a deeply personal decision, with no truly “correct” answer, and it is a disgrace that we have to make it right now. (It could also be worth weighing the risk of demonstrating against other, more frivolous risks you’ve been taking, particularly if you’re a white person, and asking yourself, Why those and not this?)

But if the answer to any of these questions puts you or your loved ones particularly at-risk, it may be worth participating in other ways, like taking virtual action, calling local politicians, or donating to bail funds or other local organizations working to defund law enforcement.

Comply with COVID-19 safety measures as much as possible

Under normal circumstances, face coverings at protests are controversial and sometimes straight-up illegal. But now, organizers have told protestors to wear PPE, especially face masks, for in-person action. If you’re able, consider using something medical grade; a surgical mask, for instance, is better at stopping the transmission of COVID-19 particles than a bandana. And be sure to wear the mask properly: it should fit snugly over the mouth, nose, and chin, secure enough that you don’t have to tug on it or pull it down for any reason. Check out this Google Doc on protest sanitization protocol, which was adapted from material developed by U.K.-based transfeminist community aid organization QueerCare, for even more thorough instructions.

When you’re protesting outside, maintain social distancing as much as possible. Of course, distancing may be a forgone prospect; how close protestors get to each other is determined by a whole slew of factors, from crowd size to street width, but it’s still worth trying to maintain as much space between yourself and strangers as possible, and to avoid touching other people, or sharing food, beverages, sign-making materials, or anything else unless it’s an absolute emergency.

Pack some hand sanitizer, and remember to cough or sneeze into your elbow. Yelling or even talking loudly can cause people to expel more respiratory droplets, so try to put extra distance between yourself and anyone who is chanting, especially if they are unmasked. Participate from your car or from your window, if that option is available.

We’re all eager to return to our social lives as they were pre-pandemic, even as it becomes clear that that may not be possible for a long time. It makes sense, then, that people would also feel called to return to their social responsibilities, one of which is standing up in the face of oppression and state-sanctioned violence. It is always brave to protest injustice, because it always involves putting oneself in harm’s way to affect change; it’s even braver to do so now that the risk is so tangible.

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