Everything You Need to Know Before Attending Your First Protest
Two protesters at the Youth Strike 4 Climate.
It’s 2019, and the planet is dying. Crops are struggling to grow, global temperatures are soaring, and the sea is – quite literally – boiling us alive. According to the UN, we’re staring down one of the most urgent crises in humankind’s history, and unless we act now, all life on earth is facing extinction (and that’s an optimistic reading).
So if you’re feeling angry, that would make a lot of sense. You should be very angry! You should also be ready to take action, which you can do this week at the Fridays For Future march.
The protest, which takes place on Friday May 24, will see thousands of students skip school to march against government inaction over climate change. Inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, the demonstrations will be happening in cities all over the world, and follow similar events in February, March and April. They’re open to anyone who feels angry about the state of their future – even if it’s their first time ever at a protest.
So if you’re thinking of joining but haven’t got a clue what to expect, here are the things you need to know.
What do I wear?
First and foremost: check the weather. Then double check it on five other apps. You’re going to be outside for hours, and – while it’s tempting to take the opportunity to dress up and stand out – you want to be comfortable. Pack layers! A raincoat! Take a backpack! Wear your comfiest shoes! It’s also widely recommended that you wear glasses or sunglasses to protect your eyes from any tear gas should things kick off (this is unlikely, but it’s best to be prepared).
How do I make a sign that isn't going to fall apart at the first sign of a breeze?
Protest signs are a staple of any major demonstration. Expect to see thousands out there, all competing to be the funniest and most creative. For some people, this really is where the true battle lies. So how can you become a contender?
First, nail the basics. For the sign itself, you’ll need a couple of thick, sturdy pieces of card (or foam core boards), which you can glue together. Remember: this base needs to be as rigid as possible. Then, mount another piece of card – ideally white for maximum visibility – on top of that. This is what you make your masterpiece on.
For the handle, get a flat-edged wooden stick (or rolled up poster paper), and stick that halfway up the back of the sign. Make sure it’s firmly attached – super glue and duct tape, or staples, should do the trick – and that you have enough room to hold it at the bottom.
If you can’t be arsed to come up with your own piping hot placard content, you can just contact the organisers – they often have their own poster templates, and sometimes give out free signs if you arrive early enough. But where’s the fun in that? Don’t be dry.
What do I need to pack?
There are many things to consider packing when you’re out on your first protest, but these are your essentials: a refillable water bottle, food, suncream, ID, a portable phone charger, any medication you might need, and toilet paper (look, you never know). A bust card – a small piece of paper with advice about your legal rights – will also prove vital if things get out of hand.
What if I need to pee?
There are plenty of spots that can offer you some sweet relief. Your best bets are pubs and department stores, all of which have toilets that are easy to sneak into.
If there are none of those on your route, then opt for a cafe. As a general rule, the bigger the better – larger branches of Pret, Costa and Starbucks will have toilets, but you might have to buy something (a small coffee, a protein pot, a sugary energy boost) to access them. If all that fails, look to the horizon and follow the gleam of the Golden Arches.
What should I do if I see a police officer or journalist photograph me when I don't want them to?
Unfortunately, the law is not really on your side here: you’re fair game to be photographed if you’re attending a public protest in the UK. However, if you do see a journalist photograph you, you can politely ask them to delete your image – it shouldn’t be too much of problem. If they don’t comply, ask what media organisation they’re working with, and pass the message on to their photo editor.
You can also avoid the hassle by going incognito – wear a fun mask, a wig, big sunglasses, or a bandana over the lower part of your face – though police officers can demand that you remove any face coverings if a Section 60 order has been put in place for the protest.
What if I lose my friends?
Do not, under any circumstances, agree to meet friends inside the protest. YOU WILL NOT FIND THEM. THEY ARE GONE. You will search for hours, wave at strangers, cry down the phone, and leave increasingly demented voicemails (phone reception always gets mangled in big crowds). Save yourself the pain by meeting everyone outside of the protest zone, and then stay close once you’re in it. If you do lose each other inside, make sure you formalise a meeting point so that you can find each other again.
What if I lose phone reception?
This is, sadly, pretty likely to happen. Most mobile service providers go into meltdown during big protests, which can make posting on social media or finding lost friends (see above) nearly impossible. You can ease the pain by getting set up on The Cloud, which is the free WiFi service that powers most public venues across the UK. Make sure you download the app before you go, that way you can see where all the hotspots are – but bear in mind that free WiFi comes with definite security pitfalls, especially under our current surveillance state.
What if my phone starts dying?
If you don’t have a portable charger, don’t panic. Using low power mode (if you have it), avoiding social media, dimming screen brightness, and turning off location sharing and background refresh on your apps will slow battery drainage. (Closing all your apps does not, and will only make things worse, just FYI.) You can also switch it to aeroplane mode whenever you’re not using it.
If your phone does die – or looks close to dying – make sure you note down your route home. An analogue backup of emergency numbers and planned journeys is always important, especially when you don’t know how long you’ll be marching for.
What if I get kettled?
Kettling is a lawful but brutal police tactic, where officers keep protestors confined to a certain area. Exits can be completely blocked off, leaving people with no access to food, water and toilet facilities. (At the 2010 student protests, demonstrators were trapped for up to seven hours).
Obviously, this is not ideal – so come prepared. Carry enough food, water and emergency toilet paper for the day, and try your best not to aggravate or provoke the police. Even if they do the same to you, it will never end well: just try to take down their shoulder identification number, and seek support from organisations like Green & Black Cross once you’re out of there.
It’s worth remembering that police are obliged to create a plan for the release of “vulnerable or distressed persons or those inadvertently caught up in the police containment”, and that you don’t need to give up your name or have your photo taken in order to leave a kettle – this was ruled unlawful by the High Court.