Health

How to Protest Safely During a Pandemic

Here’s how to protect yourself and others as you put your body on the line.
May 29, 2020, 7:14pm
How to Protest Safely During a Pandemic
Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

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. Even (or especially) for people in the privileged position of not experiencing law enforcement as a direct threat, there is a moral obligation to support others who don’t enjoy 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 take the time to write some “In Case of Emergency” contacts in permanent marker on your body. 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, rubber bullets, and tear gas. Dress in layers: you never know if you’ll need to strip down to avoid heat stroke or bundle up if you’re stuck waiting for someone to get released from jail overnight. 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.

As for rubber bullets, they are not as measured of a weapon as they sound: They are “non-lethal” metal projectiles, cased in rubber. According to firsthand accounts like this one from The Cut, getting hit with a rubber bullet is no joke, and can result in serious injuries—freelance reporter Linda Tirado lost her left eye after being shot with a rubber bullet while covering a protest in Minneapolis on May 29. Long-sleeved shirts, thick pants, and goggles all help reduce potential damage from these sometimes-deadly projectiles.

In a guide to getting tear gassed that’s absolutely worth reading in full, Popular Science reported 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, and some milk of magnesia, 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.

Additionally, make sure you’re staying aware of your surroundings. There’s obviously a limit to how much control any individual has in the context of a massive demonstration, but it’s worth taking heed of this advice from BuzzFeed News’s Addy Baird to set a timer and evaluate your exit options every 15 minutes or so in case of an emergency. And if you’re filming any of the police-on-protester violence, check out this guide on how to safely film the police from Teen Vogue.

Finally, make sure you’ve got people at home who know where you are. Make a point to check in and check out of the protest with someone out of harm’s way and let other people know where you plan to go—things may change in the heat of the moment, but knowing where you started can help loved ones track you from afar, even if you leave your phone at home.

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.

Show up with friends, and make sure you’re all on the same page

Protesting always comes with risks. But, in accord with the numerous clips of police attacking protestors available on social media (here’s a supercut, share it with your mom who’s upset about looting!), it’s clear that the risk of injury or arrest while attending these particular protests is very, very real. That’s why it’s important to show up to any action with at least one other person you know, and to discuss beforehand the kinds of engagement you’re both comfortable with.

Before you head out, have group members try to clarify with each other your stances on the following questions:

  • Are you interested in physically engaging with police officers (like by approaching them and acting as a human shield), or would you prefer to watch from far away?

  • Is there anything that would prevent you from making a quick exit in case of escalation or emergency?

  • Are you willing to break curfew?

  • Are you willing to get arrested?

  • Do you have any prior convictions that could lead to harsher charges upon arrest?

  • Any conditions that you need daily medication for, which could be withheld upon arrest?

If you are willing to get arrested, or think you’ll be participating to the point where that’s a possibility (not that cops are limiting themselves to arresting protesters!), check out this in-depth guide from It’s Going Down on setting up jail support and what to do before, during, and after you’re detained.

It’s clearer than ever that all we have is each other; that means it’s essential to be open and honest about our limits and expectations, especially when our actions directly impact the safety of those around us.

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 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.

Follow Katie Way on Twitter.

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