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How to Attend a Rally Safely in the Bay Area: Your Rights, Protections and the Police

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A young woman with a bullhorn leads protesters on the street holding signs.
Shagoofa Khan leads a rally from the Antioch Police Department to City Hall with dozens of community members on April 18, 2023, to protest the racist and homophobic text messages shared among the department. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

This story was originally published on June 24, 2022, and was last updated at 3 p.m. Wednesday, April 24.

Months into 2024, the Bay Area has seen many passionate demonstrations.

These range from students opposing construction replacing People’s Park in Berkeley and a march in response to a Supreme Court case addressing how cities can respond to homelessness to protests, rallies and vigils drawing thousands of people around the region in support of a cease-fire in Gaza — joining direct action taking place nationwide.

These latest protests included a series of actions on April 15 that blocked I-880 in Oakland and the Golden Gate Bridge and a sit-in at UC Berkeley. These protests follow student protests at other universities, including Columbia and Yale. (Read more about the decadeslong background from NPR in their ‘Middle East crisis — explained’ series.)

A young woman stands in front of a high school building. She looks away from the camera and has the Palestinian flag painted on her rigth cheek.
Deena, a high school student, participates in a walkout to demand a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war in San Francisco on Oct. 18, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The San Francisco Bay Area has a long history of protest. But if you plan on attending a rally, how can you stay safe? What are your rights as a protester?

If this is the first time you or your friends will go to a protest, make sure to bookmark this guide, as our team frequently updates it with new information.

Related Guides From KQED

And remember: If you’re unable to join a rally or protest in person for whatever reason but want to make your stance on an issue known, you always have the option to contact your elected officials to express your opinions. For more information on what “call your reps” actually means, how to do it, and what to expect as a result, read our explainer, How Can I Call My Representative? A Step-by-Step Guide to the Process.

Have a plan — and then a backup plan

There’s a lot you can do before a protest.

Travel with friends

Choose a meeting place beforehand in the event you get separated. You may also want to designate a friend who is not at the protest as someone you can check in with.

Charge your phone. However, some activist groups also recommend taking digital security measures, such as disabling the fingerprint unlock feature to prevent a police officer from forcing you to unlock the phone. Others also recommend turning off text preview on messages and using a more secure messaging app, such as Signal.

Also, make sure that you can function without a phone. Consider writing down important phone numbers and keeping them with you.

Pack a small bag

Bring only essentials such as water, snacks, hand sanitizer and an extra phone charger.

The active component in tear gas adheres to moisture on your face. So it’s also a good idea to pack an extra mask or face covering in case you are exposed to tear gas.

Some people recommend bringing basic medical supplies and a bandana soaked in vinegar or in water in a sealed plastic bag in case there is tear gas. Others recommend a small bottle of water — or even better, a squirt bottle — to pour on your face and eyes.

If you get tear-gassed, it is often recommended to:

  • Close your eyes.
  • Hold your breath.
  • Get out of the area as soon as possible.
  • Rinse your eyes when possible (ideally using what you have packed with you).

Research the intended protest route

This may be confusing since there’s not always a clearly stated route (a protest is, or course, not a parade), but some protests have preplanned routes.

By knowing where the protest is headed, you will be able to plan how you might avoid being caught in a “kettle” or other containment method — and be able to leave when you are ready.

Know who is organizing the protest

It’s worth doing some research on the people and groups behind any protest you plan to attend to make sure it’s in alignment with your values and objectives. During certain Black Lives Matter protests in San Diego in June 2020, for instance, organizers warned demonstrators to avoid specific events they said likely had been surreptitiously coordinated by white nationalist groups.

Know your rights

You are entitled to free speech and freedom of assembly. However, your rights can be unclear during curfews and shelter-in-place orders. The American Civil Liberties Union has a detailed guide to your rights as a protester or a protest organizer. Notably, when police issue an order to disperse, it is meant to be the last resort for law enforcement.

“If officers issue a dispersal order, they must provide a reasonable opportunity to comply, including sufficient time and a clear, unobstructed exit path,” according to the ACLU. Read our guide to your rights as a spectator.

If you are photographing others, it is recommended to respect privacy, as some may not want to have videos or photos taken. This may also depend on context, location and time of day. In some cases journalists, or those documenting events, have been the target of tear gas and rubber bullets.

The First Amendment gives you the right to film police who are actively performing their duties, and bystander videos can provide important counternarratives to official accounts. Read our guide to filming encounters with the police safely and ethically and where to share your footage.

Additional information can be found from the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild — the NLG has pocket-sized know-your-rights guides in multiple languages. Writing the number for the NLG hotline (and other important numbers such as emergency contacts) on your arm in case you lose your phone or have it confiscated is another suggested way to ensure you have it — should you need it.

A large crowd with signs gathers in front of a large stone building. A line of police officers stands nearby.
Protesters, counter-protesters, and SFPD are seen at a rally in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. The court is hearing arguments for the city’s appeal of an injunction filed by the Coalition on Homelessness, which has temporarily kept city workers from removing encampments on the streets. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Be aware of your surroundings

During the first few days of George Floyd protests in the Bay Area in June 2020, there were fireworks, fires, rubber bullets, tear gas, flash-bangs and even some gunshots. Being aware of your surroundings includes having an understanding of what possible actions may occur around you.

Know the possible law enforcement ramifications of attending a protest

On April 17, San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins announced that she was considering charging a group of pro-Palestinian protesters with a felony for blocking Bay Area freeways. People who were stuck in traffic on the bridge, Jenkins wrote on X, “may be entitled to restitution + have other victim rights guaranteed under Marsy’s law.”

ACLU Northern California’s legal director, Shilpi Agarwal said she found the move by Jenkins had the potential to cast a “chilling effect” on speech in the Bay Area.

“Lawful protests are, by design, meant to be visible and inconvenient,” Agarwal said. And while the government can place “reasonable limits on protest” in what is called a “time, place, and manner restriction” — meaning authorities can call for certain parameters of protest for safety or other people using the space — the government may not tell people they cannot protest. And in public spaces, Agarwal said, “people are allowed to protest.”

What kinds of law enforcement charges could protesters face, however? Agarwal said while charges for protests can be nuanced, at a basic level, if you are engaged in a protest and encounter police officers who then determine for “some reason” you have violated the “parameters” of the protest, there are usually three charging options available to officers:

  • An infraction: typically a ticket where you show your ID, get a citation and may have to appear in court. Usually, an infraction is just a fine to pay.
  • A misdemeanor: for which “you rarely serve” jail time for low-level offenses, Agarwal said.
  • A felony: A more serious criminal charge that usually brings jail time.

Agarwal said the “vast majority of offenses that are commonly charged at protests, when the police do get involved, are typically infractions or misdemeanors.” Common provisions for protesters have been something like resisting arrest, disrupting a public meeting, and failing to disperse.

The Center for Protest Law and Litigation’s senior counsel, Rachel Lederman, said restitution is common in criminal cases, adding that  pro-Palestinian protesters who blocked the Bay Bridge in November 2023 are currently paying “a very small amount of restitution to one person who had a specific medical bill, that they attributed to the traffic blockage.”

On April 22, California State Assemblymember Kate Sanchez introduced a bill before the Assembly Transportation Committee that would create a new infraction for those who obstruct a highway during a protest that affects an emergency vehicle.

The bill proposes a fine of between $200 and $500 for the first offense, $300 and $1000 for the second offense and $500 to $1000 for additional offenses.

Reminder: Your rights are at their highest in a public forum

When considering your rights, take into account the location where a protest may take place — it could be a campus, a city council meeting, or a usually busy road. And Agarwal said that while the law is complicated and can vary in different situations, First Amendment rights are generally “at their highest when something is a public forum” — that is, a place like a sidewalk or a public plaza.

Aside from the time, place, and manner restriction, “when you have a public forum, there is very, very little that the government can do to regulate your speech,” she said.

Conversely, First Amendment rights are at their lowest at places like private homes, Agarwal said.

“It doesn’t mean that you have no rights, but it does mean that whenever and wherever you are on something that is not a public forum, the strength of your First Amendment rights starts to wane,” she said. “And the government can do more to regulate what you can and cannot say.”

Remember there are many ways to protest

As the disability community continues to remind others, there are many ways to show up. We are still in a pandemic, and you may need to weigh the risks and goals.

You can participate in many meaningful ways that don’t include attending an in-person protest or rally. This could include educating yourself, voting, talking to your community and supporting grassroots organizations, as outlined in this 2020 guide from KQED’s Nastia Voynovskaya.

You can also contact your elected officials to express your opinions. For more information on what “call your reps” actually means, read our explainer, How Can I Call My Representative? A Step-by-Step Guide to the Process.

COVID is still with us: What to know about your possible risks attending a protest

The good news: Your risks of getting COVID-19 outdoors remain far lower than your risks indoors — about 20 times less, said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist at UCSF.

Also, being vaccinated and boosted will greatly reduce your risks of getting very sick, being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19. If you’re not yet boosted, find the new COVID-19 vaccine shot near you. If you’re bringing children to a protest with you, remember that kids and babies aged 6 months and over can get their primary COVID-19 vaccine series.

But you should still think about your risks of getting (or spreading) COVID-19 at a big event full of people, even when you’re outdoors. As with so many decisions during the pandemic, a lot comes down to your personal risks and circumstances — not just to protect yourself but others, too. “I think it requires people to be thoughtful about who they are, who they live with, and what happens when they leave the protest and go back home,” Chin-Hong said.

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Consider bringing a mask along regardless

It’s not only the number of people you’ll encounter at a protest — it’s what they might be doing. Even outside, screaming, chanting, coughing and singing all expel more of the particles that can spread COVID-19 than regular activity does, and you may decide to keep your mask on during a protest if it’s a super-crowded space.

You might also find that some protest organizers explicitly request you wear a mask and maintain social distancing at the event, especially if the event is being attended by groups or communities at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

There’s also the possibility that you might not stay outside the whole time. “Whenever you have a protest, nobody just stays necessarily outdoors,” Chin-Hong said, giving pre-protest gatherings and meetings or post-protest dinners as examples.

“These may be done in people’s homes. I think it’s the stuff that goes around the actual outdoor protest that I’m more worried about,” Chin-Hong said. He recommends that people “think about carrying a mask with them, like they carry an umbrella. So that they just bring out the ‘umbrella’ when it’s potentially ‘raining with COVID.‘”

A large crowed with signs crowds around a building that has been fenced off. Many are pushing against the fence and others are carrying signs. Almost all are wearing facemasks.
Protesters take a knee during a demonstration outside of Mission Police Station to honor of George Floyd on June 3, 2020, in San Francisco. Three years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still common to see people wearing facemasks at protests to protect themselves from a possible coronavirus infection.

Back in 2021, Chin-Hong told KQED that protests against racist violence and the killing of Black people by police were themselves “a response to a public health threat, if you think about the impact of structural racism and stress on health care.”

Now, when it comes to weighing the desire to protest a cause with the risks of getting or spreading COVID-19, “I think the benefits of protesting are even more in favor of protesting now,” Chin-Hong told KQED in 2022. That “risk/benefit calculus,” as he puts it, is even more in favor of attending a rally — “because we have so many tools to keep people safer,” from vaccines and boosters to improved COVID-19 treatment if someone is hospitalized.

This story includes reporting from KQED’s Lakshmi Sarah, Lisa Pickoff-White, Carly Severn and Nisa Khan. Beth LaBerge and Peter Arcuni also contributed. A version of this story originally published on April 23, 2021.

Tell us: What else do you need information about?

At KQED News, we know that it can sometimes be hard to track down the answers to navigate life in the Bay Area. We’ve published clear, helpful explainers and guides about issues like COVID-19, how to cope with intense winter weather and how to exercise your right to protest safely.

So tell us: What do you need to know more about? Tell us, and you could see your question answered online or on social media. What you submit will make our reporting stronger, and help us decide what to cover here on our site, and on KQED Public Radio, too.

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