How to Safely Protest in the Bay Area

Asmara Gebre (L) and her daughter DJ march through San Francisco’s Mission District on Sept. 23, 2020, protesting a Kentucky grand jury's decision to not charge the Louisville police officers who fatally shot Breonna Taylor in March. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Updated Thursday, Sept. 24

Protests have again erupted across the country after a Kentucky grand jury's decision Wednesday to not charge the police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor in March after bursting into her Louisville apartment as part of a botched drug raid.

Anger, frustration and sadness over the decision poured into America’s streets — including in multiple Bay Area cities — as demonstrators lashed out at a criminal justice system they say is stacked against Black people.

For those newer to direct action and are looking for guidance during a pandemic, this post is meant to provide some safety tips and reminders.

Prepare to Continue Social Distancing

Health experts strongly urge people to continue wearing their masks.

Screaming, chanting, coughing and singing all expel more of the particles that can spread the coronavirus than regular activity.

"Mask-wearing is critical," said Robert Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at UCSF. "Large crowds with people shouting is a formula for spread if people aren't wearing masks."

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Many protest organizers are also asking that people maintain social distance, at least 6 feet apart, during demonstrations.

Protests outside are safer, said Art Reingold, professor and head of the division of epidemiology at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. However, he said he was concerned about the ability of people to maintain social distance.

"The good news is that these marches tend to occur outside and we think the risk of transmission outside is less," Reingold said, adding that protesters should frequently use hand sanitizer. "The bad news is that you may be in close proximity to large numbers of people, it's probably not very realistic to stay 6 feet away."

On a positive note, the Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the county in late May after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police did not turn into the “superspreader” events that some had feared. Many of the cities where major demonstrations took place — including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia — did not see any new surge in cases in the days and weeks following those protests.

COVID-19 and Tear Gas

It's unclear how tear gas and COVID-19 mix, Reingold said. For instance, coughing and crying from tear gas could spread the virus more. But we don't know whether tear gas could kill the virus or impact how long the virus stays on other materials.

Some protesters also bring wet bandanas or masks to help protect themselves from tear gas. However, we do not know whether a wet mask is as effective against the virus, Reingold said.

"In general, we think that when masks become wet that they’re not as good as preventing the spread of virus and we ask people to discard masks when they become wet," he said. "I suppose, in theory, a wet mask might be less effective against the virus, but not necessarily."

Should You Get Tested?

If you want to get tested for COVID-19 after protesting you should wait about a week, Reingold said, because the virus may not be detectable immediately after exposure.

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"If you’re really worried and want to get a test because of that exposure I would say that it makes sense to wait a week," he said. "A negative test a few days after being exposed is not very useful."

Experts said that whether protesting is safe depends on the protest.

"If they are and are doing their best to keep a distance from others, it is safe enough that people should make their own choices," said UCSF chair Wachter. "I completely understand the motivation for protesting, and people should just do it as safely as they can."

Have a Plan, and a Backup Plan

There's also 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 someone you can check in with who is not at the protest.

Charging your phone is an obvious one. But 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
Only bring 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 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 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.

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 have pre-planned 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 — and 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 it's in alignment with your values and objectives. During Black Lives Matter protests in San Diego in June, for instance, organizers warned demonstrators to avoid specific events that they said had likely been surreptitiously coordinated by white nationalist groups.

Know Your Rights

You are entitled to free speech and freedom of assembly. However, it can be unclear during curfews and shelter-in-place orders. "Know your rights" guides for protests can be found here. 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 American Civil Liberties Union.

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.

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 phone numbers readily available — should you need them.

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

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

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)

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.

This could include educating yourself, voting, talking to your community and supporting grassroots organizations as outlined by KQED’s Nastia Voynovskaya.

Peter Arcuni contributed to this report.

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