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)
In the last month, the Bay Area has seen numerous protests, rallies, marches and vigils drawing thousands of people around the region in support of a cease-fire in Gaza — joining direct action taking place nationwide.
With this moment in mind, KQED is republishing our guide from 2022 on how to attend a rally safely and 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.
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. 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
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.
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.
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 it — should you need it.
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 about what possible actions may occur around 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.
How to reduce your risk of getting (or spreading) COVID at a protest
The good news: Your risks of getting COVID outdoors are far lower than your risks indoors — about 20 times less, says Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist at UCSF.
But you should still think about your risks of getting (or spreading) COVID 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,” says Chin-Hong.
Bring your mask along
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 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 protest organizers 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.
There’s also the possibility that you might not stay outside the whole time. “Whenever you have a protest, nobody just stays necessarily outdoors,” says Chin-Hong, 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,” says Chin-Hong. 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.‘”
Use the testing tools at your disposal
If you know a protest has the potential for indoor situations, or you’re planning to gather before or after with people indoors, think about using a rapid antigen test beforehand.
Some vaccinated people report testing negative repeatedly on rapid antigen tests with COVID symptoms, but then testing positive on a PCR test — but Chin-Hong says this isn’t a reason to discount the use of rapid tests. Those antigen at-home tests are “good for transmissibility predictions,” he says — that is, detecting whether you at least have the amount of virus in your body that would make you infectious to others. Because PCR tests are a lot more sensitive, they pick up far lower levels of virus in your system.
Chin-Hong says there’s also evidence to suggest that some vaccinated people actually experience COVID symptoms much sooner than they actually test positive: “Your body gets the alarm going off sooner than if you weren’t vaccinated, because it’s trying to capture these viruses, and it’s eventually going to be successful.”
More Guides from KQED
Chin-Hong counsels that rapid tests are “not perfect, of course, because you can have a low amount of virus but spend a long time with somebody in an enclosed space and potentially still get infected.”
“Because we have so much virus floating around, and particularly if you live with elderly parents or grandparents, you probably might want to test after the event,” says Chin-Hong. And as for when you should test, “in the old days we’d say three to five days [after a protest], but I think three days might be a good target for omicron,” he says.
Experts say that whether protesting is safe depends on the protest.
“If they are … doing their best to keep a distance from others, it is safe enough that people should make their own choices,” UCSF Department of Medicine Chair Bob Wachter told KQED in 2020. “I completely understand the motivation for protesting, and people should just do it as safely as they can.”
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, “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 treatment if someone is hospitalized.
It’s important to note that the Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the country in May 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of now-incarcerated Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin did not turn into the “superspreader” events 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.
In 2021, Chin-Hong also noted that tear gas could create an environment in which COVID-19 could spread further. “You’re rubbing your eyes, you’re taking your mask off and there are a lot of people doing the same thing around you — so it’s like you’re going to a large group event without any protection on,” he said.
Historically, some protesters have brought along wet bandanas or masks to help protect themselves from tear gas. But a wet mask will be far less effective against COVID, notes Chin-Hong, because of how the seal between mask and face can be broken by the moisture.
Chin-Hong told KQED that it’s often easy to focus on what you as a protester can do to mitigate the COVID risks for yourself and those around you — but that law enforcement have a part to play on this front, too. He wanted to see police not only forgoing the use of tear gas, but questioning people outdoors rather than indoors or in a police car. He also advocated for police not asking or forcing people to remove their masks while being questioned, noting that offering mask alternatives like face shields — that allow police to still see a person’s face — “would be more humane.”
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.
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