How to Attend a Rally Safely in the Bay Area

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Alexis Rodriguez, a sophomore at Summit Shasta High School in Daly City, holds a sign that says, “A badge is not a license to kill” during a vigil and rally outside of Mission High School on April 15, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Updated Friday, April 23, 2021

On Tuesday, the U.S. learned the verdict in the high-stakes trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who has now been found guilty on all charges of the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Protests and rallies were already happening in the Bay Area — sparked by several recent high-profile police shootings of Black men across the country.

On April 15, hundreds of demonstrators converged in San Francisco's Mission District demanding a fundamental overhaul of policing in America. Demonstrators spoke, chanted and placed flowers on a memorial for 20-year-old Daunte Wright, who was shot and killed by a police officer in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center — less than 15 miles from where George Floyd was killed in 2020 — and Roger Allen, a 44-year-old San Francisco resident who was shot and killed by a Daly City police officer on April 7 after a reported struggle over a fake gun.

Just hours before the start of the April 15 rally, yet another fatal police incident drew national attention after officials in Chicago released body camera footage of a police officer shooting a 13-year-old boy named Adam Toledo during a foot chase in that city several weeks ago.

Most recently, community members and activists gathered for a vigil in Alameda on Wednesday to demand answers in the death this week of Mario Gonzalez. The 26-year-old Oakland man died in Alameda police custody on Monday after what police termed a "scuffle" with officers in a small park near the city's Park Street corridor, the Alameda Police Department said in a statement Tuesday.

The Bay Area has a robust history of protest. These latest instances of direct action are coming on the heels of local protests against the wave of anti-Asian violence seen across the nation, as well as the recent San Francisco demonstration in solidarity with India's farmworkers.

For those who are newer to protesting and are looking for guidance during the ongoing pandemic, this post provides some safety tips and reminders.

COVID-19 Risks and Protesting

Do You Still Need to Take Precautions if You're Vaccinated?

It's tempting to think that because now the Bay Area is in the midst of mass vaccination, the risks of being outside in a crowd at an event like a protest are much smaller. And you might feel personally safer being out in such a situation if you're already fully vaccinated yourself.

But while the COVID-19 vaccine greatly reduces your chances of getting very sick or dying from the disease, you should still wear a mask and keep at least 6 feet away from fellow protesters as much as possible at an event like this. Not only do organizers themselves frequently request you wear masks and maintain social distancing, but it's the safest way to be sure you're not spreading COVID-19 among your fellow demonstrators.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while initial research suggests that fully vaccinated people are less likely to pass on the virus asymptomatically, there's still ongoing research being done. So even if you're vaccinated, you might be alongside unvaccinated people at a protest, and you can't be sure you're not transmitting COVID-19 to them.

And even if you're alongside fellow vaccinated people at a demonstration, the risks still aren't zero, said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist at UCSF.

"When you bring a lot of households together — noses and mouths together — even though you're vaccinated, there's a chance of two people who didn't get a response from the vaccine, potentially transmitting it to each other," he said.

If you're unvaccinated but you've had COVID-19 and want to attend a protest, can you consider yourself immune? Chin-Hong said that if you had the disease less than three months ago: yes. That's because of the CDC guidance that says you can wait three months after getting COVID-19 before getting your vaccine.

"Three months is kind of like a safe window period to consider yourself like a [fully] vaccinated person," Chin-Hong said.

Why Are Masks Still So Important?

It's not just the amount of people you'll encounter at a protest: it's what they might be doing. Screaming, chanting, coughing and singing all expel more of the particles that can spread the coronavirus than regular activity.

"Mask-wearing is critical," Robert Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at UCSF, told KQED back in summer 2020, at the height of the Bay Area's protests after the killing of George Floyd. "Large crowds with people shouting is a formula for spread if people aren't wearing masks."

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Now that double-masking has become common, and the CDC has confirmed it offers more protection against the coronavirus, should you be doubling up your masks at a protest?

Chin-Hong said it's more about making sure your surgical face covering is well-fitted. If you're not able to fit it to your face snugly, that's when to consider wearing two masks.

And if two masks just aren't possible, or if you feel uncomfortable doing that, wearing one mask "in the harm reduction model" is better than not wearing any mask at all, Chin-Hong said.

The Risk From the COVID-19 Variants

It's important to remember along with different numbers of overall COVID-19 cases, that there are different COVID-19 variants in different parts of the country, Chin-Hong said. Therefore the risk from variants in a crowded environment like a protest is variable from place to place.

Attending a demonstration in places with high case counts like Michigan or Minnesota, Chin-Hong said, is "like playing Russian roulette with more loaded bullets — but the variants just up the game."

The most prevalent coronavirus variant in the Bay Area right now is the British (U.K.) B.1.1.7 variant, which has been found to be more contagious. However, the Bay Area's COVID-19 cases are now much lower than previous months, which makes the risks posed to protestors by this variant smaller.

That said, you also have to consider if people might be coming into the Bay Area from places with higher COVID-19 numbers to protest. All of this is why "it's a dynamic picture," Chin-Hong said, "and people should be careful."

Can a Protest Ever Be COVID-19 Safe?

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," UCSF Chair Wachter told KQED in 2020. "I completely understand the motivation for protesting, and people should just do it as safely as they can."

"Just like last year, these protests are important," Chin-Hong said. "They're a response to a public health threat if you think about the impact of structural racism and stress on health care."

Protests outside are safer, UC Berkeley School of Public Health epidemiology expert Art Reingold told KQED last year. 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 country in May 2020 in response to 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, Art 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.

Chin-Hong agrees 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."

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."

Chin-Hong said it's easy to focus on what protesters can do to mitigate the COVID-19 risks for themselves and those around them —  but that law enforcement have a part to play on this front, too. He wants to see police not only forgoing the use of tear gas, but questioning people outdoors rather than indoors or in a police car. He'd also to like to see police not asking or forcing people to remove their masks while being questioned, and that offering mask alternatives like face shields — that allow police to still see a person's face — "would be more humane."

Should You Get Tested After a Protest?

In short: Yes, it's a good idea, said Dr. Chin-Hong. Even if you're vaccinated.

That's because "what typically what we know about COVID, vaccinated or unvaccinated, is that the vast majority of transmissions occur in asymptomatic individuals," he said. So even if you have no symptoms, if you've been in a crowded environment like a protest and you can get tested quickly and simply at a testing site near you, why not do it for your own peace of mind?

"I think it would be a great idea," said Chin-Hong. "You [now] have your pick of places to go and get tested, for free even."

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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 methods — 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 certain Black Lives Matter protests in San Diego in June 2020, 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 2020, 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 in this 2020 guide from KQED’s Nastia Voynovskaya.

Peter Arcuni contributed to this report.

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