Within two weeks of sustained protests and grassroots efforts to demand justice for George Floyd, Minneapolis officials announced plans to disband the Minneapolis police department, Minneapolis banned the use of chokeholds, and charges against Officer Chauvin were elevated to second-degree murder while his accomplices were finally arrested and charged.
Knowing how effective direct action can be in both enacting systemic change and addressing specific demands for justice, government officials, police, white supremacists, and keepers of the status quo will attempt to discredit and undermine protests and other forms of direct action.
We must be prepared.
Though any space involving police is rarely—if ever—safe, activists engaging in direct action to prepare as best we can keep ourselves, and especially those most vulnerable in the face of racial violence, as safe as possible. The police have the most opportunity to do damage and inflict violence when we are divided, disorganized, and unprepared.
To protect ourselves, defend each other, and sustain the movement for change, we must equip ourselves with the necessary training, knowledge, and strategic tactics. To that end, we offer the following resources and tips for protesting and taking direct action safely.
Training and Resources
What to Do Before, During, and After Direct Action
Below are tips inspired by the teachings of community leaders Sharon Lungo and Lynn Stone:
- Follow BIPOC leadership, especially locally.
- Constantly check in with yourself and others. There is a lot of pain and trauma present, and it does more damage to ignore that.
- Do not play into divisive tactics, either by the police or the media.
Before Direct Action
- Do not protest alone. Form a group if you can and stick together.
- Support and give direction to newcomers.
- Participate in know-your-rights training.
- Packing list: money (especially cash), water, ID, snacks, any medication you may need at any point in the day or night*, phones (whether it is your personal phone or a burner phone), gloves, masks, sanitizer, and legal aid phone numbers (either written down or memorized).
- *Assume you will not return home at the time you think you will, and prepare accordingly, such as by making arrangements to care for pets, children, and loved ones in your absence.
- Practice widening your visual field ahead of time to get a better sense of all your surroundings.
- If you’re with a group, have a conversation ahead of time on how to keep each other safe and what each person will do given any situation.
- Talk about what kind of role your group wants to play during protests. Decide ahead of time and make sure everyone in your group is comfortable with the decision.
- Establish good communication, especially nonverbal communication because the police will be listening for things that they can use against us and there may be moments where it’s difficult to hear.
- Have a solid exit plan. And then a solid backup exit plan. And then a solid backup backup exit plan.
- Be clear on what kinds of risks you are willing to take. Stay far away from the front or the back (most vulnerable spots) of the demonstration if you are vulnerable or uncomfortable with the risks associated.
- Assess the risks for your family if you are arrested or detained by police (especially important if you or your loved ones are undocumented).
- Acknowledges people’s different levels of risks (legal risk, police brutality risk, health risk, etc…), respect those differences, and plan/act accordingly.
- Fill out legal forms before hitting the streets.
- People protesting together may get split up when detained, so have attention to that and plan accordingly.
- Think through different scenarios and how you might respond to each of them.
During Direct Action
- Remember: frontline community members speak first and foremost. Make sure they can be seen/heard and create a barrier around them.
- Maintain clear communication with those you are protesting with, especially to ensure that everyone is safe throughout the day/night.
- Document any kind of abuse or instigation that you see.
- Consider how you can show up as a calming presence for others. It is not your job to de-escalate any situation but take seriously that de-escalating can save lives and do what you can to support that end.
- Be strategic about where and how you choose to intervene in situations of high tension or police confrontation.
- Hand out and share as much information as you can. It won’t incriminate you unless you are inciting violence or destruction.
Dealing with the Police
- Anticipate the ways police will obstruct protesters’ movement. Always be aware of your surroundings so you know when you/your group need to leave or relocate.
- Avoid the cops at all costs, not just because they are brutal, but because they often disregard measures to protect public health, especially in light of COVID-19.
- Have people in your group doing police outlooks so you can always be aware of where the police are and what they are doing.
- Cops will be easily triggered, so be ready for their aggression and use of force.
- Try not to run if you can help it. Police are predatory and may instigate violence if they see anyone running.
- Be aware of the fact that if the population protesting is getting smaller and smaller, police may swarm on and arrest people once the crowd gets small enough.
- Read police body language, movement, and attire. They give clues as to what the police are going to do next.
- Some apps can access police scanners—tune in if you can.
After Direct Action
- Follow up with everyone at the end of the night to make sure everyone is safe.
- Follow up on injuries and arrests.
- Debrief the action: how can we do better? What worked that we want to build upon?
- Consider getting COVID testing after action.
- If people from your group are detained, have things ready for them when they come out of detention, like food, water, medicine, something comforting, etc.
- Support people if they are summoned to trial, such as by accompanying them to court.
Direct Action and Media
- Avoid posting photos of people that show them doing something that could be incriminating. NEVER post photos without people’s consent.
- Do not post photos directly from your phone. Instead, take a screenshot of your photo, and then upload the screenshot from your computer after you delete the original photo from your phone. Uploading the original photo from your phone provides data that can be used to hurt or incriminate you and others.