Protest in the Time of COVID: A Brief Guide to Keeping Yourself and Your Comrades (Reasonably) Safe While Protesting Police Brutality During a Pandemic

by the Boston DSA Direct Action, De-escalation, and Security (DADS) Committee

Why Protest:  

Boston DSA stands in absolute solidarity with the mass protests that have broken out following the brutal police murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Wiser people than us have written about the multitude of abuses the police have casually heaped upon Black and brown people since they were first founded as strikebreakers and runaway slave patrols, and wonkier people than us are digging deep into the Boston Police Department’s finances, a tumor on the city budget. But one area where we do have a certain degree of expertise is hitting the streets in this city.

There are a lot of ways that you can support a protest if you can’t be in the streets, and there are a lot of reasons you might not be able to be in the streets. At this time especially, if you are feeling at all ill, we strongly urge you to stay home–there are bound to be plenty more protests to go to once you have recovered.

But if you can be in the streets, it’s imperative to take some common-sense steps to keep yourself and your comrades safe–from the cops, from the weather, from the right-wing trolls who hang around these things trying to cause trouble, and this time around, from the pandemic. Here are some tips on protest preparation, health, and safety, updated for this most interesting of summers:

Every Person, Every Place:

Don’t Talk To Cops (Fascism Is Not to Be Debated)

  • All Cops Are Bastards. Period. If you’re going to a police brutality protest, this should go without saying. Do your best to not talk or interact with police directly. Think of the police like wild animals: The police are bears. Don’t get too close if you can avoid it, don’t try to reason with them or become friends with them, don’t give them food. It will only attract more police.
  • If there are right-wing vigilantes, like any of our local fascists, either counterprotesting/harassing a rally or holding one of their own disease-ridden events, do not attempt to reason with or debate them. Heckling them is great, if you feel like it, but don’t try to have a conversation and don’t let them rile you up.

Clothes and Gear

  • COVID-Specific:
    • Wear a mask. There will likely be too many people to properly social distance. A bandanna provides less protection than a proper mask, but will do in a pinch. Bring extras if you can. Masks have long been optional protest gear for avoiding surveillance and protecting against breathing in chemical weapons, but they are no longer optional.
    • Wear goggles, if possible. Police in Boston have begun deploying pepper balls (in addition to pepper spray), and they also are authorized to use bean bag rounds. Ballistic rated eye protection can protect your eyes. Even normal goggles will protect against chemical weapons to varying degrees. 
    • Bring some hand sanitizer! Gloves are also good, but hand sanitizer is a must.
  • General:
    • DO NOT WEAR CONTACT LENSES. If you are pepper sprayed, your eyes will get inflamed making lenses harder to remove and possibly damaging your vision.
    • Dark, nondescript clothes are best. Lightweight clothes that wick away sweat are a plus. This means no cotton, if possible.  Long sleeves are better to protect your skin from chemical weapons.  
    • Avoid logos and anything too recognizable. Cover up any tattoos you have. Make sure you can move easily. Wear old comfortable shoes that you don’t always wear outside. If possible, bring an extra change of clothes in plastic bags, in case the ones you’re wearing get soiled with caustic chemicals.
    • Wear sunscreen, but wear a water-based, not oil-based one. Oil-based sunscreen, vaseline, and other products can negatively interact with chemical weapons.
    • Tuck away loose jewelry and longer hair.  
    • DO NOT WEAR CONTACT LENSES.  Sorry, this is important enough to say twice.

Snaxis Is Praxis

  • The best way to prevent common protest-related health issues like heat stroke and heat exhaustion is to bring lots of water and salty/sweet snacks. Some protests may also have people distributing snacks and water. This is nice, but it is best to be prepared and bring your own.
  • If you don’t have enough snacks/water and find yourself hungry, thirsty, or light-headed, find a person with a red duct tape cross–they are a medic and can help you! 

Securing Your Phone

Many protest safety guides will tell you not to bring your phone or to turn it on airplane mode to avoid your communications being scraped by Stingrays. Basically, Stingrays are fake cell phone towers law enforcement uses to capture texts and the location of your phone. They are real, and Boston police have them. It’s still good to bring a cell phone, though, so that you can keep in touch with your protest buddy and/or contingent. So here are some other tricks you should use – 

  • Turn off any biometrics that can open your phone with your face/fingerprint. Put a long, alphanumeric password that no one will guess. If you’re arrested, the cops can’t force you to unlock your phone, but they can use your hand or face.  
  • Turn off Location Data. This will make it harder for police to obtain the history of where you’ve been when you’re not being tracked by a Stingray. On an iPhone, you can do this by going to Settings > Privacy > Location Settings. On an Android, go to Settings > Security and Location > Privacy > Use Location.
  • Do not send regular text messages. Use an encrypted chat app, like Signal, and turn on disappearing messages. Turn off notifications so messages do not come up on your lock screen.

Buddies and Contingents

  • Having a buddy is the single most important thing to do at a protest. Nobody can keep total situational awareness going in all directions at all times, so having a buddy will help you keep an eye on dangerous situations and keep each other informed. And you can keep track of your buddy’s emotional state. Getting stressed out? Getting heated? Your buddy can help you calm down and hydrate.
  • It’s important that you and your buddy are on the same level about various aspects of the protests and what each other needs for support.  You can use the PEARLY method, which is a checklist street medics use to check in. 
  • If you are with a larger group, whether it’s a group of friends or a contingent of your activist organization, you should still buddy up into pairs within the larger group so that nobody gets lost or separated without anyone noticing.

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words (Social Media Safety Practices)

  • If you take pictures at a protest, don’t post ones with other protesters’ faces visible. Crop faces out, blur them, or post emojis over them before you put your protest footage on the internet.
  • Do not tag people, “check in” on Facebook, or otherwise pin yourself or others down to a specific location at a specific time.
  • If you are talking to a journalist or even just someone who really likes your clever protest sign, do not give them your real name, age, hometown, or other personal identifying information, and make sure they take their picture of your sign, not your face. A lot of legitimate, well-credentialed journalists treat protests just like any other public event they’d conduct man-on-the-street interviews at, and don’t realize they’re exposing their sources to an increased risk of getting doxxed.

Washing Off the Day

  • Physical
    • When you leave the protest, take off and immediately wash your clothes, especially if pepper spray or tear gas were deployed. If you can’t wash them immediately, put them in a plastic bag until you can.
    • You should also shower immediately. If for some reason you cannot shower immediately, then wash your hands thoroughly and don’t touch anything until you can.
    • Consider getting tested at one of the various testing sites in the greater Boston area. While the numbers (or lack thereof) of Covid19 positive cases from ongoing protests are encouraging, it is still a good idea to get tested. Following are some key testing sites in Boston – 
  • Emotional
    • Protests can bring up a lot of emotions for everyone involved. They can be invigorating, powerful, scary, and traumatic. We can’t know what our reactions in the immediate hours, days, and weeks after a protest will be, so it can be helpful at the end of a protest to check in with your buddy to see how you are both doing, and anyone else you are connected to/contingent you came with. If you find yourself struggling in the days/weeks after a protest, reach out for help.  

Other Tips

  • Carry $40 in cash: If you are arrested you will almost certainly be taken care of by the Massachusetts Bail Fund, but there will be a nominal bail bondsman fee. This will usually be covered by $40.
  • In the time of COVID, we are all wearing masks–which is beneficial in a protest situation, because cops can’t target us just for wearing masks. However, they can still target anyone who “looks too prepared,” such as with goggles or a helmet, in that they may clock you as “the radical left” and a potential “troublemaker.” So finding a balance between being prepared and looking “too” prepared is important.
  • Related to the above point, you may be tempted to bring shields, sticks, or some other kind of weapon-ish gear. Resist this temptation. Not only is there a decent chance the Boston Police Department will announce that flagpoles/shields/bats/etc. are forbidden at the absolute last minute, but you will definitely draw more attention and be more exposed to heavy legal risk if you show up with a riot shield that’s just going to make you tired carrying it anyway.
  • Use a sharpie to write the number of the National Lawyers Guild (617-227-7335) on a part of your body where it won’t wash off. That way, if you are arrested, you can call them even if they take your phone.  
  • Finding a free, accessible public bathroom in normal circumstances is hard, because capitalism, but it is extra hard during a pandemic when most bathrooms are closed.  So, here’s some advice from Ask A Swole Woman:

Manage your need to pee. Feller reported that, in fact, we can. “It is possible that increasing carbohydrates in combination with unsaturated fats in the short term may decrease the need to frequently urinate,” she said. Specific amounts need to be suited to the individual, Feller said, but she suggested “starting with adding a serving of carbohydrates of your choice along with an unsaturated fat [nuts, avocado, olive oil] of your choice to your daily routine. You never want to enter a protest dehydrated as you will be on your feet for hours using lots of energy, so prepare the day before and hydrate and nourish yourself to the best of your ability.” 

When Things Go Wrong:

What to Do if You Are Pepper Sprayed

  • Police in Boston now deploy mace and pepper spray with unfortunate regularity. Pepper spray is a high concentration mixture of capsaicin, the chemical that makes food taste spicy, that will stick to and hurt any area of skin it touches. People have a variety of reactions to it, from complete incapacitation to powering through and more or less ignoring it. It hurts a lot more if it gets into your mucus membranes (eyes, nostrils, or mouth).
  • The best option for flushing away pepper spray is to use plain old water. It’s effective, it stores well, and you can use it for other applications.
  • People may suggest or try to use things besides water to rinse out pepper spray, like milk. These are generally a bad idea, for reasons ranging from the possibility of bacterial infection to allergy risk.
  • If you need help, call out for a street medic.

What to Do if You Are Otherwise Injured or Need Medical Attention

  • Street medics are trained in protest medicine and are usually marked with red duct tape crosses. If you or your buddy is injured, yell ‘MEDIC’ and someone will usually come very quickly.  Street medics will not provide medical services without your consent.  Street medics are not connected to protests directly, but attend out of the goodness of their hearts. Street medics are braver than the troops.
  • It is good to check in with your buddy ahead of time about any pre-existing medical issues that might come up over the course of the protest, so that you can both be aware and prepared in case an injury or medical issue occurs.

What to Do if the Police Specifically Target You

  • The police are not your friends, despite what copaganda and Paw Patrol want you to think.  Do not talk to them, even if they are being nice.  If they ask you questions, you have every right not to answer and to walk away.
  • If the police appear to have singled you out in any way, the safest thing to do is to go home. This is not being chicken; it is avoiding getting arrested. Stick with your protest buddy until you are safely away from the protest–you don’t want the cops to be able to pick you off unprotected.

What to Do if You Are Arrested

  • If the police target you for arrest for whatever reason, do not try to fight. This will only make the police abuse you more in the process of arresting you and tack on more charges in court. Do your best to remain calm. Police have basic standards of treatment for prisoners, but they often neglect them and drag their feet. You can advocate for yourself.
  • There is robust protest infrastructure in Boston. The Mass Bail Fund will be ready to snap into action, and the National Lawyers Guild will usually offer legal assistance. It will be scary. The police will make you as uncomfortable as they possibly can, but Boston activists are going to do our best to make sure that you’ll be released in a timely manner.

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