Tips for Protesting Safely during a Pandemic

Tips for Protesting Safely during a Pandemic

Tips for Protesting Safely during a Pandemic

One meaningful way to show up and support the Black Lives Matter movement is to stand up for what you believe at a protest. There are still protests you can join every day across the country to demand racial justice and equity in our communities.

We’ve gathered information below that’s been useful to us these past few weeks as we’ve joined protests—from COVID-specific precautions to ways to prepare and what to bring.

Know the Risks

It’s first important to acknowledge that gathering in large groups is high-risk due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Images of crowds gathering in the streets protesting may seem to be in direct contrast to what public health experts have consistently been saying for months: Stay home to avoid COVID-19 exposure. However, that message is rapidly changing. Public health experts realize that these protests for Black lives are crucial for the larger picture of public health in our country, especially because Black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at much higher rates than the rest of the population, largely due to systemic racism and oppression.

A group of public health experts released an opinion letter stating that they do not condemn the protests as risky for COVID-19 transmission and that they have unwavering support for those protesting because “white supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19.”

If you are immunocompromised, have preexisting health conditions that put you at higher risk for COVID-19 (like asthma, diabetes, lung disease, liver disease, severe obesity, or chronic kidney disease), or are over sixty-five, your risk of a severe case of COVID-19 is higher, so you may want to consider staying home or discussing the risks of protesting with your health care practitioner. While there are precautions that you can take at the protest to keep yourself safe, like wearing a mask or keeping distance from others, the reality is that you will be in close proximity to lots of other people, and it is often difficult to maintain distance. (We have observed personally at protests that more people are wearing masks in these spaces than in any other public spaces we’ve encountered.)

Furthermore, when police use tear gas on protesters, as has been happening around the country, this may further increase the risk for COVID-19 and other respiratory issues. Tear gas has also been reported to be an abortifacient and has caused spontaneous menstruation and even miscarriages among pregnant women. Chemical irritants used as riot control agents, like tear gas and pepper spray, can cause burning in the eyes and nose, blurred vision, shortness of breath, and skin irritation. Police may also use rubber bullets, which are supposedly “less-than lethal,” but there have been several reports of serious injuries and deaths during protests. A 2017 review paper found that rubber bullets can cause severe injuries and death, particularly when they are aimed at the head and neck.

What to Do before the Protest

  1. Educate yourself. Research the historical and current context around the protest. Learn about the Black Lives Matter Foundation. Follow Black experts, organizers, and relevant organizations. If you are White, do not burden Black friends or experts with educating you personally—there are plenty of resources available. (We’ve collected some here.)

  2. Research the protest. Gather all the information you can about the protest you are planning to attend in order to understand who the organizers are, the intent of the protest, and other logistical information.

  3. Plan ahead. Determine when you will need to leave home to arrive on time and where you will park, if you are driving. Some protests have a planned route, so you can choose to park at the beginning of the route or at the end of the route.

  4. Designate an emergency contact. Make sure a couple of people know where you are and that you are attending this protest. Ask one of them to be your emergency contact, and write their number on a piece of paper. Put the piece of paper in your shoe in case you are arrested and your items are confiscated. You can also use a permanent marker to write this number on your forearm.

  5. Protest with a group. If you can avoid it, don’t protest alone. If you are attending with friends or family, discuss your plan for the event ahead of time, including agreed-upon behaviors and actions that will be taken, a meeting spot in case you get separated, how long you plan to stay, and whether you all are comfortable staying if the situation escalates or gets violent. Consider creating a group chat on an app such as Signal, an encrypted messaging service, to communicate privately.

  6. Make a sign that echoes the message and intent of the protest.

  7. Check in with yourself. If you are feeling sick, do not attend the protest to avoid spreading COVID-19. Take other actions from home to support the cause and learn.

What to Wear

  1. A face mask that is comfortable and breathable.

  2. Nondescript clothing, such as a black shirt and pants, so that you are not easily identifiable. Hide any tattoos or distinctive features.

  3. Comfortable closed-toed shoes.

  4. A backpack for supplies.

  5. Do not wear makeup or perfume, as they can trap chemicals and make tear gas and other riot control agents harder to remove.

  6. Do not wear contact lenses if you can avoid them. If tear gas is released, remove your contacts immediately and put on glasses.

What to Bring

  1. Hand sanitizer—use it frequently to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

  2. Water and snacks. Note: At some larger protests, kind people have been handing out snacks, water, and hand sanitizer. But don’t count on this. Extra water can also help rinse your eyes of irritants, such as pepper spray and tear gas.

  3. Layers of clothing so that you can adapt if the weather changes and protect your skin if tear gas is released.

  4. Goggles to protect your eyes if tear gas is released. If you plan to wear contacts, pack prescription glasses in case you need to remove your contacts. Bring a pair of clean gloves to use if you need to remove your contacts.

  5. An external phone charger in case your phone’s battery runs out.

  6. Your ID and cash.

  7. A piece of paper with your emergency contact’s number in your shoe as well as the phone number of a bail fund, if needed, in case you are arrested.

  8. Any medications that you may need to take if you are arrested or away from home for longer than expected.

  9. Your sign.

What to Do at the Protest

  1. Follow the organizers’ lead and echo their chants. If you are a non-Black person, you are at the protests to show your support for the Black community and listen. It is also your duty to amplify their voices. This means responding to their chants and following their lead instead of creating your own chants or amplifying your own message. This also means following the instructions of the protest organizers. If they are leaving or if they tell you to leave, you should leave.

  2. Minimize COVID-19 exposure. Wear your mask at all times and try your best to maintain six feet of distance from others. Know that this won’t always be possible.

  3. Document safely. If you choose to take photos at the event, blur or crop out the faces of people before posting the photos to protect their identity. Document any police brutality or arrests—it is within your rights to film this.

  4. If you are White, use your privilege. Protect people of color by shielding them with your body and filming interactions with police officers.

  5. Remember—especially if you’re a White person—it is not your job to determine how other people are protesting. You can always go home.

  6. If tear gas is released, leave the immediate area. Try to find higher ground to reduce your exposure. Do not rub your eyes. If there is chemical irritant in your eyes, remove your contacts (if you wear them), flush your eyes out with water, and clean off your face.

  7. Try to stay calm. If you see people running, evaluate your situation and surroundings before reacting and inciting more panic.

  8. Know your rights. It is your First Amendment right to peacefully protest in public. You also have the right to record or take photos in any public space. If you are stopped by a police officer while protesting, remain calm and ask if you are being arrested. Ask if you are free to leave. If you are under arrest, you can ask why. Do not say anything further without a lawyer present and do not resist arrest, even if it does not seem fair. You do not have to consent to a search of your belongings. Ask the police officer if you can make a phone call, and call your emergency contact.

After the Protest

  1. Reflect. Reflect on what you experienced and learned from the protest and how you can better uplift the message within your community.

  2. Wash. Thoroughly wash your hands and clothing when you return home, especially if you were exposed to chemical irritants.

  3. Take further action. Continue to stay educated on the topic and follow up with additional actions like donations, petitions, or writing to your elected officials.

This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.