How To Protest Safely And Effectively: A Guide For Activists

To be a young person is to be political. Looking around at the massive swell of movements like the School Strike 4 Climate and the incredible turn out at this year’s protests across Australia on January 26th it’s clear that we’re not only facing down some of the biggest challenges to humanity we’ve ever seen, but we are also showing up to fight them.

Exercising our rights to peaceful protest is one of the most important ways we can rally and show support for the issues we care about. As one sign at the Invasion Day march said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” a quote from human rights activist Desmond Tutu. 

We know this, but when you throw yourself behind a cause it’s also important to exercise consideration.

Marches, protests, lie-ins and other public forms of activism are serious things to get involved in, and some come with an element of risk—nobody wants anything to go wrong, but sometimes they do. Protecting yourself and making sure your actions are effective is imperative, so here are some guidelines for your next protest.

Before the protest

Do your research

While most of us want to help in any way we can, it’s important to be effective activists. Check who is organising the protest, what they are defending and any actions planned. 

Social media is a useful tool for getting people fired up, but taking a closer look at a protest’s demands can sometimes reveal things are more complicated than they appear and may have legal implications. Make sure you feel comfortable supporting what the protest is about and make sure that the organisers are legit.

Think through the risks

Attending a protest usually means exposing yourself to a large number of people, high emotions and an increased police presence. Obviously you want to do the right thing, but be aware that you can’t control the actions of others and there is always the potential for things to not go according to plan. 

Things you can do to minimise risk include keeping a cool head, not carrying anything that could give anyone (particularly police) cause to take issue with you, and taking measures to protect your privacy.

Know your rights

In Australia, there is no constitutional right to protest. Wait, what? Okay so, this is a little complicated but important. What this means is we don’t have the right to protest enshrined in our constitution and the right to protest is treated differently depending on which state you’re in. 

Victoria, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) protect the right to protest through their own state-based human rights acts, but New South Wales (NSW) and Tasmania… eeeehhhh. Both of these states have passed legislation that actually criminalises protests on the basis they might “hinder” or “disrupt” businesses or block traffic. (Yes, even though that is part of the point of protests.)

Police powers also vary depending on where you are, and what’s important to note about all of this is that laws can change! Check the laws in your state to find out what your rights are at the time of the protest, some good resources are Activist Rights and Youth Law Australia, which has resources about your rights with police for different states (these are the ones for Vic and NSW).

Communicate and plan

It’s so important to communicate safely and well before, during and after a protest. Tell someone who is not attending the protest where you’re going and agree on a time you’ll check-in, and agree beforehand what the plan is if something goes wrong. This includes telling them any family who should be contacted and any human rights or legal groups you can get help from.

Try to have a couple of ways to contact your friends, but consider that mobile communication isn’t always the most private or reliable. Write down any important numbers in case your phone dies.

During the protest

Go with friends 

It’s safer (and more fun!) to go with mates as you can look out for each other. It’s good to have a couple of meeting points agreed on beforehand if you get separated from your friends. 

Be prepared

Make sure you bring plenty of water so that you can keep cool whilst chanting your lungs out – you don’t want to get a headache or pass out in the middle of a packed crowd.

Protests can often last for a long time, so pack a range of essentials to make sure you’re comfortable all-day. Think about sunscreen, extra layers of clothing and a charger, as well as any personal medication like inhalers or epipens.

Be respectful and safe

Treat other protestors, speakers and the public with respect. Make space for those who need it and help, not hinder. For example, some protestors may have different mobility requirements, or have children with them. Know when to speak and when to listen. The other thing to consider here is self-protective measures like filming and looking out for potential misconduct. 

While we do believe that certain people can use their privilege to shield or defend marginalised protest attenders, it’s still so important to protect yourself and to not put yourself in harm’s way. Stay aware of what’s happening around you, and while you absolutely can and should film instances of potential police misconduct, be aware of the implications of that. Some police might react negatively and its important to back up or share any recordings before you leave. Remember some can be in plain clothes, too!

If you’re arrested

Don’t resist arrest. The best thing you can do is stay calm and try to keep paying attention to what’s happening around you. For example, you can ask what you are being charged with and where you’re being taken. If you can, try to give this information to other people before you have to leave. 

If you’re rattled or panicked, try to stay calm and communicate that you’d prefer to remain silent and request a lawyer. Most often arbitrary arrests happen at the end of protests, so try to leave in a group.

After the protest

While protests are great for sparking conversation and pushing movements forward, you can also do things to amplify the effect after. This can be as simple as continuing to have conversations with people, notifying any human rights groups of anyone being mistreated during the protest, writing to your MPs, voting and so on. You can also share photos you take (being mindful of other people’s privacy of course), social media is a powerful tool when deployed thoughtfully.

Lead image: 2019 Global Climate Strike by Teagan Glenane via Survival Media.

Monisha is a writer with a background in publishing and digital media. A chronic Pisces, she’s into trying to be a better person and sparkling water.

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