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How to Stay Safe While Protesting

Heading to a protest? Use this guide to protect yourself from getting hurt, arrested or getting COVID.

People protest in response to the Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling in front of the U.S. Supreme Court
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

These past few years have given people in the US a lot to protest over -- gun violence, racial inequality, police brutality and now the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade

Protesting is one of many ways to show your support for a cause, but it comes with some inherent risks. We've seen peaceful protests, bystanders and even fellow members of the media covering protests met with violence from counter protesters and law enforcement. And while the threat of the coronavirus isn't as high now as it was for protests in 2020, it's still a looming concern when large groups of people gather together.

To be clear, CNET does not endorse going against local or state-wide curfews and other legal restrictions to attend a protest, where applicable. But if you so choose to attend anyway, whether or not those kinds of orders apply to you, we are offering tips on how to stay safe, based on common sense and information compiled from Amnesty International (PDF), the American Civil Liberties Union and other sources.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Preparing yourself for a protest is just as important as going to one. You'll want to protect your personal safety while you are out protesting and there are a few key items that will help. The lists below are merely guidelines of what you should and shouldn't bring, but they are not comprehensive.

Supplies you should bring to a protest

  • Water
  • A face mask (while outdoor gatherings are relatively safe, masks can still slow the spread of COVID)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • A power bank
  • Your ID
  • Cash
  • Snacks
  • Protective goggles, for tear gas
  • Necessary medications for health conditions -- like an asthma inhaler
  • Small backpack to carry your supplies
  • A friend -- if you cannot bring someone, tell someone where you will be
  • Emergency phone numbers -- designate a few people you can call if you get hurt, arrested or stranded. Write them on your arms with a marker.

What you should not bring

  • Anything that you don't want to be caught with if you get detained -- that might include weapons, anything that might considered a weapon and substances that are illegal in your state.
  • Contact lenses -- wear glasses instead, as contacts can trap tear gas in your eye.
  • Valuables.
  • Makeup -- wearing makeup is said to make it easier for tear gas to cling to your face and eyes. Skip it for protests.

What you should wear

  • Plain, comfortable clothes that you can move in that don't make you stand out in the crowd, so that you can't be wrongfully singled out by police for exercising your right to protest. The general advice is to wear all black or gray, with no logos or no patterns.
  • Long sleeves and pants that protect your skin from tear gas and cover any identifying marks, such as tattoos, for the same reasons as above.
  • Shoes you can move quickly in. Sturdy hiking books are recommended.
  • A hat -- to shield you from the sun or make it easier to blend into a crowd.

Protecting yourself at the event

Before you show up to any protest, have a plan in place. Ask yourself and anyone coming with you:

  • What time do you plan to arrive? 
  • When do you plan to leave, and what kinds of situations will prompt you to leave? 
  • What is your exit strategy if the situation escalates?

It's important to create some kind of plan, even if that plan changes while you're on the ground. Communicate that plan to someone who is not attending the protest so they can support you from afar and offer assistance if needed.

This is the time to lean on your situational awareness. Be conscious of your surroundings, keeping an eye on where crowds are moving. If you notice anything feeling off, trust your gut and leave the area.

Many protests encounter resistance from law enforcement, including the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other measures to disperse crowds -- all of which can cause you serious harm. Your first line of defense against these is to move away from the situation immediately. If that's not possible, here are a few resources on what to do if you encounter rubber bullets or tear gas.

gettyimages-1216821242

Tear gas has been used in many protests to disperse crowds. Be prepared to protect yourself when you head out to a demonstration.

Getty Images

Protecting yourself against COVID

While the risk of getting COVID from an outdoor gathering is lower than getting COVID from an indoor one, it's not zero. The risk is even higher for people who are immunocompromised.

The only way to completely protect yourself from getting infected is to not go at all, but if you're set on protesting here are a few tips to lower your risk. 

  • Wear a mask.
  • Bring hand sanitizer and use it regularly.
  • Do not attend protests if you feel ill.
  • Do not attend protests if you live with or are caring for people who are at a high risk of getting seriously ill from the coronavirus.

Protecting your rights

The First Amendment of the US Constitution protects your right to peacefully assemble. You could, however, still be detained for perceived infractions. Before you go to a protest, check if there are any local legal support hotlines you can contact in the event you end up in police custody. Start by searching for "[your city] protest legal support." Save those numbers to your phone and write them on your arm. 

You should also be aware of your rights during a protest -- the ACLU has a useful guide on that here

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.