Everything’s kicking off but I’ve never been to a protest before — what do I do?
Before getting into the thick of things I should introduce what I’m trying to do and say here so that people can properly understand. First of all this guide is very heavily focused on UK protesting. I don’t have experience of protesting in other countries so please take any guidance which might be affected by that with a pinch of salt. I’ve been going to protests fairly regularly for the better part of a decade now, since I was a teen, and nowadays I tend to attend in more of a support capacity, doing first aid, handing out supplies to people etc. I am also an anarchist, and a lot of my language and attitudes in this guide will reflect that. I’m not going to pretend to have anything other than disdain for and a desire to abolish the police, as well as a dislike for a lot of the established or ‘respectable’ forms of protest. I’m also aware that as I am finishing this guide up it is June 2020 and both in the US and here in the UK, as well as elsewhere, people have exploded back onto the streets in a serious way in support of Black Lives Matter and against the continued brutalisation of BIPOC by police forces across the globe. Keeping this in mind, I feel I should point out that I am white, and therefore a lot of my experiences of the police have been very different to those of BIPOC, and while I’ve tried not to recommend anything which I would get away with and someone who isn’t white wouldn’t, there are almost certainly things I have missed.
— NOTE: I am now editing this guide in March 2021 in the light of the recent #KillTheBill protests against the potential vast expansion of police powers in the UK which seem to be the harbinger of an expansion of the authoritarian state. It looks like this is going to lead to a pretty serious rise in unrest, and police are already treating protestors as though they can act with complete impunity (which of course they can, at least in the eyes of the State, unless we hold them to account ourselves).
What kind of protest are you going on?
The kind of preparation you’re going to have to do and how you’ll want to behave changes massively based on what kind of protest you’re actually about to go on. Is it an A-to-B march? Is it a static lock-on/blockade? Are you expecting violence, or is this likely to be completely peaceful? How much violence are you expecting?
If you’re fairly new to protesting and demonstrations this can be hard to judge, so here’s a breakdown of the most common types of protest you’re likely to find:
- Peaceful and static. Likely to be being run by Extinction Rebellion (XR) or something like that. These are usually going to be in a city centre or political centre, Whitehall/Piccadilly etc. They’re also fairly low risk, but it’s worth being aware of whether or not people are going to be breaking the law peacefully. EDIT: In light of the recent treatment of XR-style peaceful protestors, and the way the new Bill is specifically targeting disruptive peaceful protests like these, I wouldn’t say these protests are anywhere near as low-risk as they were before. Be prepared for anything, and for god’s sake don’t sit passively by and let your friends be hurt by the cops. Do something. Even if you’re dogmatically tied to Nonviolence (read How Nonviolence Protects The State by Peter Gelderloos), there are ways to peacefully prevent your friends from being assaulted and arrested by a team of state-sanctioned fascist thugs.
- Peaceful and mobile. These are usually run by SUTR or one of the other ‘alphabet soup’ type groups with various forms of trade unions and smaller socialist parties usually present. Almost always in Central London, usually Parliament Square/Downing Street/Trafalgar Square focused. They can vary in size but usually range from 1000–15,000 and are almost always entirely peaceful outside of the occasional altercation with weird right-wingers or aggressive policing.
- Smaller and potentially violent. These are usually called by anarchist or more extra-parliamentary communist groups, antifascist, pro-migrant, or more radical green groups, and are often ‘emergency demos’. Where exactly these are tends to vary quite a bit, but they’re almost always going to be in a city unless environmental direct action in the style of Ende Gelände in Germany takes off in the UK, although these are the most likely actions to not be taking place in the city centre, as they often target a specific organisation or are seeking to defend something. They’re usually quite a lot smaller than the above actions, in my experience between 200–1000 people, and can often be entirely peaceful outside of a few shouting matches with the cops or fascists (same thing I know), but can escalate very suddenly, depending on things like how the police feel or even if it’s a particularly hot day.
- Larger and potentially violent. These have become far less common in recent years, but the recent BLM protests have started to see them come back. Some student and the larger antifascist mobilisations have also strayed into this territory in the past. I expect these kind of protests to become more common in the next few years if things continue as they have been (UPDATE: I was right). These can vary from size between 1000–15,000 people, but sometimes more, and usually take place within city centres, especially Central London, but could be anywhere in a city. These kinds of actions will usually escalate to violence in a more gradual or noticeable way, but not always, so keep an eye out.
- Mass Mobilisations, Large A-to-B. These encompass the big demonstrations that happen most summers, protests against any of the larger UN/IMF/etc conferences (COP, G8/10/20, etc), and sometimes the Tory Party Conference, but are not limited to these events. I expect these to become more common over the next few years. These protests are usually called by larger groups like the (now mostly defunct) People’s Assembly Against Austerity, or coalitions of socialist parties, trade unions, and extra-parliamentary groups. Demonstrations of this type are usually in Central London, with people travelling a long way to be there, and can peak at numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Violence is unusual, but far from unexpected as there will probably be various groups planning a multitude of actions throughout the day, and it is hard to predict anything. If there is violence at these my experience has usually been that it usually happens once the vast majority of people have gone home and the police feel more able to attack a smaller crowd, usually in order to kettle them.
I am not going to cover actions like hunt sabotage or protest camps here, since you should be briefed by the people bringing you to them, and I’m not experienced enough personally.
What should I bring with me?
It can be hard to decide about what to bring with you to a protest, since you want to travel as light as possible, and organisations are annoyingly lax about giving instructions about what to expect, so below is a general guide about what to bring, depending on which kind of protest you are attending. The most important basic advice I can give here is to treat the protest as though it’s a short hike; don’t bring too much, but enough to sustain yourself doing a fair amount of exercise.
DO NOT BRING:
- Your smartphone. Unless you are able to do the following: set it to have a short lock time, updated to the latest software update, use only a keycode unlock (not face or fingerprint ID), and make sure it does not have any incriminating chat logs or photos on it. If you can manage that then it should be okay. If possible bring a burner phone. I sometimes use my old phones which I’ve wiped etc as a burner phone if I know that I’ll need it. Also be careful about how you film the police if you do that, I’ll include some stuff on how to do that further down.
- Drugs or alcohol. Unless you’re dependent on something or you need medication, don’t bring it. I understand bringing a couple of cans to a more chill protest but do not turn up drunk/high or bring anything which could seriously impede your judgement, I’ve seen too many drunk people get grabbed by cops as an easy arrest because they were causing trouble and weren’t fully alert, plus you absolutely put people around you in danger of getting grabbed. This goes more so for potentially violent or confrontational protests but also be careful about less dangerous ones. Also holy shit you don’t wanna get nicked at a protest with weed on you just be smart.
- Your dog. I’m literally begging you, stop bringing dogs on protests, especially if they’re gonna be confrontational. I know how cool Negro Matapacos and Loukanikos looked during riots but they were street dogs who got adopted by rioters, not your dog on a lead who you have to look after and will absolutely get you arrested if it even slightly looks like it might threaten a cop.
- Too much stuff. Don’t weigh yourself down unnecessarily, you’re gonna get exhausted halfway through and have a crap time for the rest of the demo, trust me. I know it’s tempting to just bring as much stuff as possible but you’re gonna have to rely on other people to bring enough water for themselves sometimes. Some folks do bring a bunch of extra water to hand out, which is always nice, and if you want to do that then go ahead, but plan for it and bring a buddy or two to help out.
Essentials for all protests:
- Water. Always bring enough water for yourself, if not the people you’re going with too. The general formula for how much to bring is 500ml as standard, plus 500ml for each one of: a hot day, wearing heavy, dark, or a lot of clothing (ie masked-up), and running around a lot or doing anything strenuous. For example: I would carry 2L of water with me on a large demo on a sunny day in June when I am wearing a mask and hat, and think that there might be trouble with the police later in the day.
- Food. Sweets, nuts, or fruit bars work well enough, you’re only trying to keep your blood sugar up enough to not faint or anything and you should make sure to eat a meal before the protest. Salty snacks like crisps will also help replenish salt you lose in sweat.
- Sensible Clothes. This includes good footwear, warm/cool clothes you can move in, rain cover, etc.
- A Face Covering/PPE. Even if you’re not worried about police surveillance (and you should be), you should absolutely wear something to cover your mouth and nose, such as a disposable surgical mask, in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection. There will often be people handing these out but don’t rely on that, and depending on how you get to the protest you should’ve been wearing one anyway mate.
- Tissues. No really, they’re super useful and no one brings them, plus if someone gets a nosebleed it’s a good stop-gap until the first aiders can get some gauze.
- A portable phone charger. Seriously these are so useful you have no idea how often I’ve run out of battery and not been sure how to get home please bring one, if not for yourself then for me because I will definitely forget.
- Medication. Especially if you have anti-anxiety or asthma medication, or anything similar. You can often be at a protest for longer than planned and having medication can be extremely helpful. If it’s a valid prescribed medication in the pharmacy box you got it in the police aren’t supposed to try and take them off you.
- Suncream. Even if you don’t think you need it, other people will, and even if it’s cold or cloudy you can get burnt.
- Friends. I know it’s not always possible, but going to protests alone is generally a bad idea. Being around other people you know means you have someone who can look after you if things go wrong, and also you’re just gonna have a better time if you can screw about coming up with better chants than whatever recycled and outdated trash the SWP are yelling.
- A Bust Card. These are very important little pieces of paper which have written on them legal advice about what to do if you are arrested or you see someone else being arrested. They also usually have the phone numbers of local lawyers who specialise in protest law. If you don’t have one of these you can: pick up a stack at your local radical bookshop/infoshop (for example in London I would go to Freedom or 56a), print one out from the GBC site or you can ask a Legal Observer you see on any demonstration and they will likely be able to give you one. EDIT: a lot of older bust cards are now seriously out of date because of the widening of police powers around free assembly during lockdowns etc. LOs will be carrying more up to date ones so try to find one. They usually wear bright orange high-vis jackets with “LEGAL OBSERVER” on the back.
- Something to change into after the demo. This is only necessary on protests which are likely to be violent. You should especially bring this if you are planning to participate in black bloc tactics. Useful on antifascist, potentially violent, and mass mobilisations.
- First Aid. Don’t bring this unless you’re a trained first aider (obviously some plasters or whatever is fine but don’t go running around with a full kit without knowing how to use it), and it’s probably a good idea to ask the organisers if they will have first aiders present, but if you’re trained, confident, and have room in your bag then go ahead. Useful on all protests.
- Your own placards, banners, or flags. I don’t have space here to go into why picking up Stand Up To Racism/Socialist Worker placards is bad, but google ‘Comrade Delta’ and find out for yourself (content warning for sexual assault.) It’s also just nicer to have some variety. But don’t just come up with a bad pun and come along because you want to get your picture on social media, everyone’s sick of people doing performative shit like that. Also, all of these items can be useful if things kick off, as I will explain below in the tactics section. Get together with your friends and make a cool banner! Have a placard making sessions locally! Be fun, but also smart. Useful at all protests.
- A burner phone. Bring one of these if your normal phone can’t be properly secured in the event of being arrested, and you could be at risk of arrest at almost any protest. Seriously, don’t give the cops more intel than they already get from mass surveillance. Useful at all protests.
- Goggles or some other eye/face/head protection. These aren’t used very heavily in the UK at the moment since the use of tear gas isn’t commonly used in the UK, excluding Northern Ireland, and isn’t in use by any mainland forces at the moment, although that may change (UPDATE: use of pepper spray/CS spray has been getting more common recently, be aware of that). Swimming goggles are good enough to help prevent the effects to your eyes, while respirators can cover your entire face if need be, but are fairly expensive (mine was about £30 and only covers my mouth and nose). Helmets, meanwhile, can be very useful. You can pick up these things called ‘bump caps’ at some hardware shops (I found them at B&Q) which are ordinary-looking black caps with a shell on the inside. They aren’t quite on the same level as a proper helmet, but they’re lightweight and inconspicuous protection. I have personally been hit by bricks thrown by fascists and I now always bring a helmet on any protest where I think that is a potential risk. Bike helmets are good enough for this if you have one. Useful at potentially violent, antifascist, and protests where the police are likely to be aggressive. NOTE: Police are more likely to be aggressive now, as we’ve seen in Bristol and Clapham recently.
- Look there’s other stuff it’s fun to bring too but I’m not trying to teach you how to get arrested here, but go watch some videos of Hong Kong or Chile and see what you can learn about self-defence against the police.
A note on masks and anonymity
Bring something to cover your face, no matter what. I know that it doesn’t have great “optics” according to some people, and you might think you don’t need to if you don’t plan on breaking the law but this is about more than that.
There are three essential reasons to mask-up at protests: anonymity, other people, and safety.
Anonymity is an obvious one; as the surveillance state expands (and will do so even faster under a Tory government), anyone who protests is under threat, whether or not they break they law, because everyone is surveilled. If you haven’t been to a protest before then you may not have seen the pairs of police officers who wander around or stand by the side of the crowd filming it. This also happens when people are being released from a kettle, and is used to identify anyone who does anything illegal, or has done anything illegal, but also helps the state keep a record of almost anyone who exercises their right to protest.
The second reason, other people, is tied heavily to the first, as it helps other people stay anonymous by helping to normalise the wearing of face-coverings at protests. Wearing a mask helps make sure that anyone else wearing a mask looks significantly less suspicious, thus making everyone safer and just making sure we all have a better day (except possibly the government). In London the police are also introducing facial-recognition cameras placed in public areas, so normalising people wearing masks will help defend civil liberties from an authoritarian police force.
The third reason, safety, covers issues around smoke, CS spray, or tear gas, but also covers opposing protesters (usually fascists), and now helping to prevent infection with COVID-19. While wearing a mask on its own will do almost nothing for CS or gas, it can help if someone sets off a smoke grenade or a flare right in front of you. If you want something more robust, then wearing a respirator you picked up at a hardware store and some swimming goggles is the best protection you’ll find without going full overkill and buying a knock-off Chinese military gas mask. Safety from opposition protesters is important because the far-right have a nasty tendency to take pictures of anyone at counter-protests and post them online, trying to identify and harass anyone they can. Wearing a mask can go a long way towards preventing this and damaging the fascists’ ability to intimidate opposition.
On filming the police and protestors: as far as possible, avoid filming protestors, especially their faces or anything identifiable. We’ve already seen a lot of citizen-cops online going through videos from Bristol etc to identify people, often who are on the receiving end of police violence. For photos, this tool to anonymise and scrub pictures before you upload them can be useful.
If you want to read about this more from someone who can write about it better than I can: here is Netpol’s article on protest anonymity.
Some Information About Tactics
You’re going to see a large diversity of tactics if you spend enough time at street protests. It may not feel like it after a while, as you start to develop a certain sense for things, but there are almost as many different ways of protesting as there are people attending a protest, so here are a few which you’ll probably see fairly often.
A new note of Police Tactics in 2021:
I’ve noticed a bit of a shift in police tactics recently, since the Tories came into power but also in response to BLM and XR protests. This isn’t just because of their expansion of powers, but also because they know that they have a government (and Home Secretary) in power who will back them to the hilt on anything they do in the streets, and because police on an individual level have started to become radicalised in much the same way cops in the US have been over the last decades. One of these new tactics is to wait until a certain point in the protest, usually when most people have decided that everything will be calm and they let their guard down or head home. Police will then suddenly decide that their duty to facilitate protest no longer applies and will come in hard on a core of people who have stuck around later, often people who it is easier for them to criminalise for a variety of reasons, allowing the police to claim that they were reacting to a more hardcore, disobedient, or violent element of the protest, separate from the rest of the demonstrators. Because of this, I’d advise being especially cautious towards the end of protests, particularly after dark because the cops seem to love getting ultra-violent around then, and to refrain whenever possible from demonising people who don’t protest in the way you deem appropriate, especially if you weren’t there yourself, and to never ever trust what the police claim predicated their response. For examples of what I’m talking about see the use of horse charges against BLM protestors after most people had left in Whitehall during the summer of 2020, and the treatment of smaller groups of protestors who stayed later than or were separated from the main group in Bristol during March 2021.
This is the tactic which is most often associated with ‘Antifa’ (antifascist) protests, in which as many people as possible dress entirely in black (hence the name), including hoods, face coverings, etc. This works to create a large anonymous group of people who can act without being at risk of being identified, allowing them to take part in actions which might otherwise be too dangerous. You’ll often see them carrying black flags, sometimes with red or green on them, as black bloc is heavily favoured by anarchists. It is also worth pointing out that black bloc as a tactic is not inherently violent, although it is usually associated with violence, and people in black bloc are often harassed by other protestors who believe they are there to “cause trouble” or “detract from the movement” by being violent, which is worth a whole essay on its own to tackle.
If you choose to take part in a black bloc, then there are two important things to remember. First of all: stick with your friends, and avoid getting separated from the bloc at all costs, as ending up on your own can defeat many of the advantages of the bloc. Secondly, make sure you have a method for de-blocing, or leaving the bloc. This means having more normal-looking clothes which you can change into when the time comes to leave, and having a safe way or place to change into those clothes. This helps to avoid any risk of you being followed after the protest has ended, either by police or counter-protestors.
“Taking a Road”:
This refers to the act of taking control of a road in order to block or control traffic. It’s used in pretty much every protest that at some point strays from any pre-determined march route or rally location. You’ll sometimes hear people shout “take the road”, which is a signal to spread out across the road in order to occupy as much of it as possible, as police will often try to restrict protestors to one side of a road in order to allow traffic to continue on the other side, largely defeating any possible disruption which the protest might have created. Taking a road is often a fairly peaceful and non-confrontational act, but I have seen the police overreact and use fairly brutal force to remove people or prevent them from blocking the road. This can result in some pretty nasty injuries so watch out for anyone around you. EDIT: This tactic is often used in a way which results in people getting arrested, and there’s been a recent tendency, led by some sections of XR, to actually block people getting arrested from being helped by others. Don’t be that person. Getting violently arrested is a deeply traumatic and horrible experience, and you don’t get to choose whether someone has to go through that just because of your own personal views.
This is more of a police tactic than a protestor one, since you actually want to avoid being kettled at all costs, as it almost always completely neuters a protest. “Kettling” is when the police surround a crowd completely and force them into a small space. It’s usually either used to demoralise a crowd so they’ll stop fighting, or to antagonise a crowd that the police want to get rid of so that they have an excuse to use force. People can get pretty badly hurt in kettles, not only from direct police force, but also from kettles lasting late into the night (one in Whitehall on June 7th lasted until at least 1am) and people becoming dehydrated, exhausted, or going without medication for long periods of time.
Kettles are not invincible though! If you can’t avoid getting trapped in one, the key to which is to remain mobile and aware, then breaking out of one can and has been done. It massively helps to have other protestors on the outside, who escaped kettling, as they can help you to surround the police, after which they almost always retreat, or to break through police lines in order to allow those in the kettle to escape through the gap. It is also possible for people inside the kettle to do the same thing, but is much harder as the police will be able to watch and pre-empt almost any attempt to escape from within. Generally though, it is better to learn how to avoid getting kettled in the first place, and to look out for natural choke points etc. It can actually be helpful sometimes to take a look at a map of the area you’ll be around in advance, so you know this stuff beforehand (or be like me, and just know Central London like the back of your hand because you’ve been doing this for almost a decade).
It is also worth saying that as of this article being written (June 2020) you are not legally required to give any personal details to the police in order to be released from a kettle, although they will almost always try to persuade you to do so before releasing you. Hopefully, you will be kettled alongside some Legal Observers who will be able to help make sure everyone inside the kettle is aware of this. For more information please refer to this NetPol article on kettling.
This covers everything that I think should be known before engaging in protesting in the UK, and some of the knowledge I’ve gained from my experience. I hope this has helped anyone who reads it to feel more confident going out into the streets, and maybe dispelled some myths which are sometimes spread around protesting. Good luck everyone.