I’m fortunate to live in Austin, Texas, with a rich history of activism and ready access to elected officials. Since the election of November 2016, I’ve protested racists and Neo-Nazis, Islamophobia, misogyny, tax fraud, racism, and climate change denial; I’ve helped with safety on marches, rallies, lobbying events, and townhalls; I’ve used tactical non-violence skills on campuses, at City Hall, the state Capitol, and the offices of Congressmen. I’ve learned a lot about crowd management, dealing with DPS troopers, and how to use a walkie-talkie. I’ve also learned a great deal about my own strengths and weaknesses in the high-energy, sometimes high-conflict setting of civic activism. I’ve learned that anyone can do this work, but it’s a lot easier if we pool our knowledge. So here, in no specific order, are some tips for others interested in, or already doing, work to keep civic protest as safe and free of violence as possible.
If you agree to be the “security person” for an event, connect early and often with the lead organizers. Questions to ask:
- Is this a march or rally or both? (a planned march may have to become a rally if march permits can’t be secured). You’ll need to plan a little differently for static versus moving phases of an event.
- If it’s a march, what is the route? Will streets be blocked, and will there be a police escort?
- Do we have approval from city or other authorities as needed? Verify that venue reservation and permitting processes are on track and will be complete well in advance of the event.
- Is there any codified information about use of the venue? Ask especially for documents that say, “You cannot block these areas. Pedicabs can’t go here. Buses should avoid these streets. Pedestrians must stay out of these areas.” Etc. Maps of any areas with special restrictions are awesome. If the venue doesn’t provide one, you can sketch one out and ask their people if you have the restricted zones accurately marked.
- Basically, any time anyone tells you, “You CANNOT . . .” or “You MUST . . . ,” try to get that statement in writing (email is fine).
- If we are protesting without permits, how do we expect authorities to react?
- Which agencies (law enforcement, venue, and other) will we be interacting with, and who is the contact person/info for each? For each contact person, know that person’s position in the chain of command for their agency. Know how agencies work together. At the Texas State Capitol, for example, many decisions are made by the State Preservation Board representative. They may ask DPS Troopers to remove people or stop behaviors they deem inappropriate, whereas direct requests from event organizers to DPS for such actions are usually ignored.
- Do we have legal observers lined up (ACLU, Lawyers Guild, other)? Is there a number for people to call if they are arrested?
- Have the expectations for non-violence been made plain to all participants? (MoveOn, for example, typically includes a statement about this on their event RSVP pages.)
- How will event volunteers be identified (armbands, ribbons, hats, shirts)? I like to give the safety team their own armband or bandana in a special color so they can identify each other and so others can locate them when needed.
- Who is the first aid team? Where will they be located?
- Who is bringing water? Where will it be available?
- Do we have a communications system for security? (If your group doesn’t have walkie-talkies, consider buying a set. They are relatively inexpensive on Amazon. Or, connect with other groups to co-purchase or share communications equipment)
- If using walkie-talkies, have we clarified with other security personnel at the event which channels are clear to use?
- Do we expect counter-protest or disruption? Who is tracking this? Who is communicating with law enforcement about it?
- Is this a strictly local event, or is it connected to a national effort?
- How is fundraising being handled, and what will funds be used for (most often, it’s for permits, renting port-a-potties, and first aid supplies/water)?
- What is the “run of show”? Usually the list of speakers for an event will be sketchy until just beforehand, but organizers should have a schedule laid out indicating when the crowd will assemble, who will serve as MC, how long is anticipated for music, pledge/anthem, speakers, etc.
- Amplification: what is the policy or law, who will enforce it?
Procuring and training safety volunteers:
I only handle event security if the lead organizers provide a list of volunteers who are committed to show up in advance for training and stay for the duration of the event. It’s fine if you can call in some people you already know and have worked with, but organizers should treat security as an integral part of their event, not something that can be outsourced. Every attendee at the event will ultimately be responsible for helping to keep the event safe.
Virtually anyone who is mature enough to act responsibly under pressure can be an effective peacekeeper at an action, but people should have some basic training in emotional grounding and other simple tactics. Diversity in your volunteer pool is a strength; adults of all ages, genders, sizes, strengths, and abilities can be effective peacekeepers and de-escalators.
The Protest Safety Training Handbook contains a complete short workshop plan for training volunteers.
I also provide a day-of handout for volunteers. I ask them to meet early at the event site, so we can explain the plan for the day and review skills. I provide the same handout to law enforcement, before and at the event, so they have some understanding of what our volunteers will be doing (I have been detained and lectured by law enforcement for de-escalating attendees at a rally who were yelling at a counter-protester–the officer interpreted our intervention as “interfering with his [the counter-protester’s] First Amendment rights”). Here’s a sample day-of handout.
At the event:
Have a plan for deploying your volunteers. You might want some volunteers in static positions (stationed at every intersection on a march route, for example) and some mingling with the crowd. In a large space, I’ll often set up zones and assign people to cover specific areas. You want volunteers to be present throughout your event space, but you also need them to be free to move to where the problems are. For a march, it often works well to have safety volunteers walk along the sides of the marching bloc, so they can intervene between marchers and bystanders should the bystanders prove hostile.
Handling disruptive counter-protesters will be covered in more detail in a subsequent post. Generally, however, friction develops at certain boundaries: near the edge of a stage area, or along the sides of a march as marchers draw the attention of people on the sidewalk.
I have my volunteers check in 30-60 minutes early, either at the main volunteer area or just with me, but I keep my own check-in list of names. This helps me introduce volunteers to one another. We have a brief orientation where we
- Hand out walkie-talkies and bandanas
- Assign people to their zones or areas
- Go over the day of handout
- Go through the “run of show”
- Point out where first aid, water, and restrooms are
- Go over any last-minute details on expected counter-protest, law enforcement communication, etc.
- Review grounding and de-escalation skills
- Establish a debriefing location where we will meet up after the event if there is any violence or other problems. Usually we do this in a nearby bar, and I buy everyone a beer. It allows us to talk over our experiences and also provides a safer way to disperse if there is any concern about being followed by hostile counter-protesters.
Finally, I encourage friendly, or at least respectful, interaction with law enforcement. Get to know specific LE officers and develop working relationships as is appropriate, but keep in mind LE often uses information gained informally to target innocent and vulnerable people. Don’t be too trusting. I’m also working on a more detailed post about interacting with law enforcement.
There are tons of other good resources on protest organization out there; here are some I refer to often:
Know Your Rights: Free Speech, Protests & Demonstrations (ACLU)
Search and seizure (EFF)
How to use your smartphone in a protest
Tactical Nonviolence: philosophy & methods (Bruce Hartford)
Crowd psychology and safety
Activist’s Guide to Basic First Aid
Pepper Spray & Tear Gas: Avoiding, Protection, Remedies
As always, I welcome comments and feedback–please share your own tips and advice in the comments, or hit me up on Twitter (@SusanSchorn).