How to Protest During a Pandemic
The year 2020 will go down in the history books not only as the year a global pandemic changed life as we knew it, but also as the start of a new civil rights era ignited by shocking police violence.
And indeed, it was probably a combination of these two things—the modern-day lynching of George Floyd, plus the angst of lockdown—that finally drove large numbers of white people to take part in a movement that started years earlier in response to a similarly heinous crime.
The recent explosion of activity led the New York Times to crunch the numbers and conclude that Black Lives Matter may in fact be the largest protest movement in U.S. history.
Protesting during a pandemic comes with risks, sure. But as many public health experts have pointed out, health is not just about dodging a virus. Police violence, systemic racism, and inequality are themselves public health threats. If protesting during a pandemic is what it takes to be heard, say the experts, so be it (and there’s no evidence that BLM protests have actually contributed to the coronavirus surge).
If you’re planning to participate in a BLM protest or a rally to protect the U.S. Postal Service, here’s what you need to know.
Should You Protest?
If you or someone in your household is at high-risk for COVID-19 complications because of an underlying health condition like asthma or diabetes, you should strongly consider not attending large gatherings. Another option is to quarantine for two weeks after a protest. But for most of us this just isn’t realistic.
If you decide protesting is too risky, there are other ways to do anti-racist activism. You can donate to social justice organizations or volunteer your time online. And you can educate yourself on antiracism—there’s always more to learn.
Know Your Rights
It’s your First Amendment right to peacefully assemble and express your thoughts and opinions in the form of a protest or rally.
You can legally protest in front of government buildings (such as a county courthouse) as long as you’re not interfering with the purposes of the building or blocking access. You can also protest in “traditional public forums,” such as streets, sidewalks, and public parks.
Protesting on private property is another story. Private owners can set rules for speech and photography on their property.
In public spaces, you have the right to take photos of anything in plain view, including the police and protestors. But before posting pictures of protestors on social media—especially images that show faces—consider how it might inadvertently put protestors at risk of being surveilled and harassed by the authorities.
Keep in mind the police will likely be present at protests and could use force to break up a gathering. Police are required to inform people of a dispersal order (including how much time they have to disperse and the consequences if they refuse, including arrest), but there have been numerous reports of police using force to break up protests with no forewarning. Be aware of this risk.
Understand the Risks If You’re a BIPOC
Being a person of color carries greater risks at protests. White folks for the most part enjoy freedom from worry about being mistreated by police. Black folks and people of color have the opposite experience.
If you’re a BIPOC, consider the additional risks that come with protesting. Don’t go alone. Tell trusted others where you’re going and how long you plan to be gone.
If you’re a white person, use your privilege for good. As one woman put it to the LA Times:
“I am a fat, middle-aged white lady who will offer my services as an escort to a black man who wants to go to the grocery store, or go jogging or go birdwatching. The cops won’t kill me, but they might kill him if I’m not with him.” – Kelly
How to Stay Safe at Protests Amid COVID-19
Anti-maskers may technically have the right to flaunt their disregard for public safety by protesting shoulder to shoulder, but that doesn’t make it right. Here’s how you can protect yourself and others at protests:
Wear a mask and avoid touching your face.