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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.

people holding signage for black lives matter

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.

Crowd of Protesters Holding Signs and Kneeling

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.

Masks protect others. When everyone wears them, all of us are safer. Make sure you have a well-fitting mask that covers your nose and mouth and fits snugly on your face. Avoid constantly adjusting your mask or rubbing your eyes and use hand sanitizer before adjusting it. If you need to get some air, only bring down one side of the mask to allow air in. Don’t remove your mask to chant.

Don’t shake hands or hug.

This is a tough one, especially since protests are about solidarity. If you must make physical contact, do a footshake, but it’s best to avoid physical contact altogether with people outside your household.

Maintain physical distance.

This is also tough at protests, where people are often crowded onto sidewalks or narrow streets or plazas. And distancing can make it hard to hear speakers. Still, do your best to maintain physical distance, ideally six feet.

Limit shouting.

It sounds counterintuitive since chanting and shouting are integral parts of most protests. But shouting is akin to coughing—it causes particles to go airborne and increases the risk of viral spread. Avoid shouting and chanting. Use drums, noisemakers, and protest signs instead.

What to Bring with You

Only bring what you need, and make sure you have a comfortable backpack. Here’s what to bring:

● Face covering (more than one, in case one gets dirty or contaminated)

● Alcohol-based hand sanitizer

● Small water bottle with soapy water (this can help rinse off pepper spray from hands)

● Medications

● Sunscreen/hat

● Identification (driver’s license or state-issued ID card)

● Plenty of water

● Cash (enough for public transportation or food)

● Portable phone charger (especially if you plan to record the event)

● Snacks

● Glasses (contact lenses can damage your eyes if you get tear gassed/pepper sprayed)

After the Protest

Change your clothes and shower immediately when you get home. Consider bringing a clean set of clothes to change into before you get home. Put your dirty clothes in a garbage bag and load them into the washing machine immediately or seal the bag with your dirty clothes until laundry day.

If you live in a household with people at high-risk of COVID (and even if you don’t), consider a two-week self-quarantine, especially if you made contact with others, encountered a lot of people who weren’t wearing masks, or you were tear gassed or pepper sprayed. Get a COVID test if you think you may have been infected.

Get Inspired

We’re living through challenging times, but there’s a bright spot: a revival of civic engagement we haven’t seen since the Civil Rights era.

Stay up to date on the protests against police brutality and the fight for our democracy with DCP’s Black-hosted podcasts. Start with democracy-ish, a weekly rundown of politics and the presidential election from a Black progressive point of view hosted by Danielle Moodie and Touré. And listen to Say Their Name, a podcast memorializing the lives of unarmed Black people who have been killed or assaulted by police.


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