How to Protest (or Survive a Riot)

Are you pissed off about something larger than yourself?

Your family, friends, community, and unrelated strangers you met off Craigslist angry things are going to shit?

Or maybe you just happen to be walking through town one day, and all of a sudden the peaceful march has suddenly turned into a full fledged riot.

As someone who was at Standing Rock, the 2014 Keene Pumpkin Fest riots, and numerous smaller events, I have a little experience in the subject of being at a protest and not dying when things go south.

Therefore, I have decided to leave you with some tips to make the next movement you participate in/accidentally stumble into a safer and more productive one.

  • Research the Event (and its organizers): Protesting is time consuming/public, so chances are you don’t want to end up at the wrong one. Make sure to look into what the protest is about, its time/location, and especially who is putting it on. Unless your going for the sake of journalism/counter-protesting/entertainment, you DO NOT want to accidentally end up at an extremist event. Besides the increased level of chaos that tends to follow them, your boss will likely not be the fondest of having an employee’s face plastered on the six o’clock news.
  • Be Prepared: Recognize the level of crazy your going to be walking into. For small, local protests, you likely need only a sign and weather-permitting clothes. For a large chaotic one with a high potential of violence, you’re definitely going to want to invest in some cheap gear. Bandannas/respirators (allows for better breathing in case of tear gas/pepper spray), goggles, gloves, milk (relieves burning for tear gas/pepper spray) and first aid can be essentials for more hectic situations, while body armor and a helmet may even be necessary in high violence areas. Make sure to know the legalities/law enforcement reactions on this however, for you don’t want to increase your interactions with riot police (or their rubber bullets interaction with your skin). So long as you don’t rule out any scenario occurring and have at least a base knowledge of how you’d deal with it, you’ll fare a LOT better than most people.
  • Decide on Your Level of Commitment: Just as there are different types of people, there are also different types of protestors. Some show up in solidarity but leave soon after. Some stay in the mob until police order evacuation. Some will literally remain in action till they are cuffed in the back of a squad car. Just make sure to know how much you can truly commit to your cause. If you are terrified of chaos and injury, I’d advise (outside staying home) to stay out of the crowds and watch from enough of a distance that you can quickly exit. For those that can’t afford arrests, stay away from the front lines and LEAVE AS SOON AS THINGS GET SKETCHY! This could be when the crowd gets unruly or the riot gear breaks out, but when the mood changes, leave. For the determined rest of you, have the number of a lawyer or ACLU chapter in sharpie on your arm (police will take your phone) and whatever you do, don’t get physical with law enforcement. Remain in your spot, keep notes on everything that occurs, and if you or someone nearby can live-stream, do so to prevent false charges being put on you. Also avoid fighting with protestors/counter-protestors, for assault charges will be rampant after the event.
  • Have an Escape Plan (and know when to enact it): Get an idea of the area and have a map set up with multiple paths of escape. As someone who was literally left behind by my ride while at a protest in North Dakota and had to hitch back with journalists as riot police we’re approaching on the street behind me, TAKE THIS STEP SERIOUSLY. If you get lost or abandoned, your chances of arrest increase ten-fold, and in some locations, you can expect the opposite of hospitality from locals.
  • If Shit Hits the Fan, SURVIVE!: If a riot begins, a chaotic event occurs, or police start indiscriminately taking people out, it’s time for survival mode. Get out of the crowd and towards an area free of police (usually a side-street or the sidewalk leading away from the mob). Depending on the level of insanity, you may already be subject to arrest for just being there, so keep your eyes peeled for police presence and make sure to create distance between them and the crowd. Tear gas and “less then lethal” ammunition (a completely BS phrase, for getting hit the wrong way can kill you) will likely start being deployed, so watch out for canisters and don’t antagonize the police. If gas of any form is released, put on your eye protection and bandanna (which can be soaked in milk)/respirator and prepare for what feels like gaseous chili-powder coming straight for your lungs and face. Go towards a safe place as soon as possible, for once you get hit with gas, disorientation occurs almost immediately. I remember walking around a traffic circle sidewalk with my eyes unable to open, completely unsure of where I was while filming at Pumpkin Fest after police gassed down an entire road. This is not a time to be in the street or other potentially dangerous locations. Know at the end of the day that the police are there to disperse and arrest, not necessarily help you. Outside of a major emergency like what happened in Charlottesville, chances are you’re on your own.


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