THERE ARE MANY REASONS to participate in a protest. Maybe you need to let your government, or a company, or someone know that you disagree with what’s going on. Or maybe like me, you’re a photographer and writer, and you just want to get out there and document the happenings. If you’re foreign-based, like I am, the US government advises against participating in other countries’ protests, but you probably already knew that.
Here are some tips to keep safe at protests, based on my last three months covering many (occasionally violent) protests in Santiago, Chile, in our case based around the student demands for educational reform. I’ve also groupsourced from people in the field, taking time to ask a few questions from people with more experience than I have and learned from several painful mistakes.
Depending on your level of participation, you’re going to want some protective gear for your stint at the protest.
At the absolute least, bring a scarf to cover your mouth and nose in the case of tear gas, and ideally, a cut lemon to suck on and wipe your eyes with if you get gassed. Lemons work against CS gas, which is what the police use against protesters in Chile. Lemons provide some relief from the burning. A gas mask for fine particles is also useful, and works much better than a scarf, which will give you only a few clean breaths. Practice putting the mask on in a jiffy for when you see or hear that gas has been detonated.
Leave your contacts at home. You expose yourself to more risk with contact lenses. Wear tight-fitting shop glasses or goggles. Like the gas mask, practice putting these on quickly. In my case, I have to put on the gas mask before the goggles to get the right fit. You should practice this at home as well.
In Chile, when altercations with the police take place, it usually deteriorates into rock-throwing. If you think it’s possible that you’ll be around at this juncture, or if you’re a photographer that wants to stand near the police, consider buying a hard-shelled helmet to wear as well. Consider how this will affect the fit of your mask and goggles.
Open a grocery bag at the bottom and stick your DSLR inside, poking the lens out. Be sure you still have controls over the zoom and the focus ring, but tape or rubber band the bag onto the lens. It’s not watertight, but will prevent the camera from getting wet from spray from the water cannons (see below).
If you’re thinking that the best way to deal with a gas canister is to throw it far away or back from whence it came, be aware that they are very hot when they are discharging, so wear heat-resistant gloves.
Pre-protest prep (social/mental)
Know what you’re getting into. Gauge the likellihood of violence, from past protests in similar places and organized by similar groups.
Find out whether the protest is permitted or non-permitted, this will affect how the crowds are controlled.
Talk to other people both who are going to the protest, and who are staying home. Leave word with someone reliable about what time you expect to resurface and what to do in case you don’t.
Write contact phone numbers in indelible ink someplace that is unlikely to get wet. Your cellphone is not a reliable alternative as it could get wet, broken or lost.
Pre-protest prep (physical)
If you think there’s a chance of tear gas or getting taken into custody, men should shave for a better gas mask seal and for possible mugshots.
Wear comfortable clothing, shoes you can run in, and pants that don’t require a belt, in case you’re taken into custody and your belt is taken away.
Don’t use heavy creams or lip balm, both give the flyweight tear gas (which is actually a powder) a place to land and adhere.
Bring either a color copy of your ID or your ID itself, depending on what local laws dictate. In many countries not having your ID and a small sum of money is enough to be picked up for vagrancy.
At the protest
Be aware of physical barriers and possible escape routes.
If you need to keep in touch with friends in the protests, use a one-syllable key word among your group, not each other’s names, which other people can use to distract you.
Listen for a change in the mood, either on the part of the police or the protesters themselves. Police vehicles often make a grinding sound on approach, due to the low gearing.
Know your vehicles, and what they do. In Chile, three main kinds of vehicles appear at protests. They are the zorillo, which shoots gas canisters, the guanaco, with its roof-mounted rotating water cannons, which shoot water (and a caustic agent) into the crowds, and then a giant police “bus” which can have many officers inside, and which can be used as a shield. It can be helpful to crouch down by the wheels to see if they’ve taken any protesters behind the bus. Look at their feet to see who’s back there.
If you stand near the police, you are unlikely to get tear gassed or hosed down, but more likely to get hit by rocks.
After the protest
If you’ve been teargassed, get home as soon as possible, remove all clothing and wash it immediately. Anything in your pockets, your camera bag and even your shoes may be affected, depnding on how close you were to the canister as it was discharging. Start a shower with cool water and soap, washing from your hair on down. Wash with plenty of water, and turn it warm after you’re sure the tear gas is gone.
Check in with all of your people, and don’t be shy about telling Global Voices or other citizen media aggregators what you saw.