In response to the unjust police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans, protestors across the world are taking to the streets to demand justice. While these protests often start peacefully, many grow dangerous as police officers escalate with violence, including the deployment of tear gas and rubber bullets.
Of course, there is another element of danger civilians face when attending a crowded protest these days: COVID-19. As we know, densely populated crowds increase the likelihood that the virus will spread from one person to another. And while protesting, odds are you won’t be able to stand 6 feet apart from all the other protestors. That’s why if you attend a protest, you need to take precautions to protect yourself against both the virus and police violence.
For tips on safely protesting during the current pandemic, we reached out to Robert Glatter, M.D., Men’s Health Advisor and emergency physician at Lenox Hill hospital and Eliel Cruz, an LGBTQ activist who works at the Anti-Violence Project.
Cruz notes that it’s crucial to “safety plan” prior to protesting, given that the current demonstrates don’t have permits, designated routes, or specific end times. “This is a mass mobilization of individuals who are feeling unrest,” he says. “This is civil disobedience on another level.”
That’s why when protesting you need to take precautions. You will want to:
Have a protest buddy
While you can go with a group, Cruz recommends having one specific person you’re going to stick with the entire time. “This is because it’s easier to keep track and reconnect with one person in case things escalate, and you need to end up running,” he says. It can be too difficult to keep track of an entire group.
Share your location with someone not at the protest
It’s necessary for a friend or family member who’s not at the protest to know where you are. “I suggest you share your location with them, and set times to check in via text. Also let them know when you’re home safely.” If you do get arrested, having your location shared will let the person know at which precinct you’re being held.
Wear a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19
It is critical to wear a mask when protesting to protect yourself and others from COVID-19, explains Glatter. “People talking loudly, spitting, and shouting, (as is common at protests) helps to spread droplets and aerosols more efficiently and effectively,” he says. “Recent studies indicate that the very act of speaking produces aerosolized droplets that can remain airborne for minutes up to several hours.”
Write the local bail fund or National Lawyer Guild phone number on your arm
Cruz makes it clear that the goal is not to get arrested—it’s to protest police brutality and systemic racism. However, in the event that you do get arrested, police will confiscate your phone, which is why you’ll want to have your city’s local bail fund number on your arm. You can find your city’s local bail fund number online, typically at the bottom of the page or on the “contact” page. If your city does not have a local bail fund, you can go through the resources page at the National Lawyers Guild and try to find counsel if your area.
Say your full name outside the precinct
Depending on your city, Cruz says there will be activist/bail support groups outside of the precinct who will post your bail. However, they can’t do so if they don’t know your name. That’s why it’s important that you say your name to these groups. “Outside of that, say nothing to the police officers, except ‘I want to talk to a lawyer,'” Cruz says.
Remove your face ID to unlock your phone
“I would remove your face verification because police could put the phone in front of your face to unlock it while you’re handcuffed,” says Cruz. You can just change it to a pin.
Wear comfortable clothing
You’re going to be out in the sun for a long period of time. And wear comfortable shoes that you can run in, notes Cruz.
Bring hand sanitizer
Since you won’t have many (or any) opportunities to wash your hands with soap and water, Glatter recommends bringing hand sanitizer to periodically clean your hands. As we know, hand sanitizer can help stop the spread of the virus. Additionally, you want to avoid touching your face, as that increases the likelihood of spreading the virus, too.
Bring food and water
Bring bottled water and protein bars. Again, you may be out in the sun for a long period of time, says Cruz. While it’s important to stay fed and hydrated, Glatter notes that there is a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 when you remove your mask and are inserting your fingers into your mouth. “Make sure you also wash your hands or use hand sanitizer afterwards,” Glatter recommends.
Bring a phone charger
Make sure your phone is fully charged before attending the protest. But in case your phone dies, you want to have a charger, notes Cruz. You want to be able to contact people, including the person with whom you’re sharing your location and sending text updates. Since it can be difficult to find an outlet to charge your phone during a protest—and especially during a pandemic, when businesses are closed—consider bringing a portable charger.
Wear protective goggles
“Eye protection is key when attending any protests,” says Glatter. “Goggles not only reduce risk from the virus, but they also help protect against exposure to tear gas, pepper spray, or flying objects or projectiles.”
In addition to safety planning and bringing necessary resources, you also need to know what to do if police escalate with violence.
Here’s what to do in the situation that you are:
The effects of pepper spray can last between 30-45 minutes. It causes a feeling of bubbling or boiling in your eyes, temporary blindness, and eye pain. It may also lead to burning of your eyes and throat, wheezing, dry cough, gagging, and difficulty speaking. Glatter notes that people who inhale pepper spray may also develop sudden elevation of blood pressure which can precipitate a stroke or heart attack, and that those with asthma may be at higher risk for complications. “People with a significant or prolonged exposure have died after contact with pepper spray,” he says.
Pepper spray is a chemical irritant that leads to production of tears, a process known as lacrimation; it contains the same agent that provides “heat” in chili peppers: oleoresin capsicum, says Glatter.
“The most important thing to remember is not to rub your eyes if you get sprayed. This will spread the compound deeper into your eye,” Glatter says. Rather, you want to immediately blink allowing your tears to help flush way the oils contained in the pepper spray.
“It’s recommended to begin with careful application of baby shampoo to the affected eye, followed by irrigation with copious amounts of water,” says Glatter. However, he notes that you may need several liters to accomplish this. A small water bottle certainly won’t suffice.
To begin with, tear gas isn’t a “gas” at all, but a powder that is heated and mixed with a liquid or solvent. It is released from canisters as an aerosol, with irritants that incapacitate you by causing pain and burning to the eyes, mucous membranes, throat, lungs, and skin, Glatter explains.
“In fact, tear gas should actually be thought of as a type of nerve agent that doesn’t just irritate cells, but activates specific pain receptors, (TRPV1, TRPA1) leading to the intense and burning pain on all affected surfaces and membranes,” he says.
Effects of tear gas typically begin within seconds and can last up to an hour, notes Glatter. They include, eye, nasal, and oral passage burning, difficulty swallowing, and drooling. Effects on your lungs include wheezing, coughing, a choking sensation, and asphyxiation. Glatter notes that people have died from being tear gassed. This is why it’s necessary to act fast if police throw tear gas.
“It’s important to get to fresh air, evacuate the affected area as soon as possible, and reach the highest ground possible,” he says. “This is because dense vapor clouds of tear gas are heavier than air, and therefore, tend to stay close to the ground. If you were exposed indoors, it’s vital to get outdoors as soon as you can.”
Glatter continues that you then want to take off your clothes and begin vigorously cleaning your body with soap and water. If possible, cut off clothing, rather than pull it over you head. You don’t want to further expose your eyes and mouth to the nerve agent.
“Difficulty breathing after exposure should be treated with oxygen, bronchodilators, and steroids on scene if possible, followed by transport to the emergency department,” Glatter says. “Chemical burns to the skin may require debridement, fluid resuscitation based on extent, and application of medicated dressings.”
A final safety note:
Do not protest if you’re feeling ill
If you are sick, you should stay home and not protest, Glatter says. If you go to a protest and transmit the virus, you’re not just putting the lives of others in danger; you’re also hurting the protest’s cause, as infected folks will need to stay home, too.
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