This Saturday, more than 200,000 women and allies are expected to take to the streets in Washington, D.C., for the Women’s March on Washington, a nonviolent protest that aims to show the incoming administration that women’s rights are human rights, as well as raise awareness about other pressing issues. In addition to the march in our nation’s capital, thousands of other women will take to the streets across the country (and world!) as they participate in over 600 sister marches. For many people, this will be their first time protesting—which is great. It’s our constitutional right to peacefully assemble and protest.
“We live in a free society, and part of a free society is you have the right to assert yourself and your opinions in a public forum and you have a right to peacefully assemble,” Neil Fox, a criminal defense lawyer and the Northwest Regional Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild, tells SELF. “The First Amendment makes it very clear that we have a right to freedom of speech.”
It’s important to know your rights as a protester and how to stay safe when you’re taking a stand. If you’re following the law and protesting peacefully, you shouldn’t be at any risk. But it’s good to be aware of potential issues. Here, we gathered vital information from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) to help you exercise your freedom of speech.
How To Stay Safe And Prepare
1. Go with friends.
“Never go by yourself, if you can help it,” Judith Mirkinson, legal worker vice president of the National Lawyers Guild, tells SELF. “Be with a group, an affinity group or be with a buddy at least.” Stay with another person during the event, and try not to get separated. It’s helpful to make a plan for where and when you’ll meet up should you get separated, too. Also, let family and friends who aren’t attending the event know you’re protesting so they can look out for you as well.
Be sure to look out for other protestors, especially those who might be more vulnerable. “For women, we really need to build together, and we really need to be looking out for the most vulnerable in our communities, like women of color and queer and trans women,” Mirkinson says.
2. Wear sensible clothes.
Dress smartly, and remember a protest is a physical event—you’ll need the proper gear to stay comfortable. “Wear sensible shoes, warm clothes, layers,” Mirkinson says. “Bring a hat, a beanie.” Check the weather before the event and plan accordingly.
3. Bring essentials—but nothing valuable.
“Don’t bring fancy earrings or jewelry—be practical,” Mirkinson says. Protestors should bring their phone, cash, a bank card, their ID, any food and drink they might need during the event—and signs, of course! (Note: The Women’s March won’t allow signs with wooden posts for safety reasons). If you’re not a citizen, it’s smart to also bring your immigration papers and know your immigration number, if you have one.
4. Prep your smartphone for the day.
Charge your phone up fully before the event, and try to bring a portable phone charger in case your phone battery dies. Another tip: If you have a fingerprint unlock feature on your smartphone, disable it before a protest. It’s unlikely, but a police officer could force you to use your fingerprint to unlock your phone. Lock your phone with just a passcode, which the police can’t ask you for under the Fifth Amendment. Also, it’s smart to turn off text preview on your smartphone. That way, if your phone is locked and you get a message, the message contents won’t show on the screen. Finally, download the app FireChat, which lets you use your smartphone like a walkie talkie with friends who also have the app. It will let you message each other without WiFi or cell service, as long as you’re within 200 feet of each other. It’s available for iOS and Android.
5. Bring cash, coins, and essential medicine if you think there’s a possibility you might be at risk of being arrested.
The Women’s March on Washington organizers explicitly state on the march’s official website that they don’t expect any arrests: “We are working with local and federal law enforcement and do not intend to engage in any civil disobedience. We expect all marchers to abide by all laws and any instruction of law enforcement.” But things occasionally can get out of hand, and just in case, the NLG advises you to bring $100 in cash, money which can potentially be used to help you get out of jail. Coins are good to bring, too, in case you need to make a call from a payphone.
The NLG also says to bring about three days’ worth of essential medicine if you’re risking arrest. “Make sure to bring them in the original bottle and carry along a prescription if you have one,” King Downing, director of mass defense for the National Lawyers Guild, tells SELF. “If you have a serious medical issue, think about wearing a medical alert bracelet.”
6. Bring a bandana soaked in water if you’re worried about mace or tear gas.
Mirkinson also suggests bringing a plastic bag that contains a bandana soaked in water. If the police use tear gas or mace against protestors, holding the soaked bandana over your nose and mouth could help you breath. “You should probably bring it, but I don’t think any of this is going to happen on these big women’s marches,” she says.
7. And pack everything in a small bag.
It’s important not to bring too much stuff to a protest—and to keep it all pretty compact. The Women’s March, for example, says that bags/purses/totes shouldn’t be larger than 8”x6”x4”. Backpacks are permitted only if they are clear and no larger than 17″x12″x6″. Each marcher is also permitted an additional 12”x12”x6” plastic or gallon bag. Strollers are allowed, as long as they aren’t too big. For differently abled people who can’t follow these guidelines, the march has an ADA Accessible route and marchers should enter along that route with their belongings.
The Women’s March on Washington has more guidelines on what you can and can’t bring to the event, located here.
How To Interact With The Police
8. If you get stopped by the police while peacefully protesting, stay calm.
If you get stopped by the police, the ACLU says you should “stay calm, be polite, and don’t run.” Keep your hands visible when interacting with police officers, and don’t make any sudden movements.
9. Ask if you’re free to go.
If an officer stops you, first ask them if you’re free to go. If the officer says, “Yes,” that means they don’t have any reasonable suspicion, Downing says. Then, just walk away calmly.
10. If the police detain you and start questioning you, know your rights.
If a police officer says you aren’t free to go—and they start questioning you—know you don’t have to answer all their questions. In some states, including Washington, D.C., you’re required to give your name if an officer asks you to identify yourself. These states have what are called “stop and identify” statutes, and you can find out if your state has one here.
If it’s required by law, identify yourself. Otherwise stay silent if a police officer is questioning you. Verbally tell the officer, “I wish to remain silent.” The main reason to do this: If you converse with a police officer and then they arrest you, anything you said prior to your arrest could be used as evidence later. The police will only read your Miranda Rights—”You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law…”—after you’re arrested or when a police officer is formally interrogating you. So it’s best just to stay silent.
Don’t lie to the police or reveal any unnecessary information, and don’t try to talk yourself out of the situation. Also, don’t mention your immigration status unless it’s an immigration agent questioning you.
What To Do If You’re Under Arrest
11. Don’t resist, even if you think the arrest is unfair.
If an officer won’t let you leave, ask them if you’re under arrest. If they say, “yes,” ask for what crime. After that, the ACLU recommends you don’t resist arrest—but the choice is ultimately up to you. Experts recommend staying silent while you’re under arrest, beyond giving identification info if asked. “Remain silent and say, ‘I want a lawyer,'” Mirkinson says. “You can say, ‘I want to call the National Lawyers Guild.”
12. If you’re being searched, clearly say that you do not consent.
Downing says police officers are allowed to do a search if you’re under arrest. But if you’re just being detained, the police can only do a pat-down search if there’s reasonable suspicion. “If an officer starts to go through pockets, look inside of wallets, and small places like that, that’s a violation of a person’s rights,” Downing says. “I recommend that a person say over and over again, ‘I do not consent to this search.'” If a police officer still continues to search you, don’t resist or get physical with the officer.
13. Know that the Women’s March has a team in place if you do get arrested—and you should write their legal hotline number on your arm in permanent marker before you march.
As mentioned before, the Women’s March organizers explicitly have said they don’t expect any arrests. But just in case arrests do happen, the Women’s March has a legal hotline in conjunction with the NLG, which you can call if you are arrested. The number is 202-670-6866. King suggests writing this number in permanent marker on your arm before you protest, just to be sure you’ll have it if needed.
For more tips on interacting with the police, the NLG’s DC Chapter partnered with other groups to create a detailed demonstration guide. It might be smart to print it out and keep it with you when protesting.
What To Do If You Think Your Rights Have Been Violated
14. Don’t challenge authorities at the scene of a protest.
The ACLU says the scene of a protest is not the time or the place to “challenge police misconduct.” If you feel your rights are being violated during a peaceful protest, it’s advised not to get physical with an officer or threaten to file a complaint. Instead, the ACLU says you should cooperate with law enforcement—but pay attention to every little detail so you can file a complaint later.
15. Take notes and record every detail of the incident. Then, file a complaint when you can.
“Write down everything you remember, including officers’ badge and patrol car numbers, which agency the officers were from, and any other details,” the ACLU says. “Get contact information for witnesses. If you are injured, take photographs of your injuries (but seek medical attention first).”
If you have this information, you can later file a comprehensive complaint with the law enforcement agency directly or with a “civilian complaint board.” Or, you can reach out to an attorney for assistance or contact your local ACLU affiliate if you need help. The Women’s March on Washington will also have marshals and trained legal observers (directed by the NLG) stationed throughout the march, and you can turn to them for help and assistance.
“You’re not going to be able to vindicate your rights on the ground that moment,” Fox says. “You may have to wait to file a lawsuit against the police to be able to vindicate your rights. It’s a no-win situation to argue with someone in riot gear who is trained to hurt you, but that’s a personal decision that people make as to how far to push things.”
Other Important Things To Know
16. Sometimes the authorities require permits for protests.
According to the ACLU, the police and government can create “time, place, and manner” restrictions on protests. “The government has the ability to adopt neutral criteria that’s the least restrictive tools for restricting protests,” Fox says. “And a lot of these restrictions have been attacked in the courts over time as being unduly restrictive.”
The rules vary by city, but one of the most common restrictions is requiring permits for certain types of protests. Authorities can require permits for large groups gathering in certain parks or plazas, marches in the street that block traffic, and/or large protests that use “sound amplifying devices,” like a speaker, the ACLU says. People protesting in this way often need to submit an application for a permit weeks before their protest. Accordingly, the Women’s March has obtained a permit for their massive Washington, D.C. event.
17. But permits aren’t always a need-to-have.
If you have time before a protest, Fox says you should contact your city government to find out their exact permitting requirements. If you can “deal with them,” he says, then apply for a permit and hope it gets approved. “But if there are particular permitting requirements that people find offensive of find unconstitutional,” for example, they give too much discretion to the authorities to decide where and when free speech is allowed, “you need to contact some group like the ACLU to say, ‘Hey is there a way that we could challenge this because it doesn’t seem right,'” Fox says.
Downing says that the NLG’s stance on permits is that they shouldn’t be required—but a protest might go smoother if you have one. “Things can go easier if one gets one, but we don’t tell people to get them and we don’t tell people not to get them,” he says.
If a protest is in response to recent news, the First Amendment protects the right of citizens to organize without giving advanced notice to authorities, the ACLU says. Also, the ACLU clarifies that “a permit cannot be denied because the event is controversial or will express unpopular views.”
18. Public spaces are typically fair game for peaceful protests.
In terms of location, the ACLU says that protests are typically protected by the First Amendment if they take place in public spaces, like streets, sidewalks, and parks. Spaces that the government has opened up to the public—like plazas in front of government buildings—are typically fair game for protests, too. People can also picket and/or distribute flyers on sidewalks without a permit, so long as they don’t block building entrances or physically confine passers-by. And if a march hasn’t secured a permit, people could march on sidewalks and be protected by the First Amendment if they obey traffic signals. “Generally in a free society you have a right to be in a public place,” Fox says. “But if you’re interfering with someone else’s rights, if you’re blockading something, if you’re protesting in a way that is aggressive so that someone’s fearful, there’s less of a constitutional right to do that.”
19. But protesting in a private space is a different ballgame.
“In most jurisdictions, if you’re on private property and you don’t have the permission to be there, you can be asked to leave or you’re subject to arrest for trespassing,” Fox says. The ACLU says it’s up to the property owner to set rules for free speech on their property. However if it’s your own private property or the property owner says it’s OK to protest there, you’re good to go. “And the courts have said if it looks and feels like a normal area that is open to the public, like a downtown [sidewalk], you can’t exclude people even though it’s privately owned,” Fox adds.
20. Counter-demonstrators have a right to free speech, too.
The ACLU says counter-demonstrators can’t “physically disrupt the event they are protesting,” but they can attend the event and speak out. The police are asked to keep the two opposing groups separated, but they can be “within the general vicinity of one another.” It’s recommended that you don’t engage with counter-demonstrators.
“The counter-demonstrators have a right to be there,” Downing says. “And it’s the duty of police to keep the groups apart and prevent any kind of skirmishes from happening.”
21. You can take pictures and video—but be sure to savor the experience, too.
It’s your right to take pictures and video in a public space during a protest (as long as you’re not interfering with law enforcement’s ability to do their job). The ACLU says the police can’t confiscate or demand to see your images without a warrant, and they can’t delete your photos/videos under any circumstances.
So take Boomerangs, Snapchats, Instagram pics—but also make sure to put down the technology and really experience the moment firsthand. Talk to the people you’re protesting with and be open to learning. And be proud that you’re making the First Amendment stronger by exercising your right to free speech.
“Go out there and be comfortable, express yourself, have a good time, and build connections with other people,” Downing says. “But at the same time be aware of what your rights are.”
For more information, see the ACLU’s comprehensive guide to protest rights. The NLG offers a similar resource in five different languages here. And the NLG also has tips specific for non-citizens protesting here. Check out this Demonstrations in D.C. guide for information specific to protesting in our capital. And finally, the Women’s March on Washington offers a helpful FAQ page, too.
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