Freedom of assembly and expression are human rights everyone can exercise. They uphold our right to protest for what we believe in. However, this sometimes comes with risks; planning and being prepared for these risks helps us to stay safe.
Different forms of protest play an important part in the political life of all societies. Historically, protests have been the engines of positive social change and a major contributing factor in the advancement of human rights. They encourage the development of an engaged and informed civil society and strengthen representative democracies by allowing people to directly participate in public affairs beyond vote casting in elections.
There are a number of rights that you exercise when taking part in protest, but the rules and regulations on protest vary from country to country, so make sure you find out what they are and how existing restrictions might affect you. Your rights to free expression and peaceful assembly are protected by Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by Articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights among others.
But despite protections in international law, there are often risks to protesting and demonstrating that must be recognised and acted upon. Often protest is treated either as an inconvenience, a disruption to be controlled, or a threat to be extinguished. This guide will help you engage in analysis and learn some tactics in order to stay safe while exercising your fundamental rights.
Although sometimes you may decide to protest spontaneously, planning an action carefully in advance is a better way to ensure your security and safety during the protest. Careful preparation can prevent some emergencies and improve your capacity to respond to threats. Open, trustful communication and security planning with friends and colleagues contributes to a safe and successful protest. Consider the following questions:
- What is the nature of this protest and what does it hope to achieve?
- Is this protest the most effective manner of achieving these goals at this exact moment?
- How can you ensure the protest will be non-violent and how can you control for potentially violent participants?
If you are convinced that the protest is a good idea, it's important to consider your security openly, ideally with your whole group. Talking about security as a group can be difficult among activists. Security is often a very personal issue and some activist groups have cultures in which risk-taking is seen as courageous and good, and fear, pain and grief are seen as weaknesses. To build long-lasting and inclusive activism and movements together, activists have to embrace self-care and care for one another. It's a good idea to create dedicated times before and during the protest to think about security planning in a relaxed and comfortable way. This should be an inclusive and non-violent space where everyone can share their fears together and design plans in a supportive atmosphere.
For more tips on how to create a safe space for security planning, see Section I | Prepare.
Know the actors
To make a security plan, we need to know who we are protecting ourselves from, with whom we can collaborate, and who can help us to stay safe.
Once you have time to think and talk about security with your group, you should begin a process of analysis in order to take decisions about your security. One of the most important factors to consider is who your allies and opponents are. If you are concerned about your security you should consider who is trying to prevent you from protesting and how they normally do this. What are their tactics?
Knowing what elements of the authorities or non-State groups will be present, and what tactics they usually employ will help you prepare, especially if you have a medical condition or a functional impairment. Do you have any way you can get the police or others to accept your legitimate protest, or deter their attacks against you? Or, do you simply have to try to protect yourselves? You should also think about your allies such as other civil society, diplomatic entities or human rights organisations who might be able to help you. What medical or legal support is available, and how can they be contacted before or during the protest? Include these groups in your plans so they can support you in case something goes wrong.
For more on creating an actor map, see Section II, Chapter 3: Vision, Strategy and Actors.
Analyse the risks
Analysing the risks should help you identify and reflect upon the threats you might face during the protest, so that you can take the right security measures to avoid or prevent them or to minimize their effect.
Common threats to protests might include making the protest illegal, or using tear gas against protesters. Make a list of the threats you may face, and prioritise them:
- Which threats are most likely?
- Which threats would have the highest impact?
Once you've identified the most likely and/or high-impact threats, you can think about ways of reducing their probability or impact on you. This might include collaborating with others, or taking your own measures to protect yourself. It's difficult to carry out risk analysis like this if you are in a hurry or very stressed. However passionately you feel about the cause, it’s crucial that you are in the right state of mind when planning your participation.
Make sure you check your perception with your friends and use whatever information is available so that you can weigh up the risks. Try not to exaggerate or minimise them. You should carry out a risk analysis before every protest and consider changing your tactics between protests to not become predictable.
Make your plan explicit
Based on your analysis, you should make a clear plan of action with your friends or fellow protesters. The plan should include things you do in order to reduce the likelihood of the threats you identify, as well as developing a 'Plan B' - actions you take in case of an emergency to reduce its impact. You do not necessarily have to write down every plan, but they should be explicit, detailed and agreed upon by everyone involved.
Take the time to check out a map to familiarise yourself with the route of the march or the location of a static protest. Identify hospitals, police stations and other resources, and agree with your friends on meeting points and evacuation routes. Your plan should also include tactics for safe communication and the use of digital devices, as well as how to care for each other and maintain well-being, both after the protest and in the case that something goes wrong.
Remember, using violence in a protest is more likely to put you in danger than protect you. The use of violence in protests is illegal everywhere – and it won’t help you achieve your aims. Imagination, creativity and humour are far more effective at demonstrations. But if you don't have a plan, you're part of someone else's.
For more on how to create security plans, see Section III | Strategise.