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Power To The Protester: A Suggested Primer On Civil Unrest

Francesca Bessey |
November 27, 2014 | 2:30 p.m. PST

Senior Opinion Editor


Last night, 183 people were arrested in downtown Los Angeles while marching against police brutality and the shooting death of Michael Brown.

The charge against them was “failure to disperse,” a non-violent offense that carries a $500 fine and for which many of those arrested continue to sit in jail on the Thanksgiving holiday.

READ MORE: 'Mass Arrest' Takes Place In Downtown L.A.

If civil unrest is new to you, you might be surprised to realize that you can be arrested for failure to disperse in a country which has a guaranteed freedom of assembly in its constitutional Bill of Rights. Such is the nuance of protest politics thrust upon many Americans who have answered the call to respond to the injustice of Michael Brown’s death and the deaths of countless other unarmed youth of color in America.

But nobody teaches civil disobedience in school, or even officially condones it, so instead we are left to ourselves to figure out how best to make our civic action effective and safe. As more and more people take to the streets, now and in the future, the following are some guidelines and practical knowledge that may help you in filling that void.

It should be noted that some of these guidelines speak primarily to those who have not experienced the issue of police brutality first hand, and that I cannot speak for those who have. However, there is legal and strategic information included that may be useful for everyone.

Know Your Reasons For Being There

Before you go to any demonstration, you should ask yourself why you want to be there. If it’s because you’ve experienced or listened to others describe their experiences with the issue, and you want to do everything in your power to stand up against it, great. If you’re going because your friends are going or because you want a badass new cover photo or because you identify as an anarchist and like to f*** sh** up, maybe think through your motivations again. Respect that people are dying in America because of the issue at hand, and if you are not primarily motivated by a sense of empathy with those individuals and a desire to change the legal system, then it is advisable to spend some more time getting educated about what is really going on and ensuring you are ready to adequately represent the cause.

Come Prepared

Demonstrations are emotionally and physically strenuous activities that carry a mild to moderate safety risk, and you will better be able to support the action, and keep yourself safe, if you come prepared. It is best to come with friends, but at the very least, tell someone where you are going. Bring a cell-phone (preferably with a full battery) and make sure you have the phone numbers of everyone you are with. Keep identification on you at all times. If you’re a student, consider bringing along your school ID as well. Be cognizant of your surroundings, and have a plan in mind if you need to leave. Even if you came by car, it’s not a bad idea to bring some change for the bus or metro and to know the location of the nearest stop. Your given protest might involve walking several miles; holding up banners or picket signs; singing or chanting for hours on end; or lying down in the middle of a sidewalk - dress accordingly. If it's daytime and you anticipate the protest is going to continue into the night, consider bringing an extra layer or two. If possible, eat a meal and drink plenty of water before you go. If nothing else, go to the bathroom - because the last thing you want to do is urinate in public in front of 60 cops.

It’s Not About You

Demonstrations are, by their very nature, a collective action--and they draw their power from individuals coming together to express their collective discontent about an issue.  Know that if you make the decision to come to a protest, it’s not the [Your Name] show. If people are chanting, chant. If people are marching, march. Understand that as enlightened as you may already think you are about the issue (enlightened enough to show up to a protest, damnit), you may still have much to learn--from paying attention to those around you and listening to their experiences. This is especially true when you come to the event as an “ally,” that is, someone who has not directly experienced the injustices people have gathered to protest. Ultimately, trust the group and the message they are sending--and if you don’t like it, then it’s always your right to walk away.

READ MORE: People Of Different Ethnicities Stand With Ferguson

You And The Police Play By Different Rules

There is one thing every person at a demonstration must be critically aware of at all times: law enforcement. You may see your participation in a protest as civic engagement; many police departments will see it as criminal activity, even when you act completely within the law. This is especially true given the nature of this week’s unrest, which is to challenge the validity and efficacy of the American legal system as a whole. Demonstrators, particularly demonstrators of color, face risk of arrest, fines or violence. These risks increase when the protest becomes more disparate, there are no apparent “leaders” or when the protest leaves “sanctioned” public demonstration spaces such as sidewalks or parks (marching down the middle of the road for example).

It is important to remember in these circumstances that you and the police are not held to the same standards of behavior. They have been given legal authority over you, and they carry a weapon to enforce it. Your greatest defense is knowing your rights and not to engage with law enforcement unless directly engaged yourself. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has compiled a list of Protester's Rights and tips on dealing with the police. You can also check out the graphic below, by Committee Against Police Brutality San Diego.

(Committee Against Police Brutality San Diego / Facebook)
(Committee Against Police Brutality San Diego / Facebook)


You Can Still Be Arrested Even If You’re Not Rioting

We have the unfortunately false expectation that because this is America, we will only be arrested during a protest if we are violent. In fact, most of the people who are arrested during demonstrations haven’t done anything violent at all. The California Penal Code defines as unlawful the willful failure to comply with a lawful order given by a police officer. It further states that “Every person who willfully resists, delays, or obstructs any public officer… in the discharge or attempt to discharge any duty of his or her office or employment,” faces arrest, fines or imprisonment. This effectively criminalizes disobeying the cops, as well as common nonviolent protest tactics such as sitting down on the ground and linking arms (what those Davis students were doing three years ago before they took a load of pepper spray in the face). 

Technically, the police are supposed to be acting within the law when they give you these orders, however the ambiguity of such terms as “disturbing the peace” and “failure to disperse,” as well as the fact that they are carrying weapons that could kill you, gives law enforcement a whole lot of leeway for what lawfully breaking up a protest actually looks like. For the most part, the police can count on the model of “arrest now, ask questions later,” because they know it will ultimately be cheaper and less time-consuming for you to just shut up and pay the fine than it will be to contest the validity of your arrest in court.

READ MORE: Day Two Of Los Angeles Protests Focuses On All Police Killings

This certainly is no reason not to go: to the contrary, this is precisely why our current legal system needs to be contested. However this highlights the importance of staying alert. If law enforcement announces they are going to start arresting people, and you’re not ready to get arrested, it might be time to leave. Understand, however, that officers sometimes act without warning. During last night’s mass arrest in L.A., protesters were boxed in (“kettled”) by cops outside the public library and the dispersal warning reportedly did not reach those at the back of the group. It is thus important to pay attention to what law enforcement is doing at all times, and to do your best to pass this information on to your fellow demonstrators, especially those for whom the stakes may be higher in the case of an arrest.

The Camera Is Your Friend… But Don’t Overdo It

Photographing or videotaping police activity during demonstrations serves as an important deterrent from violence, as well as a mechanism for accountability should a violent incident occur. However, there is a difference between documenting what is happening and jamming your camera phone in a police officer’s face just to see if you can provoke a reaction. Also, consider the fact that if everyone is filming, not that many people are actually demonstrating, which can diminish the overall effectiveness of the action. Technically, you can still protest while filming but that often manifests in crappy footage and a lopsided picket sign. I personally see the decision of whether or not to pull out my camera as a decision whether to participate or observe, a decision I will often make based on how many other “observers” are around. You can also go the “citizen journalist” route, by taking occasional snapshots with your smart phone and live tweeting what’s happening. This is helpful and important - just don’t get so lost in the Twitterverse that the protest leaves you behind.

If you do choose to take photographs or film, you should know your rights while doing so. By law, police cannot confiscate or demand to view your video or photographs without a warrant, nor can they search your cell phone if you are being detained. Under no circumstances can they delete your photographs or video. However, there are numerous examples of police doing this anyway, which is why it is important to have a firm understanding of your rights as a photographer so that you can respectfully defend them if harassed or detained. To learn more about those rights, check out the ACLU Know Your Rights Guide for Photographers.

Recognize Your Privilege

It is important that people of all colors and backgrounds are supporting the movement against police brutality and societal disregard for the lives of black and brown youth. It is also important, however, for those of us who experience privilege in our interactions with police (even if those interactions have still been negative) to acknowledge this reality and be sensitive to the experiences and emotions of those who may have a more personal relationship with the issue. Generally speaking, it is the latter group who should have the mic at these events and the rest of us who should be listening and lending our support. We should not abuse our privilege by provoking police officers because we happen to feel safe to do so, nor should we use the protest space to claim experiences that we have not actually had.

In other words, if you’re a white kid from the suburbs and the worst injustice you’ve ever experienced at the hands of law enforcement is a jaywalking ticket, you should probably think twice before you give an officer the finger or post a protest selfie with the hashtag #IAmMichaelBrown.

Talking To The Media Is Probably A Waste Of Your Time

Sometimes during a protest, a journalist may approach you and ask you for your thoughts on the event. Similar to your elementary school drug resistance education, there is one thing to remember here: just say no. Unless you have experienced police violence firsthand, you probably shouldn't be commenting on it to the media - period. There is a good chance the quote or video clip won’t even be used and if it is, you will probably hate the three and a half seconds they choose to excerpt. In the interest of “unbiased” news coverage, whatever you say will likely be juxtaposed against a thrice-reviewed statement by your local police force’s PR department, and in the worst case scenario, the protest in question may be casually referred to as a “riot,” despite no violence having taken place. If you really want to share your thoughts on what’s happening, Twitter, Facebook and Wordpress are all at your disposal - and later, when you don’t have to worry about taking away your attention from the situation at hand.

If you are someone with a story to share, and you do choose to speak to the media, bear in mind that some readers or viewers will understand you as speaking on behalf of the entire movement, even if you don’t see it that way. Be thoughtful, intentional and honest, and remember you’re not obligated to answer any questions you don’t want to.

Respect Your Fellow Demonstrators

In a space where emotions are running extremely high, you should make an extra effort to treat those around you with compassion and respect. Remember you are all there for the same reason (and if you’re not, again, it’s time to reevaluate). Similarly, you should respect the integrity of the action itself. A protest is not a party. If you think drinking heavily before the event to get “amped” is a good idea, try thinking critically about the issue, and let your distaste for injustice and discrimination get you fired up instead.

Last but not least, never, ever instigate violence against a police officer or one of your fellow demonstrators. As the Brown family and many others have urged, violence is what we are here to protest. Throwing bottles not only makes you look like a jackass, it also puts you and those around you at risk - either because your aim sucks and you hit one of your fellow protesters instead, or because law enforcement may return your violence with violence, by beating people or firing off tear gas and flashbangs. 

(Rebecca Gibian/Neon Tommy)
(Rebecca Gibian/Neon Tommy)
Check In With Your Loved Ones

Demonstrations allow the public to air their frustration and anger and in that sense are cathartic. However, they can also be disheartening. Rarely does a demonstration bring about immediate change, and in the case of recent unrest around police violence, the experience of further police aggression during protests compounds the existing frustration. Don’t underestimate the importance of showing love and moral support to those around you, and don’t be afraid to reach out when you are feeling strained. If you’re sick, hurt or just plain exhausted, spend a night recuperating and come back to fight another day.

READ MORE: Protesters Try To Stop Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

In the course of your efforts, you may be instructed not to “get emotional” by someone who feels less strongly about the issue than you. Forget it. Emotion and empathy are not inferior human traits. They’ve just been characterized that way because somewhere down the line we decided “emotion” was feminine and feminine was “weak.” Emotion and rationality are not mutually exclusive, and an effective response to injustice incorporates them both. This only underscores the importance of taking care of your emotional well-being and valuing the emotional well-being of those around you.

Racialized and state-sponsored violence are not new phenomena in this country, but I do believe that the events in Ferguson and their aftermath will permanently change the way America relates to injustice in its justice system. There is a new promise to victims of this violence that the people will rise up in their name. 

Should you find yourself on the forefront of this paradigm shift, now or in the future, I salute you. Should you be struggling to understand how you navigate this unknown territory, I share that struggle with you. This is by no means a complete or definitive guide, but I hope that it can at least serve as a place to start for those who may be looking for it.

This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for my loved ones willing to stand up for what they believe is right and who have never wavered in their support of my decisions to do the same. To my friends and family of color and to those who have experienced violence at the hands of the police, thank you for your courage in speaking out. Thank you for allowing me to stand beside you. Thank you to all those who have stood up against injustice in all of its forms and may you continue to have the courage and know-how to keep up the fight.

Contact Senior Opinion Editor Francesca Bessey here; or follow her on Twitter.



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