I remember my first real protest, as a 15-year old when the war in Iraq began. I’d been sitting in the kitchen while my mom cooked dinner, and on the small countertop TV, a news helicopter showed us images of hundreds of protesters flooding the streets. Many of them were students at MIT and Harvard — no doubt a good portion of them at their first protest as well — and I remember the news anchor saying that they were crossing the bridge from Cambridge to Boston, headed for Copley Square.

My mom and I both forget the specifics of what happened next. I just remember that when we arrived in Copley — about 30 minutes from my childhood home — it was nighttime, and the air filled with a defiant mood. We marched down Newbury Street, a main commercial hub, where someone had spray-painted a peace sign in the road.

When we came to an on-ramp for the Mass Pike — a multilane highway with fast-moving traffic — a few dozen marchers tried to race police down the ramp and block the highway. Surprised, my mom and I held back and watched briefly before heading home.

I had no idea what to expect at my first protest, but I felt an urgent need to be there. I left determined and a little excited. Before long I would be organizing anti-war rallies of my own, and marching for other causes, too.

Plenty of people never make it to their first protest, determining they aren’t the type. But for thousands of Americans, that’s changing.

Almost 15 years later when millions of people participated in the historic Jan. 21 Women’s March, I realized that many of them must’ve been first-timers. Just a few days would pass before another major mobilization, this time primarily at the nation’s airports, and no doubt again pulling in newly mobilized Americans.

Building on the strength of preceding movements including Occupy, Black Lives Matter and the protests at Standing Rock, the Trump resistance has already turned 2017 into the year of the protest. And it’s doing so by bringing people into the streets who wouldn’t call themselves activists, who’ve never read socialist scholars, who’ve never called their congressmen before.

Sound like you? Read on.

Media depictions in the news or films don’t really get down to the nuts and bolts of how street demonstrations work. In the spirit of service journalism, here’s a guide for what you can actually expect at a street protest. If you still have questions after reading this, comment on the online version and I’ll do my best to answer based on what I’ve seen (and I invite protest vets to chime in). If you’re one of the countless thousands who will decide this year to protest for the first time, this practical guide should help you feel more comfortable showing up and making up your own mind.

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So this is your first protest

People protest for so many different reasons: to express anger or fear or love, to push for change, to disrupt a law or status quo they see as unjust, to find unity and warmth in the crowd, to share their thoughts, to protect and exercise their rights, to stand alongside others.

While the umbrella of what constitutes a street protest is expansive, there are still some basic things that will help you prepare physically and mentally.

This list is based on lived experience, first as a participant and organizer and then as a reporter. I’ve shown up at mock funeral processions in Georgia, die-ins in Boston, Occupy in New York City and probably close to 100 protests right here in the Triad, to name a few. The causes, participants and exact tactics have ranged from the aging hippie crowd to militant young anarchists, from big group hugs to skirmishes with police and neo-Nazis. Yet some practical tenets hold true.

This guide is based in particular on what you can expect in Greensboro — it’s not only the largest of the Triad’s cities, but it’s also the local protesting capital. Still, there are strong histories of street protests throughout the Triad.

No matter where it’s held, here are some tips to help you think about and prepare for your first protest. I’ve included some locally specific details about what to expect when you arrive, though it’s possible the terrain could change in the future. I’ve attempted to provide advice that would apply to people from all walks of life, though given my privileged background, I’ve no doubt forgotten or overlooked some aspects.

The bottom line is this: There are no prerequisites and no litmus test for joining your first protest. These insights are rather exhaustive and should help you prepare, but the only things you really need are the desire to show up and the means to get there.

What to wear: Wear comfortable shoes. Whether you’re standing around for a while at a rally or walking with a march, there’s a good chance your feet will take a beating. If there’s a march and rally, you may want layers in case you warm up while walking or grow cold while standing still.

Some people wear masks to conceal their identities — maybe they don’t want their faces on TV because they fear retaliation at work, or they might intend to break a law. You’re more likely to encounter this outside of the Triad; it’s technically illegal to cover your face at a public demonstration in this state, which local police sometimes enforce. The larger the group doing it, the less likely enforcement is, however. Protesters who want to be prepared for tear gas sometimes bring bandanas soaked in apple cider vinegar to counteract the gas.

Some protests encourage participants to wear something in particular as a sign of unity. On International Women’s Day, many people wore red as a sign of support. Pink hats became a symbol of the Women’s March. Sometimes protesters wear all black for anonymity. Generally, you should wear whatever you feel comfortable in.

What to bring: You can bring a sign or banner if you want, but many participants just show up. Bring a bottle of water. Bring a friend or family member and stick together. If you expect the event to be particularly long, bring a snack. If you have an asthma inhaler or important medication, bring it. Consider sunscreen if needed.

Before you get there: You’ll likely be at the protest for at least an hour, if not two or three. Go to the bathroom first. You probably aren’t planning to be arrested, but if you’re committing civil disobedience, have the phone number of a lawyer and someone who plans to wait for you and bail you out. Some activists will write the phone number on their arm in Sharpie, so that they can easily access it from jail.

Eat before you arrive. Check the weather forecast.

If you are concerned about being profiled by police or possible immigration agents (though it goes against current ICE policy to target protests), all the more reason to come as a group. Maybe this means you would feel more comfortable not bringing a sign or wearing anything that would identify you with the protest group.

Map out where you want to park so you only have to travel a short distance to the event. Research the group organizing the protest to see if you feel like this will be a safe space. It’s okay to reach out to organizers ahead of time to express your concerns. Different organizers may respond differently, but most local activists would likely be receptive.

When you get there: Show up a little bit late so you’re not awkwardly waiting around for a while. Spend a little bit of time checking out the scene. If you feel uncomfortable, hang out nearby — maybe across the street — and just watch for a little bit until you’re ready to dive in.

If there are speakers, listen to them. Plenty of people show up at rallies and talk to each other through the speakers, which is especially understandable when the same old folks get up every time and say almost the exact same things. But in general, it’s worth listening to what the speakers are saying. Especially if you benefit from privilege, remember that you’re there to learn, support and be in solidarity rather than just to hang out.

During the protest: Be aware of your comfort level, as it may change throughout the event. Remember that you can leave at any time. Talk to whomever you came with, especially if they’ve been to a protest before, and ask them questions.

You’ll likely see people holding signs or hear them speaking about things that might seem unrelated to the issue you’ve come for. That’s very common at protests, especially on the left. Other participants will tell you that this is because issues are interconnected. Try to keep an open mind.

Participate in chants if you feel like it. Just listen, if you’d rather. If a large march spills into the street and remains there, stay with the crowd. If police tell people to disperse, get out of the street or give any other orders, you should probably obey them; consider that your first protest may not be the best time to commit civil disobedience. Take things slowly — there will be many protests in the future.

If you’re concerned about being arrested or a confrontation between police and protesters, pay attention to the mood of the crowd and the movement of police. If people are chanting at police or the protest is related to policing, be particularly alert. Chances are there won’t be any arrests or confrontations, but it always pays to be aware.

Sequence of events: The most common protests around here are rallies, where people gather either primarily to hold up signs or to listen to speakers. Interpreters are rare, though sometimes available. In Greensboro, rallies most often happen at Governmental Plaza. There’s a small, covered stage sort of like a pavilion, and people stand or sit on stairs (or directly in front of the stage) facing the speakers. The area is wheelchair accessible. In Winston-Salem, Corpening Plaza and the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and New Walkertown Road are common protest sites.

Marches generally start here as well, usually beginning with a rally, evolving into a march and finishing with another rally. Sometimes the concluding rally is in the same location, and other times it’s somewhere like Center City Park, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum or the county jail downtown. Most often these marches exit on the Greene Street and turn right (south), turn left onto McGee Street and then head up South Elm Street.

Rallies and marches take all sorts of different forms, but these are the most common. A standalone rally generally takes at least an hour, while a rally with a march could last two or three hours depending.

After the protest: Do whatever you want! But it could help to have plans to grab food with a friend you came with and talk about how it went. Think about how you felt, and what you might want to do differently next time. Did you feel uncomfortable in a good way because you were pushing yourself or exposing yourself to a different perspective, or did you feel unwelcome or unsafe?

If you leave with a positive feeling, consider signing up for the email list, liking the organizing group on Facebook or reading more on the group’s website. Think about how you can stay involved. Maybe you’ll decide that protesting in the street is a good fit for you, but maybe you’ll determine that you prefer a different method of resistance. Both are perfectly fine conclusions to draw, but before you write off a method of dissent, consider going to a totally different type of protest first.

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Rally: The most common form of public protest is a rally, where people gather and generally listen to speakers. Sometimes the list of speakers is pre-planned by organizers, and other times a megaphone is passed around to anyone who wants to talk. Rallies often happen in Greensboro’s Government Plaza, but they also occur in public parks, on sidewalks outside of businesses, on college campuses and more.

March: Typically marches begin with a rally, however informal, to gather people before the march begins. Often marches also end with a second rally, however short. A march is what it sounds like, though they vary greatly in length, tone/vibe and intention. Some marches happen on the sidewalk, but these protests frequently wind up in the streets.

Permitted: Sometimes, protest organizers secure a permit for their event. It’s a way to reserve a space (such as outside city hall), to get permission to march in the street or to coordinate with police. Some people reject this approach, arguing that the First Amendment protects their freedom of assembly. Others say a permit is a way to protect a protest, which might be beneficial particularly if vulnerable groups (undocumented immigrants or parents pushing strollers, for example) are participating in a street march. Your call.

Unpermitted: Protesters frequently take to the streets in Greensboro and other cities throughout the country without permits. Sometimes it would be impossible to get a permit (think of Standing Rock) and other times organizers either see no reason to do so or actively oppose the idea of a permit. Many (and possibly most) protests don’t have a permit and there’s nothing to worry about. Read on for more about police discretion and how it’s often exercised at unpermitted local demonstrations.

Civil disobedience: While rare in the Triad, civil disobedience is occasionally used here, sometimes to great effect. People who commit civil disobedience are intentionally refusing to comply with a certain law or ordinance, sometimes to highlight an unjust rule as in the famous and tremendously effective case of the A&T Four and their sit-in at Woolworth’s.

Other times people who commit civil disobedience want to be arrested to draw attention to an issue. The latter is more common today, like when immigration activists occupied then-Sen. Kay Hagan’s office a few years ago or when activists with Greensboro Operation Transparency sought arrest in January to highlight the city of Greensboro’s handling of the Dejuan Yourse case.

Civil disobedience isn’t always preplanned — sometimes protesters act in the moment if they believe their First Amendment rights are being violated. Good organizers make sure participants understand the stakes so that people who want to be arrested can stay while others who want to avoid the legal system can step back or leave. That’s exactly what happened recently at an anti-Trump rally in Greensboro.

Black bloc: Though only a remote possibility locally, the black bloc is a tactic that’s been used in a variety of street protest settings in the United States including at the Trump inauguration. Demonstrators utilized it in Caswell County, NC, to counter the Klan, though it’s more likely that you’d run into a black bloc in Washington, DC or northern California. Just in case, here’s a quick rundown.

A black bloc consists of people wearing all black, generally covering their faces, as a way to provide anonymity to the participants. That anonymity can be used to a variety of ends, ranging from the more mundane desire not to be publicly identified with the protest to the more radical aim of shielding participants from prosecution if the group broke a law.

Black bloc participants are generally anarchists, a generally misunderstood term that for space reasons you’ll need to read more about elsewhere. People in black blocs sometimes destroy property (allegedly including a limo at the inauguration), throw projectiles, or battle police or white supremacists. Sometimes their motive is to shut down an event, like recent actions in Berkeley, Calif. to stop Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking. Other times no laws are broken at all.

There’s no particular group or organization affiliated with black blocs, and the mere presence of people wearing all black or anarchists at a protest doesn’t constitute a black bloc. And not all participants are necessarily anarchists. True to its name, the bloc typically sticks tightly together, occasionally linking arms or using reinforced banners to demarcate the perimeter of the bloc. In Caswell County, TCB saw participants forming a defensive rear guard at the back of the bloc and wielding baseball bats.

Police often act aggressively towards a black bloc, sometimes arresting all participants and even people nearby as occurred at the inauguration. In that sense, proximity to a bloc might mean you’re at greater risk for arrest. Other times, no conflict or arrests arise, as was the case in Caswell County despite the bats and possibilities for a clash between anarchists and the Klan.

Other: There are countless other forms of protest — too many to list, but it’s worth explicitly mentioning the recent strikes on International Women’s Day and Day Without an Immigrant, candlelight vigils, occupying space from the dean’s office to a roadway, pickets and more. There are other acts of protest, of course, many of them more personal or private, but for the sake of brevity we’re focusing on street protests.


Likely response: Greensboro police typically take a hands-off style approach to policing large protests, even the ones without permits. The larger the crowd, the more likely police are to allow the demonstration to spill into the street, which isn’t uncommon.

Small crowds, especially more militant or aggressive ones, are often treated differently — at a small, spontaneous May Day march several years ago, a lone officer tried to stop an unpermitted march in the street and ultimately arrested one protester. When protesters block streets — such as sitting down in the road at a recent anti-Trump march [√] — police move more quickly to clear the street. At an anti-war protest downtown about a decade ago, one protester was Tased and more arrested while blocking a major intersection. Such occurrences are rare, though.

The police reaction also depends on the location of the protest. A protest on private property, such as one a couple years ago inside a Whole Foods, doesn’t received the same sort of semi-relaxed treatment as a rally at Governmental Plaza.

Usually if police are going to start making arrests, they will warn protesters. They’ll look for a leader and attempt to talk to them, and sometimes a negotiation occurs as has happened repeatedly with some Black Lives Matter protests.

Police often have a presence on bicycle as well as on foot. Documents obtained by Triad City Beat show that at least one undercover officer participated in Occupy Greensboro meetings. Police can sometimes be seen filming protests, and on at least one occasion the department’s spokesperson attended a rally and took photos.

Unlikely response: While the Greensboro Police Department typically wants to project an image of trust and transparency when the public, including protesters, TCB uncovered the secretive formation of something called the Civil Emergency Unit. Other cities like Charlotte have these as well, designed in part to respond to civil disorders, rebellions and aggressive or militant protests.

The unit, which trains regularly and consists of about 90 officers, is equipped for a mass disturbance. Though nothing that could be categorized as a riot has occurred in the Triad in recent history, an internal PowerPoint presentation on the need for the unit cites Ferguson, Mo. and Baltimore. Another slide explains in more detail:

“We want the citizens to feel safe but we do not want to elevate emotions of a crowd by appearing on scene in ‘militarized’ uniforms,” it reads. “We have numerous levels of gear and protective equipment that can be utilized to optimize our ability to secure an area and maintain a professional presence with any crowd. The uniform can change significantly depending upon the reason why we are called to the area. Our uniform changes depending on the needs of the public and the desired response conveyed from the command staff.”

The Greensboro unit deployed to Charlotte in September 2016 after police there shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott, and trained with the National Guard earlier last year in a scenario involving mock protesters.

According to documents obtained by TCB, the department’s critical-incident van includes 23 canisters of CS gas, 45 riot batons, four hard hats, a ladder, 20 shields and various munitions. Greensboro police brought at least 60 riot shields to Charlotte but didn’t use them, according to the department, and also brought riot helmets and gas masks.

The Greensboro Police Department acquired a long-range acoustic device, or LRAD, in 2015. The device, which can be used by the Civil Emergency Unit but is not technically assigned to it, contains a crowd-control deterrent tone. TCB reported on the crowd-control aspect of the LRAD on Dec. 2, 2015 — according to an email dated one week later, Chief Wayne Scott then “requested the LRAD be solely used as a communication device and not for crowd control dispersal in the red volume zone.

“He has asked that the red volume zone capability be made inoperable on the device if possible,” Sergeant PC Uehlein continued in the email, obtained by TCB.

Capt. John Wolfe responded: “I was not invited to or present at the meeting either, however I do know that the ‘red’ volume zone will not be used without the approval of the chief of police…. Ultimately I want the policy to reflect that this device is designed for the purpose of communicating with individuals and crowds when the environment or conditions make the natural voice ineffective.”

Protesters in Greensboro haven’t been met with the full force of the unit, and the LRAD’s crowd control function hasn’t been used here. But neither is out of the question, depending on the situation.

In all likelihood, you wouldn’t be surprised by the Civil Emergency Unit’s deployment — don’t expect to see it at run-of-the-mill rallies or family-friendly marches. If a protest escalated to the point where the department decided to deploy the unit, there would almost certainly be numerous warning signs and opportunities for you to leave first if you hoped to avoid it.


If you’re concerned about government surveillance, there are several things you can do to put roadblocks in the way of government overreach. One of the simplest approaches is downloading Signal, a free app with security encryption that you can use for texting or calls. You can even set messages to disappear after a set amount of time. Many people who are engaged in regular acts of protest and resistance (as well as others too, like journalists) use the app as a more secure communication platform.

Some would argue that it’s worth taking steps such as this regardless of whether you intend to break any laws, a position that makes increasing sense as lawmakers in North Carolina and around the country introduce legislation that would crack down on protesters. You may thank yourself for practicing what some activists call “security culture” from the outset later on.


Maybe this is all a whole lot more than you were expecting. Does protesting really have to be this complicated? you might be wondering. I thought this dude said there were no prerequisites for protesting, but this feels like a lot of homework.

If this is too long and you didn’t read it all, here’s the executive summary or key points to remember: wear comfortable shoes, bring a friend or two, stay alert and check in with your feelings and with those you came with regularly, and do whatever you’d normally do (like eating dinner, maybe) before going out for several hours. For your first protest, that’s really all you need.

Sustained protest activity comes with a whole host of other advice about avoiding burnout, what being an ally or showing solidarity really means and thinking about broader strategies and tactics for success. But for your first time out the gate, you’re already set to go.

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Get help: It is possible to organize a protest on your own, but most people work in small groups. Find some likeminded people (most people start with a friend or someone else affected by the issue) and start discussing plans.

Pick your target: Make sure you know what you’re protesting. It will make it easier to communicate with people and convince them to attend. If you’re taking on a big, somewhat abstract cause (such as healthcare, for example), picking a target will help you focus and be more effective.

Pick your location: Once you know your target, the location of the protest becomes clearer. People protesting a city policy often demonstrate right outside of a city council meeting, right before the meeting starts. Other times the visibility of a busy street makes sense. Regardless, you’ll need to communicate to people where to meet.

Plan the protest: If it’s your first time organizing a protest, it’s probably best to keep it simple. Plan a rally, make some signs, and invite people to come. Adding a march or speakers can quickly complicate things, but if you want to include either, plan those as well. The more planning you’re able to put into your protest, the more likely it is to be successful.

Spread the word: People often spread the word about protests on Facebook, with fliers, by reaching out to related organizations or the media and by making announcements at other events. Your approach may depend on how much time you have and how much you want to be personally identified with the event. For example, if you are concerned about repercussions at work, a public Facebook event connected to your real name might be a bad idea.

Consider different scenarios: If the media shows up, who is going to talk to them? What if a guest speaker won’t stop rambling? What if there are counter protesters? If someone is arrested, will people be ready to wait for them outside of the jail? You can’t plan for every scenario and these possibilities shouldn’t stop you from planning your protest, but considering various scenarios can help you be ready.

Plan next steps: Your protest is over — what happens now? Activists typically want to sustain pressure on an issue or involvement of people they mobilized. Maybe they want people to sign up to join an organization, or show up at the next city council meeting. The time to plan for what happens when the protest ends is before it starts, so that you have your petition, sign-up sheet and call to action in place at the protest itself.

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