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.