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If Part of a March or Demonstration - What to Do? What to Say?

If Part of a March or Demonstration - What to Do? What to Say?

The Constitutional rights of freedom of speech and to peacefully assemble are among our most important liberties. Americans have protested to ensure our country’s independence, the abolition of slavery, civil rights for all, fairer labor practices, justice from our police and the courts, to support and end various wars, and the protection of national and international human rights.

Some of our country's most important laws and reforms have only come about because of citizens demonstrating to express their grievances, concerns and conscience. 

  • Most demonstrations are peaceful and orderly. Usually, there are official permits to march, and there is close coordination between the police and organizers to ensure the safety of the demonstrators and the police. 
  • Increasingly, however, demonstrations have become more spontaneous. In part, this is due to the ability of social media to quickly organize large numbers of people around events and locations. 
  • Unfortunately, even well-organized demonstrations can quickly and unexpectedly become violent because of the intent of a single individual, a single incident, a single rumor, or even a single sound that is mistaken for gunfire. 

What To Do

When involved in a demonstration or protesting, it is important to: 

  • Follow the guidelines of "C.A.R.E." and the general rules when "stopped" and "arrested" by the police. This includes the rules for documenting and reporting potential police misconduct.
  • Remember: With today's technology, it is likely that demonstrations will be recorded by the police, street security cameras, the press and bystanders. Behave accordingly.
  • Remain orderly and respectful in your words and actions.
  • Do not do or say anything to the police or bystanders to cause the police to fear for their own or the public's safety.
  • Always advise the police of any threats to safety or medical emergencies. 
  • Follow police directions — particularly to follow a particular route, leave the area or disperse. Respect barricades and police lines.
  • Do not post threatening messages and pictures on social media or signs — before, during or after an event. (You should assume that the police are monitoring social media messages.)
  • Before and during events, monitor traditional and social media for safety advice and reports of dangerous conditions. 
  • If engaging in conversations with the police officers, do so politely and show respect for the officer’s personal space. Crowding an officer will cause an elevated state of alert and tension.
  • Always leave the space of a stretched arm between yourself and other protesters. Don’t move too close to each other. A tight crowd, where people stand close to one another, will not be able to maneuver itself away from danger and is more prone to panic. 
  • Never carry any weapons (or items that could be used as — or mistaken for — a weapon).
  • Never pretend to carry — or act as though you are carrying — a weapon.
  • Never start or fuel a fire. 
  • Carry legal identification.
  • In many demonstrations, there are individuals who (for a variety of reasons) may wish to provoke a violent confrontation with the police through words or actions.
  • Maintain your distance from these individuals and report them to demonstration organizers. 
  • If you observe someone who might possess a weapon, distance yourself and others immediately—and report this to the demonstration organizers.
  • For safety reasons, Do not attend a march if you have been drinking, taking illegal drugs or feeling ill. 
  • Never bring alcohol or illegal drugs to a demonstration — you will put yourself and others at risk.
  • Listen to and follow police instructions.
  • If the police declare an event to be unlawful, you must disperse. Even if you feel the police order is unlawful or against prior permission. You will have ample avenues at a later date to dispute the order.
  • Remaining after such an order is given can put your and the officers’ safety at risk. You may also face criminal charges.
  • If engaged in civil disobedience and purposely seeking to be arrested, do so peacefully and in a way that cooperates with the instructions of the arresting officer. 
  • If it is the objective of certain demonstrators to be arrested, arrests often can be organized and coordinated with the police in advance of any demonstration. This can help minimize the potential for violence and conflict.
  • If there is violence between the police and others, under no circumstances interfere or become involved. Do not encourage others to participate or interfere. 
  • In the event of violence, and you are unable to follow police instructions or instructions are not being given --do not panic. 
  • Calmly and quickly look for a safe way to leave the area--particularly, in the opposite direction from the center of any disturbance or confrontation with the police. 
  • If possible, always keep your hands visible and open. 
  • If there are gunshots, explosives, firebombs, rocks or other objects being thrown, immediately drop to the ground or get as low to the ground as possible. 
  • Without disobeying police instructions, seek to quickly move to a sheltered place, as far away as possible from any confrontations. 
  • If the police use tear gas, “taser” devices, clubs, rubber bullets, etc., leave the area immediately.
  • If you are exposed to tear gas and have no protection, cover your mouth and nose with a handkerchief, cloth or use the inside of any clothing. (The outside of your clothing may be contaminated). Calmly move to an area away from the disturbance where there is fresh air.
  • If you are injured, seek immediate medical assistance. 
  • Remember: If you choose to record any events, always do so from a safe distance and in compliance with any police requests. Claims of police misconduct can be addressed at a later time, often with legal assistance. (See our general rules for documenting possible police misconduct and filing a complaint.)

What To Avoid

  • Avoid behavior that would diminish or distract from your cause. 
  • Avoid disrespecting the police and disobeying their instructions—even if you believe them to be unlawful. 
  • Do not resist, if stopped or arrested.  Follow all instructions. Even if an arrest is unlawful, resistance can lead to addition charges and will increase the level of force used by police. (It can also bring negative coverage to the cause.)
  • Avoid threats of violence or provocative actions.
  • Avoid sudden or threatening movements. Keep your hands in view and open. (Reassure officers that you do not have a weapon or are a threat.). 
  • Do not reach into your pockets or bags, unless instructed to do so. If the police ask to see identification, tell them where you keep it and ask for permission to produce it.
  • Never touch the police or their equipment (vehicles, weapons, radios, flashlights, animals, etc.).
  • Do not become loud or emotional with the police. When speaking to them, stay calm. Breathe deeply, speak slowly, be polite, and relax your shoulders, arms, hands and knees. This will reduce any fear that you may be about to attack or run away. 
  • Don’t turn or look away from an officer. Maintain eye contact and a relaxed facial expression. Again, this will assist the officer in not perceiving you as a threat or risk of flight. 
  • If you are not in good health or physically fit — do not risk your safety. Demonstrations can be physically and emotionally demanding. Find other ways to support the cause through helping with preparations, organization or media coverage. 
  • If due to a demonstration, you are being denied essential access to an area or persons, calmly explain the circumstances to an officer. If needed, politely ask to speak to a supervisor. 

Good To Know

Know your rights and the law. You have a right to assemble, protest and march, but authorities are allowed to place reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.

  • Always remain calm and compliant with all police instructions. Panic never improves any situation. Never interfere with the actions of the police. 
  • Antagonizing police officers is always a losing strategy. Be as friendly as you can. This will help de-escalate police concerns for public safety.
  • Large groups using public parks, streets, and roadways can be required to obtain permits prior to assembling.  
  • Loud amplification devices may require a permit and be restricted in the acceptable sound level.
  • If you are leading or advising a protest group it is best to meet with public safety officials prior too or at the onset of the protest. To discuss mutual concerns plans and logistics.
  • Leaders should have the means to communicate in real time with each other and the police throughout any event. 
  • You may also wish to work with community groups, such as the ACLU, to coordinate legal assistance and the recording of an event. 
  • Good communication before during and after a protest can contribute to a successful exercise of the First Amendment rights while ensuring public safety for all.
  • The public will judge you not only by your message, but also by your behavior. Today, everything is recorded and permanently retained. Don’t become an easy target for critics.
  • Always inform those participating to comply with police instructions—including to end the demonstration and disperse.
  • Members of a crowd can easily become engulfed in emotions and impulsive behavior. Remember to stay calm.  The public may decide to support or oppose your message on the basis of how protesters conduct themselves. 
  • If other crowd members start engaging in vandalism and violence, encourage peaceful protestors to create distance from such activity.
  • Be aware of fires being started during a protest. Fires are highly dangerous and quickly rage out of control. They also can incite almost a “primal response” among crowds to set other fires and engage in violence and vandalism. 
  • When a fire occurs, the police must often act swiftly and aggressively to protect public safety.
  • Work with others to identify and separate those who are intent on violence and vandalism. 
  • If prevented from entering an area where you live, work, or need to access, explain this issue to a supervising officer.
  • Care for and look after each other.
  • Dress appropriately for the weather—and ensure that you remain hydrated.

Be patient. Important social change takes multiple efforts, committed strategies and time 


The content conveyed in this app does not constitute legal advice, and should not be relied upon as such. It also is not intended to communicate all relevant information. Other sources on this subject may prove to be helpful, including local police departments, district attorneys, public defenders’, the U.S. Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Design and technology contributed by Genome.