What Should I Wear To A Protest?
Road-Tested Riot Grrrl Basics for Exercising Your Freedom of Assembly While Staying Safe, Comfortable, and Fly as Fuck
I started protesting in the late 1990s. I lived in the Washington, DC area and there was plenty to protest: the WTO, the right-wing threat against Roe v. Wade, Promise Keepers, you name it. I attended May Day protests in Stockholm with the Student Social Democratic Union. Wherever I went, I talked to other people about how they protested, and why. Other kids snuck off to sleepover parties and keggers. I went to protests.
The first time, I was absolutely terrified. I had no idea what I was doing. Thankfully, I’d gotten my hands on a riot grrrl zine with a foldout page of suggestions. I followed those instructions, which explained what to wear and why, and they worked. I’ve refined my protest “uniform” over the years, but the basics don’t change. Today, I went to an anti-fascism rally in Portland, Oregon and I wore pretty much the same thing that I wore in 1999 when I punched an anti-choice bigot in Washington, DC.
I’m sharing this information because knowing what to wear took a lot of my anxiety away and helped me show up to represent what I believe in. Remember, it’s not about looking cool or trendy: people who stand up for what they believe in are cool, no matter what they’re wearing. Choosing the right clothes and equipment made me feel prepared, because I’m ready for almost anything. I hope that you find the same sense of power and self-confidence that I did when I laced up my boots for that first march.
1. Head and face.
No makeup. No contact lenses. No jewelry. This is purely for my personal comfort and safety. I don’t wear makeup, especially eye makeup, because if I’m teargassed, hit in the face, or sprayed with mace, that makeup is going to go everywhere. That’s also why I don’t wear contact lenses. Chemical sprays can get trapped between the lens and the eye, which can be very painful and cause permanent damage. I don’t wear jewelry of any kind because I don’t want to get it snagged on anything. If someone steps on my hand, and I’m wearing a ring, that could make the injury worse. Same with earrings. I don’t want those to get pulled or ripped. I’ve seen other protesters with big plugs in their ears, facial piercings, and all that stuff. I prefer to keep my face as clear as possible.
I suggest wearing a hat, too, for a couple reasons. First, if you’re planning on being outside for a long time, you will need protection from the weather. A hat can also protect you from light projectiles: if someone throws, say, a handful of rocks, a hat with a brim can be a deflector and protect your face. Mostly, I see people at marches wearing hats to give themselves privacy. If you’re wearing a hat and a bandanna over your face, you’ll be difficult to identify. This wasn’t such a big deal ten or fifteen years ago, but it is now. If you’re at an anti-hate march, for example, and your photo is put online by someone at the rally, you could be harassed or doxxed by the people you’re rallying against.
With that said, if you are marching with someone who’s covered their face, don’t take their picture. And definitely don’t post a picture of anyone, whether they’ve masked themselves or not, unless you have their permission. That’s serious, and it puts their safety at risk.
2. Upper Body and Arms.
I’ve had this denim jacket for ages. I wore it today because it’s fairly lightweight but keeps me warm. I get cold if I stand in one place for a few hours, even if I’m moving around or yelling. I chose denim because it’s a durable fabric. If I fall down, or get shoved into someone, the denim is thick enough to protect my skin from scrapes and some bruises. It’s also great for adding buttons!
On your arms, write the phone numbers of your local ACLU office, your lawyer, or someone you trust to contact those people for you in Sharpie. If you are detained or arrested, you will need to call for help. You will probably not be allowed to use your cell phone, so be smart. Sharpie won’t wash off no matter how sweaty you get. Don’t use ballpoint: I learned that one the hard way.
I’m also wearing a simple cotton t-shirt. It was suggested to me to pick a shirt made out of natural fibers, because you can sweat in them and be comfortable and they don’t melt. If I’m exposed to high heat, like a flare or flash bomb, and my clothing catches fire, it won’t melt onto my skin. If I am hurt, or someone else is hurt, a cotton shirt can double as a temporary bandage. It’s also awesome to decorate your shirt with the messages and images that matter to you and make you feel powerful. Don’t buy a shirt in a store, use your own words! No matter what you’re marching for, you’re there to represent yourself, too.
3. On My Back
Carry as little as possible. Don’t bring a purse, or a large backpack. Fanny packs are super nerdy, but they’re a great option for protests because they keep your essentials close to your body. I got a small sling backpack that is just big enough for a bottle of water, my ID, some Maalox, and a big handkerchief. Unless you’re planning to stay at the protest for more than 3–4 hours, or you’re on your period or need to bring medication, you probably won’t have to pack anything else.
What’s the Maalox for? Rinsing your face if you are sprayed with tear gas. Tear gas hurts and burns, and the antacid in Maalox neutralizes the burning feeling. The best thing to do is get a water bottle with a nozzle or a spray bottle and fill it with Maalox. (Make sure it doesn’t leak!) You can help someone else with this magic potion, or use it on yourself.
What’s the handkerchief for? Many people tie them Lone Ranger-style over their noses, for privacy. I usually keep mine stowed with my water bottle. I use my bandanna to cover my face, clean myself or others, or just show solidarity with other people who are dressed that way. Depending on where you live, there are laws about protesting with your face covered. Make sure you know the law in your state, and abide by it.
What about snacks? If you can, eat before you leave. If your backpack is searched or confiscated, you may not be allowed to keep your food. Also, if you’re exposed to tear gas, water, or mace, you won’t want to eat food that is soggy or potentially contaminated. The other thing is dogs. Yes, police dogs! They’re dogs, too, and dogs love food. A friend of mine got his bag confiscated by the police once and the drug-sniffing dog wouldn’t stop barking at it. The dog barked so much that the police opened the backpack. They were positive my friend was carrying drugs. Nope. The dog smelled my friend’s tuna fish sandwich! My friend was released, but the police gave the dog his lunch. I say: no sandwich, no problem.
What about drugs? This should be a no-brainer, but do not bring contraband of any kind to a protest. This is doubly true if you’re planning on taking radical action or joining the more active part of the protest. In many cases, police are looking for a reason to arrest, detain, or jail you. If you are stopped by police and searched, the best thing you can do for yourself is not have anything illegal on your person. That means drugs, weapons, or weird shit. Use your common sense.
What about money? I always bring bus fare in cash. With so many people around and crowded streets, you may have a hard time getting a cab home. It’s smart to bring an extra $20 bill, in case you need it. The most important thing is your ID card. Leave your wallet at home. It’s one less thing to worry about, and if it’s home, you don’t need to worry about it being stolen.
What about my phone? Your phone belongs in your bag or in your jacket pocket, not your hand. You’ll need your hands for clapping, holding your sign, waving, or aiding others. I make sure my phone is fully charged, then put it on low battery mode. I also share my location with one or two people who I trust, so they know where I am and know I’m safe. I use my phone to text other politically active friends via the Signal app: where to go, what we’re doing, and when we should meet. I might take one selfie, but the important thing is to stay present and aware of my surroundings. I’m there to participate. Also, I’ve noticed that many people do live streams of rallies and political events on Periscope, Snapchat or other social media. That’s fine, but it’s not for me. Just don’t post my picture without asking first!
4. Lower Body
Even though it was kind of warm today and I’ve been rocking the cutoff shorts as much as possible, I did the responsible thing and wore jeans instead. The denim logic applies here, too: if I fall down, or kneel down, my legs are protected. They don’t rip easily. I keep my jeans cuffed so I don’t accidentally trip, and I wear a style that is super comfortable but probably not very stylish. They’re the pants I would wear if I was going to paint my bedroom or change a tire, not the ones I’d wear on a date.
I put an anti-fascism sticker on my jeans. It’s not as visible as it would be on my jacket, but it’s also not as likely to be torn off. Put your stickers in weird places, like your upper arm or on your back — they last longer that way.
Also, I’ve noticed that people with female bodies are treated differently when they’re wearing shorts, a dress, or a skirt, especially by male authority figures. I wear jeans because they are gender neutral, easy to run in, comfortable for sitting on the ground, and don’t identify me as “female.” That is a personal preference, not a suggestion — just something to keep in mind when you’re planning.
Oh yeah, and in case you wondered: I’m wearing my most comfortable, plain, wedgie-proof underwear. Because nothing crushes my good mood like having to readjust my skivvies every 20 minutes.
Your feet are the most important thing. Assuming that you’re going to be walking, standing, dancing, or running without assistance, you need to make sure that your feet are absolutely as dry, safe, and comfortable as they can be. That means plain cotton socks and boring shoes. Today, I wore the Doc Martens I’ve owned since 1999. They’re not steel-toed boots — I don’t want to get crunched! But they lace halfway up my shins, they’re as comfortable as a pair of old slippers, and they have a flat, study sole. I treat them with a water resistant spray also, in case I need to walk through a lot of puddles.
My rule of thumb for footwear at rallies is comfort. Wear close-toed, flat shoes that are comfortable to walk and stand in all day. (If you’re not sure about the shoes you picked, you’ll know within a couple hours if you made the right choice.) Battered or beat up sneakers are probably better than fancy new leather boots. Definitely don’t wear heels! I mean, unless you can wear heels for three straight hours, in which case, you are a goddess and I would like to learn your ways.
6. The Stuff You Can’t See
Always go with a friend. Trust your instincts. Decide what your limits are before you get there. Having a healthy, positive mindset counts for a lot. Let’s face it: political marches can be intense and overwhelming, especially if you’re an introvert or you don’t like being in crowds. Marching may also bring up a lot of emotions in you, from fear and anger to exuberance. Making sure that you’re in good shape mentally and emotionally sets you up to enjoy taking part in a cause that is important to you. That means eating before you go, using the bathroom before you think you need to, checking in with people you care about, and leaving when you’re tired.
The best advice I got, and can share, is to protest with a partner, stick with that friend for the whole event, and leave together. Pick a partner who will stay nearby and who shares your goals for the protest. Agree on a time to leave before you get to the protest. Also, sometimes it’s hard to tell what to do in a big crowd situation. In that case, two heads are better than one. Having a friend nearby means you won’t be totally surrounded by strangers, and can help you make better decisions if you feel overwhelmed. Advocate for one another, and keep each other safe.
It’s important to travel in pairs — sometimes, counter-protesters follow women to their cars or harass them on the way home. You can prevent this by staying sober, being aware, and using the buddy system.
Do you have any suggestions to add? Leave a comment!