Protest 101: How to Prepare and What to Expect at Your First Protest

The authors of this document are teachers and activists concerned about the current state of affairs in our country. We initially wrote this document for our students, then decided it could be useful for anyone interested in protesting peacefully, respectfully, and safely. In a couple places, we used advice circulated by friends.

Please know that most protests do not put you in physical danger and that the vast majority of people who show up are just ordinary folks like you and me.

Feel free to use the tips that are helpful to you and ignore the rest.

Decisions to Make Beforehand:

  • Are you going alone or with someone else? If you’re going with other people, have a plan for where and when to meet up if you get separated (don’t rely on your cellphone).
  • Whom do you need to tell you’re going?
  • What arrangements do you need to make in advance? For example: medications. Also, know an emergency contact’s phone # by heart.
  • Is this protest likely to continue after nightfall? If so, make arrangements to leave while it’s still light out (unless you’re over 18 and have training in how to respond when violence erupts). Violence is more likely to erupt under cover of darkness. An exception: candlelight vigils and marches are usually very peaceful.

Prepare:

  • Read up on the protest you’re planning to attend. Be clear on the point of the protest ahead of time.
  • Prepare your talking points in advance. 1. Know the slogan/s of your protest. 2. What does the protest mean to you? Why are you going? (Prepare these answers in advance so you can talk eloquently with both journalists and bystanders.) 3. Be respectful of the protest and stay on message. 4. Practice your talking points aloud.
  • Bring ID if possible.
  • Write important information on your forearm in Sharpie: emergency contact, drug allergies, etc. Bring the Sharpie so others can do the same.
  • Goes without saying these days, but bring a phone/camera.
  • What not to bring: 1. Do not bring pocketknives or anything that could be considered a weapon. 2. Do not bring anything you couldn’t bear to lose.

Make a Sign:

  • Make a sign that fits the protest — stay on message.
  • Remember that a protest is a symbolic action so your words count! You want people to see your sign and immediately get your message.
  • Signs should be easy to read both in person and in photos/videos. 1. Background should be white or something easy-to-read. 2. Use big, bold, clear letters.
  • Use simple, catchy slogans.
  • Personalize your sign. If you’re a vet, a grandparent, a teen or a member of another group, consider saying so on your sign; it makes a difference to know who’s protesting as well as why.
  • Meaningful quotations can be effective (e.g. from Gandhi, MLK, etc.).
  • Funny and punny signs can be good as long as they’re respectful.
  • Avoid writing inflammatory signs — remember, you’re trying to win people over, not incite hatred or violence.
  • Use both sides of the sign — maximize your message!

Materials You’ll Need to Make a Sign and Where To Buy Them:

You’ll need:

  • 1–2 large pieces of foam core board or poster board. Probably better to use two pieces — staple or glue them together and put a post inside.
  • Large felt-tipped markers in bright, bold colors.
  • Or paints made specifically for sign-making. (I’d recommend paints over markers — easier to make big, bold letters with paints.)
  • Flat-edged, non-sharp wooden stick or post (please check the website for your protest to see if signposts are permissible: for example, the Women’s March on Washington does not allow them). Cardboard sign post or rolled up poster paper is likely permissible.
  • Stapler, nails or some other way to attach a sign to your stick or cardboard sign post.
  • Art stores will probably sell everything you need.

What to Wear:

  • Keep in mind that when you participate in a march, rally or protest, you become a representative of what you believe and that you’re trying to communicate to people who don’t necessarily believe what you do.
  • Make your cause look good for the cameras by dressing up a bit, wearing something that will help win people over.
  • Consider wearing a suit and tie, a pantsuit or some other respectable piece of clothing that will help people realize that your cause is serious and has broad appeal, that it matters to the mainstream. You’re also more likely to be approached by journalists if you dress up a bit.
  • Or wear a T-shirt, hoodie, etc. with an appropriate slogan on it.
  • Or wear a costume. Again, make sure the costume draws attention to your cause, not you!
  • Make sure to dress warmly, if you’re protesting in a cold place.

To Think About Ahead of Time:

  • What will you do if you find yourself angry? Remember that anger is energy — channel it constructively!
  • Above all, DO NOT GET VIOLENT, HURT PEOPLE, OR DAMAGE PROPERTY.
  • Remember that you are now representing your cause; violence will only damage this cause and provide justification to those who want to suppress protest and our right to free speech — don’t give them that excuse!
  • What will you do if you face a hostile bystander? How will you defuse the tension? Think about how to lighten the situation with jokes and playfulness. Or simply walk away.

When You’re There:

  • Remember that protest is not a form of therapy; you’re there with a purpose, to express a message.
  • Trust your instincts; march with people whose signs and energy feel good to you. Protesting can be inspiring — even joyful.
  • Take lots of pictures and/or videos. Since a protest is a symbolic action, its power lies in the images and sound bytes that emerge from it — make them good!
  • Look for clear, loud visual statements.
  • Look for catchy, memorable sound bytes.
  • Send images right away to Instagram and other social media outlets.
  • Dealing with the police: 1. Remember that the police are doing their jobs; they’re required to be there. 2. Be respectful of the police. Do not incite them. 3. If police act disrespectfully, know your rights, but do not respond in kind (stay focused on nonviolently expressing your message). 4. Make sure others are around and that photos/videos are taken in case of police violence.
  • Dealing with hecklers and counter-protestors: the best approach is to ignore them. Remember that your focus is on getting out your message, not being pulled into someone else’s agenda.
  • Dealing with fellow protestors inciting violence: Keep yourself safe and stay away from these people. Sadly, they usually only represent a tiny fraction of protestors, but they often get the lion’s share of attention from the media. Above all, do not join them, approach them, or make it look on video like you support them — you don’t want them to represent your cause or make their numbers look larger than they are!
  • Remember that people will come with different agendas to a protest. This can be frustrating, so just know it happens.

When to Leave:

  • Protest ends, you go home. Remember to go home before nightfall.
  • If you feel uncomfortable at any point — you feel like you’re unsafe and that the situation is dangerous — make sure to leave.
  • It’s best to leave with others, if possible. Stay safe!

Afterwards. . . .

  • Broadcast your presence in any and all ways.
  • Often, the numbers at protests are radically underestimated — make your presence there known.
  • Let people know on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat . . . you name it!
  • Call in to your local radio station/write to your local newspaper, etc.
  • Talk about the protest and your cause with family, friends, neighbors (assuming you feel safe).
  • Use the protest as a way to energize and mobilize people: spread the word about what you care about.
  • Sometimes, there can be a feeling of let-down after a protest. What to do now? Start thinking about other actions you can take — possibly direct, hands on actions. Keep the momentum going!