(Update: I’ve chatted with Boing Boing’s gadget podcast, Essential gadgets while reporting on civil unrest about tools for journalism in complicated places.)
You’re a journalist in the field. It’s chaotic, people are screaming, glass is breaking, things are blowing up. You want solid, uninterrupted time interviewing someone in a war zone or almost-war zone?
Offer to charge their phone.
In the course of my time with protests, movements, and mass actions, I’ve developed techniques and a toolkit that, along with a fair bit of luck, have prevented me from ever being seriously harmed or arrested. But I still get most of the stories I need.
The first protest I remember attending was against a hat ban at my L.A. high school. It would be followed a few weeks later by what was technically my first riot, after a theater in Westwood oversold tickets for a film opening. I was hooked from there, fascinated by mass actions, movements, places where people come together ad hoc and act in concert.
The first protest I covered journalistically was the week before Christmas in 2008. It was an anarchist solidarity protest for Greeks resisting austerity and police violence. It wound its way through San Francisco as night fell while I took pictures. I knew one person in the protest, casually, from my local hackerspace, and chatted with one of the officers walking around with the group. It was a calm action, until the protest decided to visit an upscale shopping mall. From there, fighting and arrests began, and I watched the officer I’d been chatting with beat the person I knew from the hackerspace, while I photographed the whole thing.
I had to go for a couple walks and think about my life choices after that.
In 2011, I was covering the BART protests when Ryan Singel called me and asked if I’d like to go half-time with Wired to cover Occupy and Anonymous. I said yes. We quickly realized half-time was a joke. I traveled around the country, lived in parks, wrote in them and on planes and trains. I crashed at local friends’ houses when I needed to get away. I learned how to prepare for a protest, or, when things go badly, a riot.
As the world has watched events proceed in Ferguson we saw assault and arrests aimed specifically at non-protestors who were observing the protests and police response. Camera crews were tear gassed, journalists were beaten and arrested. A lot of people, including journalists, were surprised and unprepared for what was happening on the ground.
I’ve looked through my own habits and gear, and chatted with my friend Elle Armageddon, an activist and medic from Oakland, about how to go out prepared and stay safer in conflict areas. For journalists she has this invaluable advice: “Educate yourself on the cause of the protest, and the tone of the protest, and tailor your method of coverage to be appropriate for the demonstration.” There are things you should know before you show up, and you’re not going to find them in the current news cycle. Even a couple of hours of digging into the local history, as well as reading local blogs and media, can not only improve your coverage, it can save your ass.
Before you go
Read up on the history of the area you are going to. I actually go back to geology, which has helped me to understand the situational and physical geography more times than you’d think. Study maps of the area. I don’t rely on Google maps, I download the Open Street Map of the local area to my phone and use that in case connectivity goes down. I also draw maps in my notebook. Make sure reliable people know where you are and what you’re planning to do, and know who to contact if something goes wrong. Know who you are going to call if you are arrested or hurt, and have their number with you.
Practice fitting equipment like gasmasks/respirators, and make sure all your batteries are charged.
When you arrive, figure out what the food, water, and bathroom options are before you need them.
Protecting your body
If there’s going to be gas or pepper spray, a gas mask or respirator with goggles is required. These days I steer people more to the respirator/goggles, as they’re less suspicious to authorities, easier to get, and easier to fit. For most tear gas they work just as well, but you need to refresh cartridges and pay attention to getting a tight seal on your face.
In many places, a bike helmet is reasonably good protection without standing out. A military-style helmet is better, but can be harder to get, and can make you a target.
If you’re in the sun, carry sun block. Elle informs me that this is not great for gas and pepper spray, but if you aren’t facing those (which are used mostly at night) sunburns can severely limit how long you’ll last out there, and how healthy you’ll feel. If it’s winter, carry a lot of chemical handwarmers. Not only will they keep you functioning, but anyone you hand them to is an instantly friendly source. Some people wear body armor, but that’s expensive. I generally wear layers, which hasn’t saved me from getting beaten up, but has helped soften the blows. Knee pads will never go amiss — but again, under your clothes draws less attention than on them.
Most importantly, wear good shoes. I was on my feet for 19 hours straight during the eviction of Zuccotti, much of it running to get from one place to another. Your on-the-ground reporting is never going to be better than your shoes.
Bring water and snack food, enough to share if you can.
I rarely carry a laptop. It’s big, vulnerable, and hard to abandon if you have to flee. At best, I’ll have a 7" Android tablet, but mostly I just carry my phone. I have a hand-held, battery powered recorder. It’s got a string I can use to hang it around my neck to collect ambient sounds.
Bring a camera, even if you’re not a photographer, and take pictures of things you want to be able to refer to, describe, or prove later. My spare camera that goes with me everywhere, even when the big Canon stays home, is an Olympus Micro Four Thirds, and I love it. With the big Canon, I carry a wide-angle, a 1.8 fixed, and the kit lens. Kit lenses are great — they can do a little bit of everything, and take a beating. Learn how to carry a camera so that even if it’s smacked out of your hands it doesn’t hit the ground. I use a security quick strap on my smaller camera, and loop the regular strap tightly around my wrist twice on the larger DSLR. Bring spare memory cards and switch them often.
Bring a notebook or two. They never run out of batteries. Bring multiple pens, ones you can give away. No one ever thought “Damn, I wish I’d brought fewer pens out here.”
Power, power, power, power
This gets its own section because it is so important, almost as important as shoes. There is no reason to ever run out of battery in the field. Spare camera batteries, spare phone batteries, and a 10,000 — 12,000 mAh battery with 1 amp and 2.1 amp slots are a must for modern reporting. During Occupy I set myself up so that I could run for three days without needing a power outlet. I never had to do that, but being able to meant I could share power with people. These days, that’s more powerful than sharing a cigarette or food with the people you want to talk to. I even carry a spare battery for my phone in my wallet.
Power means cables, and I have them all in what my family and I call the magic bag of cables. Right now the MBC contains mini and micro USB cables, new and old style iPhone cables, two sets of headphones, a sound cable, a splitter, and a car usb charger. With that and my 12,000 mAh battery I can make anyone’s day better, including my own. Carry a USB wall wart to plug in too — and top up every chance you get.
Carry with you
Have a commissioning letter or press pass. No one knows what official means in journalism-land, so a note from your editor on fancy letterhead does the job most of the time. Carry your health insurance information. Make yourself a card with your lawyer’s numbers on it, or sharpie them on your body. Carry a business card, and produce it when faced with authority figures, friendly or not.
Have cash on you, not everywhere will take credit cards, especially if things are going badly. Put that cash in a couple places — if you’re mugged, have something to give the mugger, and something to keep.
Things to think about
Plan for what you might do when you’re there, and provision yourself accordingly. Elle, as a medic, has seen a lot of the things that can go wrong. “People overreach or are unprepared all the time, and things like low blood sugar and dehydration, combined with the body’s chemical and emotional response to police repression can cause even the wisest of us to make some pretty questionable judgement calls,” she said. “The worst ‘self-inflicted’ injury I’ve seen was probably a guy who picked up a teargas canister to throw it back. Some of the skin on his hand was charred, and he had a blister at least an inch thick across his entire palm. Turns out, bare flesh and teargas canisters are actually a really bad combination.”
If you’re thinking of picking things up, you might want to bring good gloves. I often bring a bag with me to collect munitions used against protestors. If you’re collecting pepperballs, you’re going to regret storing them in the bottom of your regular backpack.
Elle has written her own guide to attending actions and protests as a street medic. It’s more general, but invaluable. “These are the things I hope everyone will do by themselves, so they only need to come see me when shit has really hit the fan,” she said.
* Glasses: If your vision is impaired and requires correction, it is best to wear glasses, ideally with lenses that will not shatter. In the event of police action involving chemical deterrents, contact lenses can exacerbate the situation by trapping the chemicals against your cornea. This can potentially cause lasting damage, so it is best to just leave the contacts at home. Additionally, glasses can always be removed to alter your appearance as well.
* Comfortable shoes: Since protesting can involve lots of walking and standing, and there is always the potential need for a speedy getaway, it is very important to wear shoes that provide adequate support and cushioning for walking, standing, and running. For safety purposes, it is also best to wear a shoe that covers your entire foot.
* Hats, sunglasses, etc.: Similar to layers, these can be taken off and/or put on to change your look, should you find yourself in need of making an expedient and unnoticed escape from a potentially gnarly situation.
* Synthetic materials: Lightweight synthetics keep you warm, keep you cool, AND do not absorb chemicals like pepper spray and tear gas. NOTE: It is important to remember that if you anticipate being exposed to any very hot surfaces, most synthetics will melt. Clothing choices should be made with this in mind.
Don’t. Just don’t.
Don’t bring drugs, not even prescription, without proper labeling. I get away with carrying Advil and an asthma puffer, but not much else. If you have to bring drugs, don’t bring all you have of vital drugs. If they are confiscated and never returned, never let it be a month you lost.
Don’t bring sensitive information. You are in a situation where angry people may have physical power over you. Don’t have anything that needs decrypting or any important password-protected information. If someone is about to beat you for your password, you give them your password, and make sure it doesn’t go to anything that needs to be secured.
Don’t bring anything you can’t lose.
Keep a sense of humor, the worse the situation, the more you’ll need it. If you are losing it, it often means you will be too tired to do your job soon. It doesn’t mean you don’t care what’s happening to people, but you have to be able to bounce back. Let the emotional roller coaster go up as well as down.
To do this work, one needs a hobby. Without a hobby, an outlet, something to lend perspective to the task at hand, the hobby becomes anything to numb, escape, and distance the pain. Many journalists drink or do drugs. Writers in general commit suicide at an alarmingly high rate. I study geology and history, do origami and paint. Geology reminds me that all of this is an infinitesimal moment in the lifetime of an terrible and awesome planet. History puts everything I see in context, and gives me a sense of human proportion. Origami and painting let me create beautiful and mute things and leaves no space in my mind for ruminations.
Above all, take care of yourself. Your ability to bear witness to history counts on being strong, calm, whole, and alive.