The Properly Prepared Protester

Going out to express your frustration? Get yourself prepared

With the election bearing down on us and a very real possibility of major unrest over the results, you might want to familiarize yourself with the various “less lethal” weapons the police use to disperse protestors.

Tear gas, rubber bullets, flash bang grenades are designed to control crowds. But they are sometimes used in situations where people have nowhere to run. (Vine Street Expressway anyone?) So some protesters have been gearing up to protect themselves from such weapons and suspected surveillance technology.

There are a lot of guides circulating online that provide suggestions on preventing harm and treating injuries. They often contain conflicting information, however. Here is what some existing medical research has to say about how to stay safe, one body part at a time.

Credit: Brown Bird Design

EYES
During a protest, eyes are vulnerable to chemical irritants, rubber bullets, and flash bang grenades. Your best defense? Shatterproof goggles. They can block direct contact with tear gas and pepper spray (and can also protect against viruses). And leave the contact lenses at home: they may prolong the amount of time a contaminant stays pressed against the eye.

Eyes are additionally vulnerable to the intense bursts of light emitted by flash bangs (AKA stun grenades) as well as the plastic fragments that are sometimes hurled when flash bangs explode. Goggles can also slightly shield your eyes against rubber bullets – but not entirely, so remember to duck!

Pepper sprayed?
Most home remedies for pepper spray, such as milk, a mixture of baking soda and water or a watered-down preparation of heartburn treatments like Maalox aren’t considered effective from a medical standpoint. The best option seems to be lots of water and fresh air (as well as soap to get the pepper spray off of exposed skin).

EARS
Incredibly loud sounds are sometimes deployed to quell protests, such as stun grenades which produce volumes of 160 to 180 decibels – exceeding the noise level at rock concerts or near jet engines, which can cause temporary hearing loss and disorientation.

Using earplugs or firmly blocking your ears with your hands can decrease the sound by about 20-30 decibels, but it may not be enough to avoid significant injury. Like earplugs, construction-grade earmuffs could reduce noise levels. They are bulky, however, which might not be practical during a protest.

FACE
Police have used facial-recognition technology in the past to track down protesters. (Although it hasn’t been confirmed during the BLM protests so far).

Painting your face or wearing a mask can reduce the accuracy of facial recognition. And some kinds of masks are also key to protecting against COVID.

SKIN
Though active ingredients differ between specific types of tear gas and pepper spray, they all cause pain and inflammation in the eyes, respiratory system and skin. Tear gas gives you the sensation of your skin and your throat and your nose burning and itching simultaneously.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that wearing lotion or sunscreen can worsen the effects of tear gas and pepper spray, and some scientists back up this claim. No medical studies have tested the idea, though. And physicians generally recommend wearing sunscreen when outside during daylight hours.

RESPIRATORY SYSTEM
Tear gas and pepper spray can cause lasting damage to lungs, heart and chest. Recommendations floating around on the Internet suggest that soaking masks in either water or vinegar can help you breathe better. Unfortunately, it makes breathing much more difficult and, with vinegar, you might get light-headed from the fumes. A simpler solution? A clean mask reduces chemical irritants’ effects on the respiratory system while allowing you to breathe. Gas masks do an even better job of blocking tear gas and pepper spray, but they are not widely available and will not prevent wearers from potentially spreading the coronavirus.

Pro tip: If you know anyone with a leaf blower backpack, these have proven effective against tear gas fumes. Downside? Probably not easy to walk around at a march with a backpack and we’d imagine it’d make you a target. Maybe we need squads of leafblowers? We can dream.

PHONE
Carrying a smartphone in your pocket makes it possible to connect with people and record police behavior. It also allows you to be tracked, either by location information from GPS-tracking apps such as Google Maps or from a cell-site simulator, (AKA stingray), which mimics a cell phone tower to collect such data.

To prevent this, some people have been setting their phones to airplane mode during protests. But switching on airplane mode doesn’t necessarily mean that your Bluetooth and your Wi-Fi connections are disabled. To fully protect your data, turn off both connections, as well as location services for individual apps.

Beyond location, biometric phone-unlocking tools – such as fingerprint recognition or Face ID – could be used to force people to provide access to their phones. Although the practice hasn’t been reported in the current round of protests, best to play it safe. Disable fingerprint and face unlock, and instead use a passcode to unlock your phone.

Another option? Buy a cheap burner phone and leave your main phone home. Pro tip: You’ll still need to disable GPS tracking apps since even a burner can give away your location.

For a guide to your rights while protesting, go to aclu.org. Helpful tips from the site below:

1. The right to protest is a fundamental human right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment.
2. If you get stopped, ask if you are free to go. If the police say yes, calmly walk away.
3. You have the right to record. The right to protest includes the right to record, including recording police doing their jobs.
4. The police can order people to stop interfering with legitimate police operations, but video recording from a safe distance is not interfering.
5. If you get stopped, police cannot take or confiscate any videos or photos without a warrant.
6. If you are videotaping, keep in mind in some states, the audio is treated differently than the images. But images and video images are always fully protected by the First Amendment.
7. The police’s main job in a protest is to protect your right to protest and to de-escalate any threat of violence.
8. If you get arrested, don’t say anything. Ask for a lawyer immediately. Do not sign anything and do not agree to anything without an attorney present.
9. If you get arrested, demand your right to a local phone call. If you call a lawyer for legal advice, law enforcement is not allowed to listen.
10. Police cannot delete data from your device under any circumstances.

Click on the links in this post for more information, and keep reading to stay up to date on the latest recommendations. Before you go out, take a tip from the Boy Scouts and Be Prepared!

NOTE: While we here at The Local agree resistance and agitation are necessary in the pursuit of progress, we never advocate violence. Phillyprotest.com is a fantastic resource for connecting with all kinds of meaningful, grassroots, non-violent events in our area. This streamlined site lists upcoming local actions chronologically, along with helpful info like time/location/organizer so you can literally find a movement at a glance (and then click for more information).

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