OPSEC for Activists, Part 2: Packing for a Protest

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Many protests are impromptu affairs, and you don’t always have prior knowledge that one is going to happen. In some cases, you may not have time to pack a bag beforehand, and even when you do have time, you’re not always thinking clearly. For these reasons (and more!) I recommend buying a cheap backpack (if you can), and using it as a dedicated protest “go kit.”

My own grab-and-go kit is what I refer to as a “clean bag.” This is because as important as it is to bring the things you need, it is even more important to make sure you’re not bringing anything that could endanger you or your peers, or result in serious criminal charges being brought against you in the event of an arrest and search of your possessions. Packing a “clean bag” not only means that I make sure I’m not bringing anything to a protest I don’t want to be caught holding, but actually that even when I’m NOT attending a protest, nothing contentious ever goes into that bag.

Things to AVOID bringing:
As I said before, what you bring is secondary in importance ONLY to what you make sure you do not bring. These are things I make sure don’t go into my clean bag EVER:

  • Anything sharp: no knives, no scissors (I carry a pair of trauma shears instead), nothing pointy at all.
  • No weapons: don’t bring baseball bats, brass knuckles, those little cat keychains, or anything else considered to be a weapon, if you can possibly avoid it.
  • No “burglary tools“: lockpicks, hammers, wrenches, etc.
  • Nothing explosive: No matches, no flares, etc. Being caught somewhere you’re not supposed to be, carrying “incendiary devices” is pretty much never a good thing.
  • No alcohol: It may seem silly to mention, but don’t bring booze to a protest. At best, you get popped for public intoxication; at worst, you get accused of trying to make incendiary devices. It’s not worth it.
  • No drugs: Don’t bring any illegal drugs at all (even weed, even where decriminalized), and never bring more than 3 days worth of prescription medication with you. If you are bringing your prescription, make sure it is in its original packaging, complete with your legal name and dosing information on the bottle.
  • No paint, spray paint, etc.: Getting caught with paint supplies during a protest where any kind of vandalism may be taking place tends to look real bad. I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I am going to say “don’t get caught with paint.”
  • Oil-based makeup, lotion, and/or sunblock: Oil-based products can cause chemical agents like pepper spray and tear gas to stick to your skin, intensifying their effects. If you’re not sure whether or not your sunblock is oil-based, you’re far better off covering up in light clothing and skipping the sunblock altogether.
  • Contact lenses: as oil-based sunblock can cause chemical agents to stick to your skin, contact lenses can trap pepper spray and/or tear gas against your corneas, potentially resulting in permanent blindness.

    As an added precaution, it is generally best to make sure that anything essential that you do bring (medication, ID, house keys, phone) stays on your immediate person rather than being put into your bag, as arrest is always a possibility, and sometimes you will be separated from your bag (or may need to abandon it to make a hasty getaway), and you want to make sure you can still take your meds and get into your house.

    So what should actually go into your bag? All kinds of things

    The Essentials:

    If you’re planning on attending a protest, the following items are bare essentials you should bring along, in order to sustain you and keep you from being reliant on the people around you (who may or may not actually be prepared to assist anyone), and to mitigate some negative outcomes which may arise. Some of them may not seem necessary, but a majority of what seems excessive weighs next to nothing and will make a huge difference in the event of arrest or injury.

  • Water: And I’m not talking a little 16.9 oz bottle, either. Water is heavy, water is important, and if you can carry a gallon of it in your pack to cover yourself and someone who may not be able to carry their own, you’re not just shouldering your burden, you’re taking care of others around you and alleviating the work load of organizers and medics.
  • Snacks: Hanger (that’s hunger, plus anger) is real. Hanger is the mindkiller. Hanger is the little-death that brings total obliteration. You must feed your hanger. Let it pass over and through you, and when it has gone, you will know you were right to bring those snacks. Being hungry can take a bad situation, and make it worse. Making sure to keep your blood sugar at reasonable levels can make all the difference at a protest. You’re putting your body on the line for a cause, that body needs to be fueled!
  • Your ID: Plenty of people will argue with me on this one, but the fact is that if you are going to get arrested, having your ID on you may be the difference between being cited and released, and being held in custody.  You probably don’t need to bring your entire wallet, but it is almost always worth grabbing your ID and sticking it in your pocket (not your bag) on your way out the door.
  • Prescription medication: If you are on prescription drugs of any kind, and missing a dose is going to be a problem, do yourself a favor and bring along 3 days worth of your medicine *IN ITS ORIGINAL PACKAGING*. Make sure the packaging has the dosing information and your legal name on it, and make sure to keep it on your person (again, in a pocket, not in your bag.)
  • Emergency cash: You never know at what point you may need to beat a hasty exit. Bringing emergency cash can enable you to hop onto public transportation, dive into a taxi, or wander into a coffee shop to buy a latte and blend in with the rest of their clientele. You don’t need to bring much, but it’s always worth it to have a little cash on hand.
  • Comfortable shoes, and clothing you can move in easily: You never know how long you’ll be out, and you also never know how quickly you’ll need to get away. It may also be a good idea to pack a small change of clothes in your bag, for a variety of reasons. For one, if you need to get away, ducking into a restroom and swapping out your clothes can help you disguise yourself. Additionally, if you’re exposed to chemical agents like tear gas or pepper spray, you may want to change outside and put your clothes into a seal-able plastic bag before bringing them into your home.
  • Emergency information: write crucial phone numbers (legal hotline, the co-worker who may need to cover your shift, the housemate who might have to feed the cat or walk the dog, a friend who might be able to bail you out, the babysitter who may need to stay late) on your arm, in permanent marker. Other things you may want to write on your arm include allergies, medical conditions that first responders should know about, etc. Arrest and injury are always possibilities at pretty much any protest, and permanent marker on skin is the best way to make sure that you never get separated from your emergency information.

    Additionally, in the event that emergency medical attention is needed, and you cannot advocate for yourself, having that information on your body can be extremely helpful.

    Non-essentials:

    There are some things which, while not entirely necessary, may well be of use if you’re planning on attending a protest. A majority of these items are geared towards helping you and the people around you, and are generally intended to extend the length of time you may be able to stay out in the streets.

  • A first aid kit: Specifically and especially gauze, duct tape, ice packs, ACE bandages, and extra water. Even if you don’t know how to treat injuries, carrying extra supplies is useful if you’re up for it.
  • A mask: Even if you intend to be the most peaceful protester who ever lived, there are still a million excellent reasons why you may not want to have your face associated with a demonstration, and any demonstration can change in a matter of moments. Additionally, in the event of tear gas, a dampened bandanna is better protection for your lungs than nothing at all. (Isn’t it a good thing you’re also carrying extra water?)
  • A notebook (and pen!): Jot down police officer names, street names, and times when you see shitty things happening. If you see someone being arrested, take notes on what you’re seeing, and be sure to share your notes with any legal organizations doing protester support work.
  • A camera: Read this, and then go out with your camera and start recording cops doing terrible things. Make sure to also read this before doing anything with your photos/videos.
  • A gas mask or respirator: You probably won’t need one. In most cases, even if tear gas has been deployed, as long as you’re not running into it, you are probably fine just covering your mouth and leaving the immediate area. However, if you have respiratory issues, do not intend to leave a tear gas-filled area, and/or intend to walk into tear gas, you may want either a gas mask or a respirator and goggles.
  • Liquid antacid and water: Because tear gas and pepper spray are both acids, it can be extremely useful to carry a mixture of liquid antacid and water in a spray bottle to apply to affected areas. Make sure to use unflavored antacids, as the peppermint-flavored ones often burn a bit when applied to the eyes. Milk of magnesia is generally a best bet, as it’s got a higher concentration of magnesium hydroxide (the antacid ingredient) than do most liquid antacids, and it also doesn’t contain the same additives as others. A 50-50 mix of liquid antacid and water is considered ideal.
  • Rescue remedy: Yeah, it’s hippie as shit, but it makes some people feel calm, and it’s unlikely to hurt anyone or anything.

There are plenty of other things you may or may not want to bring with you, depending on the role you intend to play at a demonstration, but it’s most important to consider what the negative ramifications of being caught with those items may be, and also important to leave anything that can’t be replaced at home. If you’re planning on bringing any of the items outlined in the first part of this guide, make sure they’re in a separate bag, which can be easily discarded if things are beginning to look like they may lead to arrests, and try to be conscious of what traces of yourself you may be leaving behind if and when you do drop that bag.

Protests are not safe spaces, and regardless of what any organizer may tell you, the risk of police brutality and/or arrest is always there. Planning accordingly can be the difference between a cite-and-release and a felony, and can also be the difference between going home or going to the hospital. This does not mean that you should stay home, it just means that proper preparation gives you and everyone around you your best chance at creating the change you want to see in the world. For more information about how to keep yourself safe before, during, and after an action, read this.

Eternal gratitude to @geminiimatt for reading this prior to release.

Published by

Elle Armageddon

Elle Armageddon is a Bay Area-born feminist, activist, blogger, glitter enthusiast, and smartass. In addition to writing, furiously tweeting, and mucking around with a chemistry set that looks suspiciously like a bar, you can also find her providing medical and legal support for protesters, babysitting her niblings, and climbing things at her local gym. If you'd like to support her writing, you may do so at https://patreon.com/armageddon She can also be found on Twitter: @OaklandElle

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