If You’re Planning to Protest, Come Prepared: Lessons from Sunday Night’s Demonstration

Smashed+window+and+protest+sign+at+Sunday+night%27s+protest+in+Boston

Smashed window and protest sign at Sunday night's protest in Boston

Katherine Hamilton, Editor-in-Chief

On Sunday, May 31, I participated in two protests in Worcester and Boston in honor of George Floyd and in solidarity of racial justice. Both demonstrations started the same way – a peaceful group chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace.” However, in Boston, things turned violent in the evening as police began barricading streets and releasing tear gas and pepper spray into the crowds.

Going into this protest, I was not nearly as prepared as I should have been. I wasn’t ready to face the terror of running from the police. I didn’t have enough supplies to help people who were tear-gassed and pepper sprayed.

Had I been more prepared physically and mentally, I could have been a much stronger ally and kept more fellow protesters safe. If you are considering attending a protest, especially as a white ally, please consider this article as a way to equip yourself to be a more supportive, helpful, and effective protester.

I arrived in Boston with four other friends a little before 9pm and joined a massive group of protesters standing in front of the Boston State House. The enormous group, dressed in black and wearing face masks, sprawled across Boston Common. Everyone was extremely calm and the demonstration was completely peaceful.

We had shut off our phones and disabled location and fingerprint/facial recognition because law enforcement has been using this data to track protesters.

Soon after we arrived, the crowd started moving and we overheard that the group was headed for City Hall.

Two of my friends had attended Friday night’s demonstration in Boston, where they had been tear-gassed and hit with a wooden baton by a police officer. As we headed toward City Hall, I realized things were about to get more violent.

Protect yourself and others from pepper spray and tear gas

On our way to City Hall, the police quickly created a barricade by lining up and blocking our way to City Hall. People around us grew frustrated that the street was unnecessarily blocked, but most people remained calm and stood in front of the line of cops.

Suddenly, there were sprays of mace and my friend ran to me with red eyes. We used the spray bottle with water and baking soda to help her eyes, and I gave her a pair of safety goggles.

I found that the best way to be prepared was to bring supplies to help people. Expect to be pepper sprayed, tear-gassed, or hit with batons, and be able to help others in this situation. My group had water mixed with baking soda in a spray bottle, which helped stop the burning from mace, but I wished we had brought much more.

We also brought protective goggles and face masks, but I wished we had more of those, too, for people who didn’t have them. Bring as many of these as you can and stand in front of people who don’t have the same protective gear as you.

Once everyone had regrouped, we kept moving back toward the police barricade to try to push on toward City Hall.

Remain calm and remind others to do the same

I didn’t get far before someone shouted “Run!” and I took my friend’s hand and sprinted as fast as I could up the street away from the police. We got separated from our other three friends who remained at the frontline. I had no idea what was going on or why we were told to run, but I didn’t want to risk it.

As the night pressed on, I learned that when people around you start running, it’s better to walk quickly and calmly around the edge of the crowd to avoid trampling or getting trampled. Find a safe alcove and help others squeeze in with you. Remind people around you not to run or panic.

Prepare to be separated. Know the area.

My friend and I walked through the streets of downtown Boston, searching for the rest of our group. I had to turn my phone back on to look at maps and call our friends. A lot of people around us were doing the same.

Before getting in this situation, you should have a pre-planned meeting spot away from the protests where you can meet your friends at the end of the night if you get separated. Consider screenshotting or printing a map of the surrounding area beforehand. If you get lost, are trying to find where you parked, or if others are asking you for directions, you can help out without turning on your phone location and risking getting tracked.

More and more police barricades appeared, blocking us in to one street and making it difficult for us to reach the rest of our group. The barricades would spray mace and charge at the protesters, causing everyone to run in the other direction.

At one point, we ran down into an alley with three other folks and got trapped behind the line of police. I tried to help a man who had been pepper sprayed by pouring water into his hands, but this was another instance where I wished I had more spray bottles with baking soda.

If you’re white, use your privilege to protect non-white protesters

As I was helping him, two officers came down the alleyway with their large wooden batons. I felt trapped and terrified with no way out of the alley except past the police officers. We made it out, but we quickly dispersed, and it would have been wiser for my friend and I to stay with the other people in the alley to make sure they remained safe from the officers.

If you’re in an unsafe situation with Black people or people of color, make sure they are safe first. When faced with a cop, make sure those people get out of the situation first. As a white person, you’re much less likely to experience police force and brutality.

Later into the night, we began to see more looting – shattered storefront windows, graffiti saying “BLM” and “ACAB,” and large flowerpots and garbage cans tipped into the streets. A cop car had been set on fire.

Have a sure-fire escape route

By 10:30pm, the streets were quickly emptying. There were more and more police and fewer protestors. My friend and I returned to Boston Common, where we started the night, and saw an enormous troop of officers marching down Beacon Street, followed by about ten people clad in Camouflage and carrying enormous rifles. Our other friends were still down the street and I called one of them to warn of the huge number of troops coming their way.

My friend and I decided to meet our group at the car, but we struggled to get out of the area because so many streets were blocked by police.

We heard later that the subway had been shut down and many people who were trying to make it safely home were trapped in the highly policed zone. If you live outside of Boston, it is definitely better to drive if you can. It’s important to park away from the protest and avoid garages and parking lots where police might be prepared to intercept protesters who are trying to leave.

Luckily, we were able to find our friends and safely make it back to our car. Three of my friends had been tear-gassed and pepper sprayed, and two of them had been hit by officers while trying to help a woman who was knocked unconscious.

The level of police force in these protests is terrifying, but if you have the privilege and ability to attend them, it is vital to show up and demonstrate your resistance. The more prepared you are, the more effectively you can do this. Peaceful demonstrations in Worcester, Boston, and other surrounding cities are happening daily.

What to bring:

  1. Face mask for Covid-19 reasons. The more industrial the better since it will also help protect your throat from tear gas. Some people were wearing full gas masks.
  2. Goggles. You can pick these up at a hardware store for $5 or less. Buy as many as you can afford and hand them out to people. They are a HUGE help in the face of mass pepper spraying.
  3. Spray bottles with water and baking soda. Best cure for pepper sprayed eyes. This is a huge one for helping people and yourself. Milk is less effective and can cause eye infections.
  4. Water to drink – bring A LOT. It will help when smoke and tear gas get caught in your throat.
  5. Layers, long sleeves, try to cover as much of your skin as possible to protect from tear gas. When you get back to your car, take off your outer layers and wash them as soon as you get home. Take a cold shower when you get home to wash any remaining residue from your skin.
  6. Sneakers you can walk quickly in and stand for long periods.
  7. First aid in case people fall, get hit, etc.
  8. Bring a phone for emergencies, but keep it turned off most of the time. Don’t take photos or videos of protesters and DON’T post them because police can use them to identify protesters.