Note: These details are for information only and are not intended as an incitement to riot or break the law.
Whether apathetic or politically aware, we’ve all had assumptions about protests, and the people who attend them. The fact is, while protest is key to forcing change in the face of increasing authoritarianism from late-stage capitalism, many different kinds of people can take on various roles in protesting and while we may resist a “one size fits all” society, this ethos can be applied to protest, too. Moreover, it has to be — we have to do away with the old ways of militant state socialist and Stalinist groups who treated all members as foot soldiers to all do the same thing, all making the same sacrifices. We instead must embrace the varying vulnerabilities of each unique individual from different marginalised groups, and harness the skillsets and powers of all who want to be a part of positive social change.
In my decades of activism in different countries, at many different times I’ve adopted many of the different roles we can look at here, and I’ve made many mistakes, as well – and hopefully learned from them to offer some guidance, though I’d recommend everyone always do their own research (and laws vary in different countries). Nonetheless, here I’ll look at various roles from social media to the streets, and of course media activism’s role in all of it.
Obviously, many protests start with organising in the community, from meetings all the way through to marches, while some, like anti-raids, are more spontaneous — but all require dissemination of information to be effective. The Resources page may help with such day-to-day undertakings.
The role of artists and designers, for fliers, infographics, and banners, is crucial for the visual messaging of the protest cause itself. This imagery needs sharing, of course, so comms are crucial, too, not just in raising awareness on social media but also via messengers like Signal, as well, in also reporting on opposition strategies in real-time that can really help protesters on the streets to adapt and ready themselves for any eventualities. On the protest itself, it all depends on what you’re protesting and its threat level to those in power, and therefore how much suppression of the protest there may be by the particular nation-state, therefore participants on these actions will then vary from flagbearers who use phones and/or signs to signal when police are attacking; to barricaders who use found objects to build barricades that block opposition; fire squads who utilise traffic cones and water to suppress and extinguish teargas cannisters; medics who can treat injuries or provide materials for teargas exposure; range soldiers who throw objects at attackers; to the role of the light mage in using laser pointers to hinder surveillance cameras, drones, and other scrutiny; peaceful protesters who adhere to non-violence but join hand-in-hand with frontliners who use objects such as umbrellas to guard against projectiles and surveillance; to shield soldiers who utilise signs or woodboards to form the first line of defence. When attending a protest, be sure to contemplate what suppression you may face, and reflect on these roles you may adopt, also based on comfort levels of escalation ahead of time.
Last but not least, media activists: these are those of us who photograph, or more often film, the protests. While on this website I’ve cited numerous examples of documenting campaigns and actions; I’ve also learned a lot from this over the years, and it’s worth asking yourself why you’d be filming. Some mass movements are ignored by establishment media, so it’s often important to capture the sheer scale of such demonstrations, but this can be done from a distance. Another main (and best) reason to film protests in detail is to be there to document the state response to protest: law enforcement can behave so badly that when documented, and such imagery is disseminated online, it can shift popular opinion, but cops also simply often overreach their powers, and again footage can be crucial in holding the police to account. In fact, even just knowing they are being filmed may deter cops from certain behaviours. If they act unlawfully, video footage can serve as evidence to determine if they are abusing their power.
So when documenting protests in this way, it’s important to try and focus on the actions of the police, not the policed. Recording police abuse, threats, and orders can be very useful, as is the capturing of the police officers’ numbers (usually worn on their shoulders) as this can help identify them in the footage later on. Media activists should stay safe, and also consider the safety of those we are filming. As emotive and provocative as an incident may become, getting involved could escalate the situation, so it’s crucial to keep calm, keep distance, and remember why we’re there filming. It’s also worth considering whether livestreaming is important – as law enforcement can observe livestreams for real-time information, and we may be unwittingly helping them to repress demonstrators by livestreaming (and we cannot edit the footage before it’s seen, potentially putting some protesters at risk). In fact, not all footage always needs to be published immediately – while documenting police violence is important, being rash uploading the footage could jeopardise the safety of protesters, so whenever we decide to upload, we should try and obscure faces, tattoos, and all other identifying characteristics.
My experience on the long G20 protests saw me without camera battery power and ending up in a “kettle” for hours, with the only way out on offer via stop-and-search (hundreds complied, and in the end a steadfast twenty of us remained, still refusing, eventually outlasting the cops). Kettles can expand and contract, and so vary in intensification with different effects on different people, but are often a method of gathering data on protesters who comply on condition of release. For those filming these methods, we can ask “Under what power?” — as such kettles have often been unlawful.
Remember: Filming cops is usually legal in a public space, with no need to ask them for permission to do so. Police can’t usually confiscate our cameras unless they’re arresting us – and we should resist and report any attempts to erase our footage, and never, ever, do so voluntarily. Police may try to prevent us from filming by claiming that we’re obstructing them in their duties – but we can simply step back and continue filming, as they otherwise have no legal right to stop us. Cops may even sometimes cite terrorism laws in other attempts to prevent us from filming, but they should have “reasonable suspicion” that our footage will be used for terrorism.
All of us on protests — not just media activists — should lock our devices with alphanumeric passcodes – as law enforcement could feasibly force you to unlock with your face or fingerprint (and alphanumeric passcodes would usually require a special warrant). Leave behind jewellery, contact lenses, and generally anything you don’t want to be arrested with (though, as I found in a past court case of mine, the definition of an “offensive weapon” is very open to interpretation). Instead, take cash, some first aid supplies, earplugs, phone charger, snacks, and of course water (for hydration, but also in case of treating teargas). It’s also advisable to wear glasses/goggles, a facemask, cover identifying tattoos, as well as to opt for nondescript, solid colour, layered clothing, and – yes – write emergency contacts on your person with a Sharpie.
Every one of us has a part to play — and even on the protest, anyone can adopt the role of media activist.
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