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Tips for protest safety during the pandemic

Are you considering attending one of the ongoing protests against racial injustice? OpenMedia has put together tips on doing so as safely and securely as you can.

As protests against racial injustice are on the rise in Canada, the US, and around the globe, we wanted to take a moment to talk to our community about how to protest safely in a time of pandemic and growing police aggression towards protesters. 

At OpenMedia, we see the right to protest as a fundamental freedom that helps protect all of our other rights, online and off. We’re deeply concerned by the rapid escalation of unlawful attacks on peaceful protests, and the over 125 attacks on the press in the US over the last few days. For decades we’ve seen the growing militarization of the police in many states, the fruits of which now seem to be coming due in repeated incidents of inappropriately aggressive use of force.

Let’s be clear: persistent racism and racially unequal policing are documented facts of life in both the US and Canada, not a political position. The families of George Floyd, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and many other people of colour who have been killed or beaten in racialized incidents in recent years deserve a full, independent investigation, and justice. And we as a society also carry responsibility for making deeper changes to the justice systems that have persistently enabled these incidents to occur.

As such, OpenMedia supports the many people who are peacefully protesting across North America, and call on authorities to investigate and appropriately punish incidents of police brutality and excess during the protests. We hope that one outcome of this moment will be more serious commitments by authorities to making systemic changes that will address the valid concerns many protestors are highlighting.

If you are considering participating in a protest, we have put together some tips to do so as safely and securely as possible. But we want to note — there is always some risk. So please, pay attention to your surroundings and stay safe! 

Before heading out to a protest, here are some best practices to consider: 

Phone security

The safest way to protect your personal data during a protest is to not bring your phone at all. 

However, you may want to bring it with you to stay in touch with other protestors, record your protest, and provide some safety and accountability for the people around you. If you are bringing your device, consider:

  • Removing your biometric (finger or face) login: Practically, it is much easier for police to force you to unlock a device with biometric login enabled.
  • Record footage without unlocking the device: it is possible to take pictures and video without unlocking your phone on recent versions of iOS and Android by double tapping your power button or swiping the camera icon visible on your unlock screen. 
  • Encrypt your communication: Send messages about your plans via an encrypted platform like Signal - and consider setting a timer on your messages, so they disappear after a set period of time;
  • Remove apps and email clients that contain sensitive personal data from your phone before attending a protest;
  • Turn off your location services during the protest, so your phone will be less  trackable by cell tower triangulation - but note, this will disable your GPS;
  • Using airplane mode will provide the best possible protection from tracking during a protest – but does mean doing without GPS, texting or uploading data until you re-enable it.

Pandemic & physical safety

Yes, we are still living in a pandemic – which only complicates safety measures even further. While the COVID-19 epidemic has slowed in some areas more than others, it remains a threat and we know physical safety is still a concern. In addition to maintaining physical distance from others, here are a few tips from the New York department of health on how to stay safe:

  • Wearing a facial mask to reduce droplet transmission;
  • Using hand sanitizer;
  • Using signs and noise makers rather than yelling, to reduce droplets;
  • Sticking to a small group, and staying 6 feet from other groups;

If you’re concerned that tear gas or rubber bullets may be used against your group, wearing industrial-strength eye protection can protect your eyes from injury or blindness from bullets, and having bottles of water on hand can be useful to wash out teared up eyes, as well as staying hydrated.

Know your rights

The ACLU and CCLA have each prepared briefs on your rights as a protestor in the US and Canada, respectively, which explain where you are allowed to protest, your right to photograph and record what goes on in public spaces, and what to do if you are arrested. 

Unfortunately, in the current environment you cannot assume that your legal rights will be recognized and respected; be mindful of the apparent attitude of police on the scene, and take care of yourself and those around you first.

Avoid spreading misinformation

False reports and conspiracy theories are running wild online during the protests, as trolls, provocateurs and grifters try to take advantage of our fear and concern over the situation. 

Try to share reports from people and news sources you know and trust –and when in doubt, consider googling a story headline or reverse image searching a provocative image before sharing it forward, to make sure it is authentic and from the current moment.

Use your judgment

Protests can be incredibly empowering. But the past week has also shown they can involve real personal risk, especially when in a heightened state of tensions – and a growing number of street protestors are being tracked, surveilled, attacked, and mistreated.  Above all else, use your common sense, read your local environment, and exercise your best judgment to decide what protest options are right for you. There are many alternate ways to register dissent, from online petitions, to calling your local representatives, to participating in local politics, and of course – using your vote.