Five things to consider before participating in a protest

Seven years ago this month, I moved to the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. I didn’t expect to like it. It didn’t take long, however, before I was enthralled with the region’s history. From the Native Americans who have lived here since before colonization, to the first settlers of Jamestown, right through to the Civil Right Movement and beyond, I became fascinated with the stories, events, and ethos that make Richmond what it is today. Richmond is literally swarming with history. But, it’s the Civil War history that dominates the culture here.

Black Lives Matter protest
Richmond Black Lives Matter Rally and March, Nov. 25, 2014

From massive monuments to Confederate military leaders, Sons of Confederate Veterans recruiting signs, and weekly protest by “the flaggers” who are upset that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts removed the battle flag from the Confederate chapel, it’s hard to avoid the reality that the Civil War is not over here. Indeed, it has devolved into a 150 year-old cold war that ebbs and flows depending on who’s feeling empowered at any given moment.

It’s no wonder, then, that those who claim allegiance to the Confederacy as an expression of Southern heritage would find Richmond an attractive gathering place to assert their beliefs. In fact, we expect that representatives from CSA II: The New Confederate States of America will converge on Richmond this coming Saturday, September 16, and, although, no one seems to know for sure, it’s probable that other pro-Confederacy, white supremacists, neo-Nazis groups will join them.

It’s up to those of us who are committed to fulfilling Martin Luther King, Jr. vision of Beloved Community to be accountable to this vision by showing up and making it clear that hate, racism, and discrimination will not be tolerated here any longer.

And yet, I know many people have never participated in a protest before. They saw the videos and heard the stories from the August 12th Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and are scared about what might happen. I was in Charlottesville that day and, although I’m a veteran activist, I can attest it was terrifying. Figuring out who was who, from the white supremacists and neo-Nazis, to the militia and Antifa, to the non-violence protesters and supporters, confounded even the most seasoned among us.

So how do those who are less experienced, who want to oppose hate, but who don’t know what to expect and are terrified of what might happen, find their place in answering the call of love?

As you evaluate your place in Richmond this weekend or wherever or whenever you decide you need to be part of a movement that aligns with your beliefs, the following five questions (and the related sub questions), organized and curated by Wendy DeGroat, will help guide what action is best suited to your personality and your goals:


  • What is the goal/message/purpose of this protest? Read up on the protest and make sure you understand what is being protested and the context(s) within which it is being protested.
  • Why do you want to participate? Reflect on your motivation. Do you feel strongly about the issue(s)? Do you believe protest is an effective way to raise awareness of the issue(s)? What other personal actions (e.g., donations, letter-writing) contribute to your commitment to influence change on the issue(s)?
  • If you are considering participation in a protest organized by an historically-marginalized group and you are not a member of that group, have the organizers asked for allies to join them, and if so, what role(s) are they asking allies to play? If allies are invited, are you comfortable serving in the role(s) expected? If those roles aren’t clear ahead of time, are you willing to take directions from the protest leaders if you attend?
2009 National Equality March
2009 National LGBT Equality March, Washington, DC


  • Who is organizing the protest? If a group is organizing it, what is the group’s larger message/purpose? As a protester, you’ll be supporting the message of the protest as well as the message/purpose of the organizing group(s). Are you comfortable with both? If so, and you have the means to do so, have you made a financial contribution to the organizing group(s) as well?
  • Who will be your protest buddy? Who is someone you trust who will go with you to the protest? It is safer to go to a protest with a buddy/group than alone.


  • Where is the protest being held? Consider what the location suggests about expected conflict.
  • Will the protest be on public or private property? This can impact your rights as a protester.
  • Does the organizing group have a permit, and if so, what are the permit’s parameters? Knowing these parameters can improve your planning and your ability to steer clear of trouble.


  • What kind of action(s) are planned? Are the protest organizers committed to non-violence? Are groups who advocate violence likely to show up as well? Is an act of civil disobedience planned? Know what’s anticipated and decide ahead of time what you’re comfortable with. If you choose to participate in civil disobedience, make sure you can attend any training the organizers offer in relation to that action.
  • What level of conflict is anticipated? Prepare accordingly (see Beginner’s Guide from Seattle Weekly), paying attention to any regulations about prohibited items and/or rules about signs, backpacks, etc.
  • What role(s) could you fill? Other than being on the front lines, there are often support roles that can enhance the protest’s effectiveness and the safety and wellbeing of participants and their loved ones.
2017 Women's March on Washington
2017 Women’s March on Washington


  • How prepared are you to be on the front lines of the protest and/or engage in civil disobedience?
    • Reflect deeply on what to expect and anticipate how you’re likely to react.
      • What is your level of physical, mental, and emotional readiness? Consider that protesters who are arrested and have medical or other needs may be put in isolation when in custody.
      • How do you handle loud, chaotic environments? Are you comfortable with uncertainty?
      • How do you respond to taunts, threats, hateful or degrading comments, or being spit on?
      • How will you likely respond if you witness violence or become a target of violence?
      • Consider how discrimination and/or implicit bias may influence how you are treated.
      • If you have a child with you, keep in mind that minors are processed separately by police.
    • Know your rights (as a protester; if rights violated) & PREPARE! (taking photos; tips from Colorlines)
    • If possible, attend a formal training session in your area about engaging in non-violent protest
    • Research possible ramifications of participation or arrest on your job, scholarship eligibility, and other statuses by checking policies about neutrality, conflict of interest, etc.
  • How can you BEST support the protest? In addition to being on the front lines, there are many ways to support a protest. Talk with the organizers and choose a role that leverages your strengths and the level of risk you’re willing to assume.
SB 1070 Protest, Phoenix AZ
SB 1070 Protest, Phoenix AZ, July 29, 2010

By carefully considering these questions before you find yourself participating in a protest, not only will you feel more confident in your decision, you will be a stronger, more reliable contributor to the overall effort.

The key is to believe in what you’re doing, engage in whatever level of risk you can reasonably handle, and push yourself to do just a little more each time. As you become a more experienced protester, you will find more ways to challenge the things you want to change, and one day, you might even find yourself organizing a protest of your own.