How to Prepare Yourself for a Protest—and What to Do If You End Up in Cuffs

By Derek Burnett Aug 02, 2016

Kiandra Williams doesn’t normally participate in demonstrations, but the 25-year-old certified nursing assistant says she felt compelled to hit the streets of Baton Rouge after the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling. “This is not going to stop until somebody starts doing something,” she told herself.

Williams didn’t intend on clashing with police at the protest she joined on July 9. But standing on a grassy roadside with hundreds of other protesters, she says, she was shocked to see the man next to her suddenly tackled by officers. “Then they came for me. They told me I was under arrest. I couldn’t believe it."

Along with more than 100 others, Williams was bound with zip-ties, loaded onto a bus and transported to jail. She spent five days there, thanks to an outstanding ticket that complicated her case.

Oren Nimni, a Boston civil rights attorney with Law for Black Lives, says arrests are standard at demonstrations against racialized violence. “You’re probably more likely to get arrested at a police reform action than you would have been at an Occupy rally a few years ago,” he says. “These protests are challenging police on their home turf, and there’s been an evaluation that these protesters are dangerous. It’s the same mix of fear and racism that leads to increased stop and frisk.”

Against that backdrop, here are some tips for inexperienced protesters to avoid arrest at demonstrations against police violence—and what to do if you end up in jail.

Do a gut check
Often, the people you see getting arrested at rallies are hard-core activists engaging in civil disobedience with the expectation that they’ll spend a night or two in jail. But as Williams’ case shows, no one is immune. Before you go to a protest:

  • Carefully consider whether marching is the best way for you to fight. The consequences of an arrest can be more acute if you have an outstanding warrant or you suffer a severe medical condition, especially one that requires medication. People who are undocumented, homeless or under 18 are also at particular risk.
  • Remember that implicit bias can inform whom police choose to arrest. Of course protesters of any race or ethnicity can be detained, but Nimni says Black people are most vulnerable. “Officers are trying to analyze which protesters pose the most danger or will be the least compliant,” he says. “Recent looks into implicit bias are pretty clear that police more readily think these things about Black people rather than White. So at a minimum, you have implicit bias.” After conducting a 17-day fact finding mission that covered 10 cities across the United States, U.N. Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai concluded that "assemblies organized by African Americans are managed differently, with these protests often met with disproportionate force."
  • Research how authorities treat people protesting racialized police violence in your city or town. Often police departments have overtly stated policies—and track records—for handling large demonstrations.
  • Contact the organization staging the action to find out if they’ve obtained a permit. Arrests are more likely to occur at smaller, non-permitted events.
  • Find out if there will be legal observers in the crowd. Organizations such as the ACLU send staff members wearing conspicuously colored clothing to major rallies.

Get prepared
If you get arrested, things will go much more smoothly if you have taken these steps before leaving the house:

  • Bring someone with you. It’s a mistake to enter a volatile environment like a protest by yourself. 
  • Make sure someone knows where you’re going. Ideally, that person is willing to accept a potentially exorbitant collect call from you and put up hundreds of dollars to bail you out.
  • Write two phone numbers, in indelible marker, on your skin (not in your phone, which will be confiscated): The person you’d call to bail you out, plus the number of a lawyer. According to Law for Black Lives [PDF], local chapters of the National Lawyers Guild, National Conference for Black Lawyers, ACLU and NAACP are the best places to start when looking for an attorney.
  • Make sure the people you’re with know the first and last name you have on your ID. If you get separated from your crew, a nickname won’t do them much good when they call police stations and hospitals looking for you. 

If police take you into custody, follow these steps
Being detained or arrested is stressful and frightening, especially for people who don’t usually participate in protests. Follow these steps for an encounter with police:

  • Step One: Do not resist. Doing anything that makes arresting you more difficult—including going limp—will backfire.
  • Step Two: If there are legal observers at the demonstration, yell out your name. When they hear your name, observers will log your arrest.
  • Step Three: On TV, arrestees are immediately read their Miranda rights, but that almost never happens in real life. (And no, an officer’s failure to do so is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.) If police are holding you, ask two questions, in this order: “Am I free to go?” If the answer is “yes,” go. If the answer is “no,” ask, “Am I under arrest?” If the answer is “yes,” don’t say anything else except, “Can I speak to an attorney?”
  • Step Four: Ask for an attorney. Ask it when it appears nobody is listening. Ask it until it comes true. But don’t say anything else.

What (generally) happens next

  • Your wrists will probably be painfully zip-tied, you’ll be loaded onto a wagon and taken someplace crowded and nasty.
  • Police will confiscate your phone and other belongings. You’ll wait forever to use a phone. When you do, deploy those numbers you scrawled on your skin.
  • You’ll probably spend at least one night in jail.
  • You’ll be charged with something like disturbing the peace, obstructing a roadway or trespassing. After what feels like an eternity, you’ll go before a judge for a probable cause hearing. The judge will release you on your own recognizance or set bail. Generally, it will be between $250 to $1,000, but it could be much more. (See the companion piece “Arresting Development” for more information.)
  • You’ll be free to go after you pay your bail, but you’ll have to show up for your court date somewhere down the line.

The bottom line
As tensions rise and police forces come to look more and more like armies, taking to the street to make your voice heard can seem daunting. But while acknowledging the risks, Jason Williamson, an attorney with the ACLU, urges perspective. “Anyone thinking about getting involved should not allow the mistakes and lack of judgment of some police officers to chill their First Amendment rights,” he says. “We can’t live our lives on the sidelines, especially in moments like this.”

Williams agrees. “We got arrested for absolutely nothing,” she says of the July 9 protest in Baton Rouge, “but I’m not going to let this stop me. You’ve got stand for something.”

Derek Burnett is a freelance journalist and novelist. He writes frequently about national affairs for Reader’s Digest and other publications. His work has been honored by the National Press Club and Western Fictioneers.