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Stay safe as an activist

As a UK citizen, you have a right to free speech and peaceful protest under the Human Rights Act 1998, and as part of the European Convention of Human Rights. This means you can speak freely and join with others to peacefully express your opinions and beliefs - whatever they may be.

Taking part and and attending protests and marches is a cornerstone of democracy. In a democratic society, you should always be able to oppose governments and the decisions they make about the country you live in.

Protests happen across the world, under differing levels of security and government legislation. In some countries it is dangerous to protest. Make sure you know what is legal and illegal in the country you live in, and work within these parameters to stay safe.

As an activist, always look after your own health and safety first and foremost. Arm yourself with knowledge on what the police, civilians and authorities can and can’t do, and if you feel in danger stop. You can always raise your issues at a later, safer time.

Throughout this article you will find links to organisations that provide comprehensive advice on your right to protest. If you are planning on attending an event, this information can prove invaluable.

Before you attend a protest

Always do some background research on the people, group, or organisation running a protest or march, as well as on the subject they are protesting against. Ensure the views the protest stands for echo your own, and that the protest group have a good history of peaceful protest. If they are known for becoming violent or committing criminal damage, seriously consider whether you want to be involved in something that could potentially turn out badly.

What to wear and pack

Protests and marches can last a long time, and involve a lot of walking. Wear clothing that is weather appropriate - perhaps pack a jumper or rain mac - and comfortable footwear. It is a good idea to carry a backpack stocked with high-energy food and water.

Keep in contact

Keep your phone charged and make sure that at least one of your friends or family know where you are. Keep a list of emergency phone numbers in your bag or pocket in case you lose your phone, or run out of power. Know who to contact in an emergency, and the details of the area you are in, especially if you have travelled a long way to attend a protest. Bear in mind that your communications may be monitored - using encrypted messaging can help make your communication more secure. Make sure you have access to means of communication that is not reliant on your mobile.

Police powers

In the UK, a police officer can stop you and ask what you’re doing, why you’re in a specific area, or where you are going. You do not have to answer these questions.

A police officer can only stop and search you if they have reasonable grounds to suspect you are carrying drugs, weapons, stolen goods, or an item that could be used to commit a crime.

Find more on police stop and search powers here.

Green and Black Cross provide legal advice and support for protesters. The website has a wealth of resources on the law and your rights. Read up on them here. They also provide a handy card that you can print off to remind yourself of your rights, which can be useful if you are under pressure.

Taking a photo/video

You have the right and freedom to record or photograph whatever you want in public places - including incidents and police personnel. The police have no power to stop you, unless they have a reasonable suspicion that you are a terrorist or are taking photographs to aid an act of terrorism.

They may look at images on your device for these purposes, but it is never legal for them to delete them or force you to delete them. All of this is made clear in Sections 43 and 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

Watch more about it here.

Of course, if you feel in danger, use common sense and stop filming.

Violence

Peaceful protesting should be just that. Peaceful. Know what is and isn’t acceptable, and what to expect from others at a protest or event.

  • It is illegal to use violence, or cause someone to think you are going to use violence against them. It will be treated as a criminal offence if you, or anybody else, does so.
  • You must not prevent a police officer from carrying out their duty, for example arresting or searching someone. Assaulting or causing harm to an on-duty officer is also an offence.
  • You must not commit criminal damage during a protest or march. Something that may seem insignificant, such as spitting at an officer’s jacket, can be classed as criminal damage. Keep your senses about you, no matter how passionate you may feel.
  • Being threatening or abusive is also not acceptable and is treated as an offence. Although this may not cause physical harm, it could cause alarm or distress.

First aid

It’s always good to have a basic knowledge of first aid. If you plan on attending marches and protests then it’s a skill that could prove vital. You can read up on what to do in emergency situations here or organise to attend a first aid course by the St John Ambulance.

Other useful reading:

https://greenandblackcross.org/guides/key-advice/

https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/sites/default/files/Liberty%20rights%20document%20A5%2020pp%20FINAL%20web.pdf

https://www.gov.uk/protests-and-marches-letting-the-police-know

https://right-to-protest.org/protect-your-protest/

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