A guide to your first protest

CW: Police brutality
So, you’ve decided to flex your right to protest and are going to your very first march, demo, or other direct action. Great! More people should be politically active and in these trying times, every activist counts. Chances are, you’ll have a good time, will meet other politically-engaged people and can feel proud that you took a stand and fought for something you believe in.
It’s good to be prepared. I’m not an experienced activist by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m lucky enough to know some protest veterans and I’ve been cobbling together information so that I can share it with other newbies. In addition to reading this article and other information available on the web, I highly recommend attending a Green and Black Cross workshop. I went to one of their workshops (they’re free, so there’s no excuse not to) at the Protest, Policing and Civil Rights event held at SOAS Student Union a few days ago, and it was well worth it. The workshops go into more detail than I’m sketching out below, and going through the information with real life people will help you to retain the information and give you the opportunity to ask questions. The Green and Black Cross are brilliant at giving protesters information and support – please check out their website.

Just to note – please don’t let any of the legal information below put you off protesting. It’s likely that all will go smoothly, and nobody should be arrested or harmed during a protest. All of this is a ‘just in case’ or a ‘it’s better to be safe than sorry’ type of thing. You have the right to protest and you should feel comfortable doing so.
Another note is that the best way to avoid any trouble at an event is to use common sense. In the same way that you’d avoid anyone clearly looking for a fight if they passed you in the street, you can similarly spot trouble at a protest. If people are shouting abusive messages, seem intoxicated, are shoving those around them, etc just stay as far away from them as you can. There’s always the odd bad apple anywhere (you’ll find at least three in pretty much every pub come a Friday night) and it’s easy enough to spot them.
Banners and signs
Prior to your protest, you’ll probably want to make a banner or sign. Sometimes there’ll be a banner-making event for the protest – if not, you can set one up yourself or go it alone (a box of wine, some paints and a stack of card – you’ll have a great time).
A few tips:
  • The cheapest and easiest material for a banner is probably a bed sheet. Get one off Ebay or from a charity shop for a bargain. I’d probably go for at least a double.
  • Make sure you cut some holes or slits in your banner. Otherwise, if it gets windy you’ll find yourself carrying a sail, which will make marching very difficult. You can put the holes in the gaps in your letting, e.g. in the middle of your ‘O’s or ‘A’s.
  • Be careful when choosing the kind of sticks you hold your banner and signs up with. The police will seize your protest props if they can claim they’re ‘weapons’. A good place to find appropriate ‘sticks’ is in a fabric store – they should let you have the tubes which go inside rolls of fabric for free. They’re stronger than wrapping paper tubes but won’t count as weapons.
  • If you want your banner to look super fancy, use a projector to project your design onto it before painting over the lines.

As well as taking a banner or sign, you might want to think of some protest chants. You could also bring an effigy or an inflatable instead – go nuts!

What to take on the day
  • Wear comfortable clothes and most importantly, comfortable shoes. You’ll be walking for a few hours at least, and if things kick off, you want to be able to get away to safety. Think about the weather – even if it looks to be a pleasant day, it would be worth packing a jumper, leggings, a hat, etc in your backpack (your backpack should be comfortable and not too heavy) in case you get stuck outside for later than you think, i.e. if you get kettled.
  • Take sunscreen. Just do it. You might want a hat that will shield your face from the sun, too.
  • Take a bottle of water and some snacks, plus any medication you might need (painkillers if you tend to get headaches, an asthma pump, hayfever medicine etc).
  • Take a book. If worst comes to the absolute worst and you end up in a cell, you’ll appreciate it.
  • Take a bustcard if you can get hold of one or can print one out, or if not, write the contact details for a good protest-experienced solicitor on your arm.
  • Take a map or download a map app, like Citymapper. Plan your exit route – if it’s mega-busy, then they shut strategic tube stations. I don’t know why, as you’d think they would just want people to go home, but the last thing you want to do after a march is go on another two mile trek to the nearest open station.
  • You might want to take something to cover your face with e.g. a mask. It is perfectly legal to cover your face during a protest, and a police officer can only ask you to remove this if they use Section 60 AA (it’s worth remembering these ‘Sections’ – if an officer doesn’t mention this power, or tell it to you when you ask, then you don’t have to uncover your face). Even if they use Section 60 AA, you can show them your face then put the mask back on again. Some good reasons to wear a mask:

– To protect your identity. In some professions, it wouldn’t be a good idea to be photographed at a protest (e.g. public sector jobs). Even if your current employer would be fine with it, you don’t know what kind of job you’ll end up doing in the future. Some people also don’t want certain loved ones to see them at a protest, or just want to maintain their privacy.

– To show solidarity with those who want to cover their faces. There’s currently a campaign to normalise wearing a mask during protests – the spokesperson from Green and Black Cross said it was an “act of love” to wear a mask in order to show solidarity, and I think that’s pretty lovely.

– To create a group identity. Why not see if everyone in your Bloc (a group of people within a protest are affiliated with each other, e.g. the Feminist Bloc at the End Austerity Now demo) will wear the same mask?

– It’s fun! There’s a reason fancy dress parties are the best ones.


  • Do not take any ID, including: credit cards, debit cards, bank statements, letters addressed to you, etc. Don’t take anything with your name or anyone else’s name. I’ll go into why below.
Know your rights
Protests often consist of thousands of people, and incidents do occur. Police are given targets and have to supervise the events for hours at a time, often with little to do, and small issues can quickly escalate. A friend I asked for tips said, “It’s always worth looking down the side streets to admire the police huddled in riot vans – I have long suspected they only charge the crowds out of boredom. You can also play spot the cameras filming you and wonder with amazement at the resources available to the police to fund three or more helicopters circling overhead!” This is something I wondered about when Boris Johnson talked about getting water cannons to use on protesters. You’ll shut down women’s refuge centres because there’s no money but you’ll spend £218,000 on water cannons?
Anyway, post-student riots, the police are on their guard at protests and so you may be harassed more than usual. The kind of treatment you receive from the police will also vary according to a few different things, like race, gender, class, etc. It’s a shame, but it’s a fact. Here a few key things to remember in the event that you have to interact with them:

When a police officer talks to you, either on your way to a protest, at the protest or afterwards, they are generally doing so in order to gather information and anything you do say can be used as evidence. Even if they seem friendly, they’re at work and they’re doing their job. Just say ‘No comment’ to any questions they ask – you have the right to do this.


There is no legal requirement for you to give any personal details about yourself to the police, including your name. I strongly recommend not giving your name to the police – they’ll keep this on file (obviously) and can also use your name to find other people’s names, using things like Facebook. They are always working on building databases of information regarding to activists and activist networks, and it’s best not to make this any easier for them. It also undermines other people if they’re refusing to give their names but you tell the police yours. Show solidarity and stay anonymous. Sometimes police will say that they’re using Section 50 and so you must give your name. Remind them that Section 50 can’t be used during protests.


You don’t have to do what a police officer tells you to do unless they are acting under a certain power. In the event that you are stopped and searched, for example, there are two powers which they will use: Section 1 of PACE and Section 60. I’ll go into more details regarding these below, under ‘If you are stopped and searched’.


In the unlikely event that you are arrested, don’t use the duty solicitor that they offer to provide. They’re likely to a) know nothing about protest and protest law and b) be crap. Use one of the solicitors on your bustcard, or written on your arm (remember that was recommended above?). You can find a list of good solicitors here: https://greenandblackcross.org/solicitors/.


Police officers are encouraged to give out cautions if they’re unlikely to get a conviction – it means that if they arrested 100 people and nobody was convicted, they can still it was worth it due to the number of cautions given. Cautions stay on your permanent record and are an admission of guilt, so you don’t want one – only ever take one if a good solicitor (not the duty one!) recommends you do. Chances are, if you say that you don’t want the caution and they continue to arrest you, they’ll probably let you go anyway due to lack of evidence. It’s fairly difficult to get any evidence for protesting (it’s not illegal to protest, after all). In more detail:

If you are stopped and searched

You can be stopped and searched by police on your way to a protest, while you’re there, or on your way home. They’ll do this to disrupt the protest, to intimidate you, and to get extra information. They will do so using the following powers:

SECTION 1 of PACE: The police officer has to have grounds to search you using this power, i.e he has reasonable suspicion you are carrying something illegal.

SECTION 60: This is a blanket power so the officer won’t need specific grounds to target you. Sometimes whole protests will be put under Section 60, so that the police can search anyone they like.

SECTION 47A: This is a blanket search (so they don’t need to have grounds to pick you out) and it’s part of the Terrorist Act 2000, which has a very broad definition. However, it’s rarely used at protests.

The police use the following ‘GO WISELY’ procedure when issuing a stop and search. If you remember the same guidelines as them, there shouldn’t be a problem:

Grounds.What are the grounds for the search? The police only have to provide this under Section 1 of PACE. It could be that they think you have stolen goods, offensive weapons, etc.

Object. What are they looking for? What object do they expect to find?

Warrant card. If they are a plain clothes officer, they have to show you their warrant card.

Identification. The officer has to identity themselves by name. You don’t.

Station. The officer has to give the specific station they are affiliated with (unless it’s something like Scotland Yard). If they arrest you, they also have to tell you what station they’re taking you to (which is handy as you can tell your friends where you’ll be).

Entitled. You are entitled to a copy of all the documentation related to your stop and search. Sometimes they’ll make an excuse not to give it to you – if the excuse’s weak, like, “We’ve got too many people to get through” then insist. If it’s strong, like, “That building’s on fire! I have to go and save everyone!” then let them go, but make sure you go to their station later on to collect your documentation. They’ll sometimes use this as an excuse to get your name, but a) receipts have numbers and b) you can always come up with a password together to identify yourself by. You should always be issued a receipt of the stop and search.

Legislation. What power are they using? E.g. Section 1 of PACE, Section 60.

Y me? Another one for only Section 1 of PACE. Why are you being searched specifically?

They can ask you to remove some external items of clothing e.g. coat, hat scarf, but anything other than that they have to take you to a private place (this can be an alley or their vehicle). Don’t answer any questions except for the one where they ask if you have anything sharp in your bag that they harm them. If you don’t respond, they will be rougher with your belongings, e.g. empty them onto the pavement. They can’t go through your phone without a specific search warrant but they might try to. Lock it if you can.

If you are kettled

Kettling is when the police confine a group of demonstrators or protesters to a small area, as a method of crowd control during a demonstration. The act was given the name ‘kettling’ as it tends to push people until they reach boiling point. The police call it ‘containment’.

It’s not very pleasant. They will keep you in the cold, the rain, the wind, and they are trying to put you off protesting in the future. During the student protests, people were kept in a kettle on Westminster Bridge for nine hours and many protesters were injured in the crush (it’s common for the police to make the kettle smaller over time, so that it gradually becomes more and more uncomfortable). Notes:

  • Try to cultivate the best atmosphere you can. It’s easy to feel miserable in a kettle, so stay active. If you bring a notebook and pen with you, you can spend the time writing about your experience or planning future protests. You can get to know your fellow detainees or have a sing-a-long. Stay positive!
  • You’ll appreciate that water and those snacks I told you to pack, won’t you? After two hours, the police are legally required to provide you with water but this doesn’t always happen. They should also provide toilets at this point and so will sometimes bring in portaloos.
  • You still don’t have to give your name or any other personal details. They’ll use this to try to bargain with you – “We’ll let you go if you give your name”.
  • Everyone has the right to film or take photographs, police included. You do have the right to cover your face for this, however (but they might forcibly remove your mask or hand – those guys!). They’ll often photograph everyone as they leave the kettle, for information database reasons (and they have facial recognition software these days, another reason not to give your name).
  • The police can’t search you without using the powers mentioned before: Section 1 of PACE or Section 60.
  • Sometimes the police will cover their faces and police numbers, especially if they’re behaving in a not-entirely-legal manner. At that point, be wary, as they’re likely to be less well behaved.
  • The police don’t like it, but you can throw things in and out of the kettle. If you’re luckily enough to be out of the kettle but your friends are stuck inside, consider getting some crisps, water, etc and chucking it over for them if they need food and/or drink.
  • Alert the police as soon as possible if someone is unwell or injured. They legally have to arrange medical assistance.
  • Regularly ask them when you can go home and regularly ask why you’re being detained. It shouldn’t be easy for them to do this to people.

If you are arrested

You could be arrested on your own or as part of a mass arrest. From arriving at the station, there are three possible outcomes. You might be:

  • charged with an offence
  • bailed to return to a police station
  • released without charge or bail

You are entitled to two phone calls – one to inform someone of your arrest and one to call your solicitor (choose one from your bustcard). Green and Black Cross recommend calling them as your one other person and then telling friends and family to call Green and Black Cross for information – that way, everyone can find out via one phone call. Again, you don’t legally have to give your name. They can hold you for 24 hours if you don’t, and then have to either take you to trial (in which case, it will be hastily pulled together and they won’t have put together a good case) or they’ll have to release you. As you won’t have given your name, the arrest won’t be on your record. However, be warned – those 24 hours are likely to be very unpleasant. Despite your legal entitlements (which I’ll list), it’s likely to be noisy (and other prisoners may make disturbing noises), brightly lit, very boring, isolating, etc. You likely won’t sleep. You are legally entitled to:

  • your two phone calls
  • have medical help if you’re feeling ill
  • see the rules the police must follow (‘Codes of Practice’)
  • see a written notice telling you about your rights, eg regular breaks for food and to use the toilet (you can ask for a notice in your language) or an interpreter to explain the notice
  • vegetarian or vegan food, etc, according to your dietary requirements, every eight hours
  • to have a solicitor present during your interview (definitely do this – refuse to be interviewed without your solicitor. Then, either answer “No comment” for everything, or give a carefully prepared statement, which you will have crafted with your solicitor, at the start of the interview and then say “No comment” to everything). If they can’t get your solicitor to come in for the interview within a few hours, just give a “No comment” interview.
  • to a warm cell, with a blanket and cups of tea and/or coffee

Your fingerprints, photo and DNA will likely be taken. It’s probably not worth fighting this as they’ll use ‘reasonable force’ i.e quite a lot of force, otherwise. Say “No comment” to absolutely all questions (apart from your name, if you don’t want to wait the 24 hours and will risk charge). You may be charged but released on bail to appear in court at a later date. Fight any restrictions put on your bail, for example, being banned from protesting or from entering certain parts of the city. Your solicitor should do this for you anyway. If the police drop your charges, then sue – it’s the only way they’ll learn not to bully protesters. The Green and Black Cross recommend going to them for advice regarding suing, etc – going through the channels recommended by the police is ineffective. If you are injured by the police, get a medical assessment as soon as possible and then, again, contact Green and Black Cross.

You may see other people having trouble with the police or fellow protesters. If you feel safe doing so, please try to protect others, whether that’s sharing the information you have regarding rights, etc or by by acting as an impartial witness. Green and Black Cross often seek out witnesses after a protest who can speak up on behalf of others. It’s important that we look after one another.
Final advice
Have fun! Again, it’s unlikely that you’ll go through any of the unpleasant things above, so breathe. You’re giving up your time for this cause, and it’s good to make the most of it – soak up the sense of community and have a laugh at some of the funnier protest signs. Look around you and remember how great it is that people have come together to stand up for their rights. Protests should be hubs of positive energy – enjoy the atmosphere!
Further reading:
Advice on protests/demos/actions: Great to read if you are planning to organise or participate in any action

https://greenandblackcross.org/: Lots of advice regarding your right to protest

https://netpol.org/guide-to-kettles/: A full guide to kettles

–  Jade Slaughter is editor of The Jar Belles and has written for The F Word, Parallel and Litro magazines. Follow her on Twitter: @msjadeslaughter.