Ten Rules for Protesting in Denver

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For many, 2016 has been one enormous bummer.

There are suddenly and shockingly almost too many outrages to address, and so people have taken to the streets both here in Denver and across the country.

Most of the current protests are against the policies and nomination of the president-elect, but as the nation moves into a Trump administration, the protests will become more program-specific: defending Roe v. Wade, for example, or the Affordable Care Act, or the very existence of Planned Parenthood, Medicare and even Social Security.

So yes, for many, it’s time to make their voices heard. It’s time to once again get “fired up” and “ready to go.” But how to do it safely, and wisely here in Denver? Here are ten things to keep in mind.

10. Make sure someone on the outside knows you're there.
This is vital; if something happens during a protest, you will need someone to know that you’re not reporting back as you should be. Make an agreement with someone that you’ll text or call when you’re home and safe, and if you don’t contact them at the agreed time, they should check up on you some other way. (You know, the same thing you do when you have a date from Match.com.) One caveat: Don’t go out with friends after the protest and get soused and forget to make contact, because “Sorry, man, I flaked” doesn’t cut it when your friends think you’ve been arrested or worse.

9. Watch the weather.
Face it: It’s easier to protest in temperate climes. Californians just have to worry about slight chills. Arizonans only have to remember the sunblock. But here on the Front Range, to paraphrase the old saw, if you’re not worried about the weather…wait a minute. As we just saw, the weather can go from I-don’t-need-a-jacket to holy-crud-where-did-I-put-my-parka in the difference of morning vs. afternoon. Layering is important, and bonus: Many protest vets say that it’s good to wear a little extra just for physical padding protection as well. So stay warm…and stay a little safer.

8. Record everything you can.
In these days of smartphones, this is easy, and something a lot of protesters will be doing right along with you. But having your phone fully charged (and bringing a portable juice pack just in case) is only the start: Use the thing. Take photos, or, better yet, video. Live-stream the event if you can and make sure it's recording at the same time. You may not capture anything that’ll make the news, but then again, you might.

7. Remember, it’s Colorado.
So do all the things that your mom would want to remind you to do. Dress warm and bring a backpack, so you can have a place to stow your sweater when and if it gets too hot. Make sure to stay hydrated throughout the day, and bring some PowerBars or quick-nutrition foods to eat (and share!) if you’re there longer than you’d planned to be. If you have a sign, make sure it folds nicely and stows away, because you won’t want to hold your hands up over your head for hours, and leaving it behind is littering (and not an option). And make sure you’re wearing clean underwear. That’s just always a good rule.

6. Ask for names.
Names are power. It’s far easier for someone to do something harmful, whatever that might be, to an anonymous person that they can categorize broadly. Protest is, at its heart, a request for connection and recognition. It’s the public saying, “This hurts us, and we want you to acknowledge that.” Extend that spirit to the officers whose job it is to police the scene and guard the peace. Make sure to know your fellow protesters, too. Personalize the experience: We sympathize more effectively with each other on an individual basis, not as groups. You are a person with rights and an individual narrative, not just a conduit for a message.

Continue to count down our top five rules for protesting in Denver.

5. Know your legal limits.
We all have the right to protest on public property — that’s sidewalks, parks and streets. We do not have the right to do so on private property, at least without the consent of the owners. You do not have to “keep moving” for some reason (as some less-effectively trained police officers might tell you). As long as you’re not blocking vehicle or pedestrian traffic, you can stand in one place as long as you’d like. Still, it’s rarely worth it to argue (though this is one of those times when knowing an officer’s name can come in handy). It’s true that you can get arrested for not complying with an officer’s official request, even if you know the officer is in the wrong — but you should not be charged, or the case will be dismissed. It’s rare, but it does happen. My parents, '60s radicals that they are, were arrested in New York City at a protest some years back and held in the Tombs overnight. They ended up with a $10,000 settlement from the city through a class-action suit due to NYPD overstepping. Not a bad accidental payday for speaking your mind.

4. Prepare for the worst.
Protests can be unpredictable. You might be there to peacefully light a candle or sing “We Shall Overcome,” but there may be a louder and angrier section of the population that could incite more than you’d have preferred. The best option, should that seem to be the way a protest is heading, is to remove yourself — just walk the other way. But sometimes you may find yourself surprised by something, either from the police response or your own group, and it’s best to be prepared for that. In case things get extreme and tear gas is deployed, it’s always good to have a handkerchief doused in apple-cider vinegar in a sealed plastic baggie among your things. Covering your face with it will buy you some time to get to fresh air.

3. Know what not to bring.
Sure, this is Colorado, but you probably don’t want to bring your pot. This isn’t a 4/20 rally, and public consumption will provide you with nothing more than a short high and an immediate reason for the police to arrest you. If you do need to bring your stash, make sure you’re over 21 and it’s less than an ounce. Another thing not to bring? Weapons. This isn’t the Old West. In general, don’t have anything on you that you wouldn’t want the police to know you have — because if you’re detained, they will find it, and your First Amendment rights won’t help you there.

2. Remember that protest isn’t anarchy.
Do not commit any act of violence. Don’t vandalize, don’t put your hands on anyone, don’t spit at or even insult anyone. Your message risks being lost if you do, overtaken by the drama of the violence itself. Invoke the grandma rule: If you wouldn’t say it in front of your grandma, or wouldn’t do something in her home, then don’t do it on the streets either. Riots are not constructive and are not defensible under free speech. The best protests are well organized and inspirational; they exhibit the best of us, not the worst. Don’t become the straw man cliché that your philosophical opponents might want you to become.

1. Actually, it’s the core of our democracy.
Remember the Boston Tea Party? America was founded on civil dissent. Let freedom ring.

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