Close up of a protest sign that says "Respect existence of expect resistance"

This article focuses on general legal and protest safety information. Click here to learn more about protest safety and COVID-19.

The Legal Corner is a regular blog post brought to you by Daniel McCarey and Allison McPherson of Youth Represent. Youth Represent provides free legal services to over 1,000 young people in NYC every year, including to patients at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center as part of our medical-legal partnership. Now, they’re bringing their legal knowledge directly to you in regular posts about legal issues that impact teens and young adults.

Across the country and around the world, people are taking to the streets to stand against police brutality and anti-Black violence, and demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and too many others.

If you’re a young person joining (or thinking about joining) these protests, we want to make sure that you have the information you need to stay safe and make the best decisions for yourself.

General information

  • Remember: You have the right to protest.
  • Generally, protests in the streets require permits. However, these regulations are not currently being enforced. You do not need permits to protest on sidewalks, so long as you aren’t blocking pedestrian traffic.
  • Even if protesters follow the rules, the police can still issue a dispersal order. If they are going to disperse a crowd, they need to provide clear notice and give everyone an opportunity to leave the area.

Before Protesting: How to Prepare

  • Tell a family member and/or friend where you’re going.
  • Choose an emergency contact, and let them know who they are.
  • Always go to protests with at least one buddy.
  • Beforehand, write down emergency contact phone numbers on your arm with permanent marker. If you’re in NYC, write down 212-679-6018 (NYC National Lawyer’s Guild legal support line) in case you are arrested. Also write down your emergency contact’s phone number, if you don’t have it memorized.
  • What to pack: Definitely bring an ID and spare change (If you’re arrested, you’ll need coins to use the pay phone). Beyond that, what you choose to pack is up to you. Keep in mind that if you’re arrested, your belongings will be taken from you. Some people choose to bring water bottles and/or snacks. We also recommend taking hand sanitizer (that’s at least 60% alcohol).
  • If you bring a cell phone, make sure that it is password protected. Turn off fingerprint or face recognition. This kind of technology makes it easier for a police officer to access your phone. Unless you absolutely need it, turn off GPS, Bluetooth and wi-fi. Putting it on airplane mode will do the trick. These are location trackers and police can use this information to track protester movements.
  • What to wear: Wear comfy, close-toed shoes and clothes that you can move around in. Don’t forget your face mask, which can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. If you’re concerned about facial recognition software, or appearing in other people’s social media posts, wear a hat and/or sunglasses in addition to your face mask.
  • If you feel comfortable, consider creating a way to alert your boss or teacher/professor if you’re arrested. Ask a friend to email your supervisor or teacher if you don’t contact them by a certain time so they know you’ll miss class or work.

At the Protest

  • Pay attention to your surroundings. What’s the mood of the crowd? Where are the police and what are they doing? If arrests are being made and you did not plan to get arrested, think seriously about whether you want to stay.
  • Stick with your buddy. It’s easy to lose someone in a crowd if things get chaotic.
  • Stay hydrated. If you didn’t bring water, look for folks who are handing out water bottles (most protests have them).
  • If you are stopped by police at a protest, remember that you have the same rights as you do at other times. Stay calm and don’t argue, resist arrest or obstruct them. Ask the officer if you’re free to leave. Do not say anything to the police other than your name, address and date of birth (if you’re asked). Do not consent to searches.
  • Police brutality is very real. If you are victimized by the police during a protest, you (again) have the same rights and should take the same actions as you would at other times. If you live in NYC, learn more about your rights here. One of the most important things you can do is document as much as you can. Take photos. Write down everything you remember about the encounter as soon as possible. Get badge and patrol car numbers. Write down the officers’ names, the precinct, and contact info for any witnesses.

What are my rights when recording the police?

  • You have the right to photograph or take video of anything in plain view in public. Police can only order you to stop if you are interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations. This means that, for example, you cannot stand between the police and someone they’re arresting (in order to record, or otherwise).
  • The police may not confiscate your phone or demand to see photos or videos you’ve taken, unless they have a warrant or your consent. If they ask to see the photos or video, say no. If police ask you to unlock your phone, say no.
  • Police may not delete your data under any circumstances.

Staying Safe with COVID-19

  • If you have any symptoms of COVID-19, stay home.
  • Wear a face covering that covers your nose and mouth.
  • Avoid touching your face.
  • Bring hand sanitizer (that’s at least 60% alcohol) and use it often.
  • It may be difficult, but try to stay 6 feet away from other people.
  • Yelling, singing and chanting all increase the chance of spreading COVID-19. It’s safer to stomp, clap your hands, or use noisemakers instead.
  • Change your clothes as soon as you get home. Throw them directly in the wash, or put them in a separate bag until you can wash them.
  • Take a shower as soon as you get home.
  • Keep in mind that the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 is much higher in jail, because you are confined inside near strangers for a long period of time. If you are arrested, plan to get tested around 5 days after you’re released. You can get tested for free at one of NYC’s COVID-19 testing sites.
  • Consider getting tested 5 days after the protest, even if you were not arrested.
  • Learn more about protest safety and COVID-19.

More Resources

Daniel McCarey is a graduate of the City University of New York (CUNY) Law School. He is dedicated to advocating for marginalized and oppressed communities within the framework of collective liberation. Daniel has experience in a number of legal and social services including, but not limited to, special education law, criminal law, benefits, and healthcare.

The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 12,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash