How to Get Arrested at a Demonstration

And Why You Might Want To Avoid It


This is not legal advice. I am not a lawyer, and, for everyone's legal sake, I am not encouraging anyone to engage in illegal activity. Many longtime organizers and abolitionists recommend avoiding arrest by every available means, except those that jeopardize another's safety, as there can be many implications to an arrest or long term ramifications. In some civil disobedience scenarios, however, like a blockade, the goal is to require physical removal by law enforcement—to make a statement that you're holding your ground no matter what—making arrest inevitable. With that said, here's a guide on how to prepare for a demonstration when you expect an arrest.

Before the demonstration...

Step 1: Save your catwalk looks for fashion week.

Choose your outfit based not on aesthetics or what might look good in a press photo, but on what will best conceal your identity—even from your friends. Wear something temperature-appropriate and comfy to be in for extended periods. Consider that cells get cold and police will make you take off everything down to your base layer when you're detained. They'll force you to give up your belt and your shoes too, but sometimes they let you keep them if you opt to give up your laces. This is highly recommended, since a flooded jail cell from an overflowing toilet happens more likely than you think and you really don't want to be wading in that in bare feet.

Wear all black, being sure to cover your hair, forehead, mouth, and any tattoos, piercings, and other body mods. We're not talking Kim K at the 2019 Met Gala here—just enough to be discreet. (Though, somehow, even in that getup, we all knew it was her, which is something else to keep in mind.) Respectability politics (and racism, if we’re honest) will tell you that wearing all black makes you a target or dilutes the validity of the cause or movement. Narratives like these are one of many distractions exploited by law enforcement agencies (LEAs), government officials, media outlets, and political adversaries to divide us. Political groups across the spectrum have leveraged the tactic of wearing black in groups for the benefits of obscuring identity and as a visualization of solidarity in struggle. Besides, it's not like a movement's success is decided by how Instagram-able our 'fits are.

Press, live-streamers that never got the hint over the years, bystanders, and adversaries will post the photos and videos from the demo to various spaces on the internet, but don't expect them to stay on social media or a news article nobody will read. Our adversaries will no doubt use them against us. It only takes one photo to upend your life or jeopardize your safety. Doxxing leads to unimaginable fallout. SWATting has been deadly. Police have abducted protesters in unmarked vans once they've been able to identify them. Deepfake revenge porn is just a few clicks away now. Concealing our identities is a matter of life & death.

Symbols of solidarity and methods for obfuscating identities from surveillance aside, we know with certainty that SARS-CoV-2 (a.k.a. the name of the virus that causes COVID-19) not only lingers in open air, but that it can cause permanent, debilitation damage to our bodies even when we're asymptomatic, so wearing a well-fitting, high-quality, respirator-style mask is imperative for our collective health and shows our disabled & chronically-ill comrades that ableism has no place in our movements. All of our struggles are interconnected and interdependent, after all.


Step 2: To bring, or not to bring.

Going to a rally means assuming a risk of arrest. Anything that you bring will be searched and possibly repossessed by the police during an arrest. Self-defense weapons like pepper spray might be used against you, even if they're legal in your area. Double check your bag for anything that could be misinterpreted as something it's not. Tools, paint, and else anything you might use for work or an art build meetup are best kept at home. Police are the best at assuming the worst and distorting reality to fit their narrative—we've all see the tweets of 17th century guns and a so-called Molotov cocktail that was actually just trash in a Topo Chico bottle.

Keep in mind that your bag or pack could be used to identify you, so use one that's nondescript or cover markings (logos, emblems, flags, paint, rips) with tape that matches the color.

First aid supplies, a tourniquet, and ear & eye protection are must haves for everyone, and if the LEAs in your town have been known to deploy chemical weapons and dye markers for identifying protesters, consider adding a way to combat them to your kit too. Maybe at the next art build or planning meetup, you suggest making DIY eye decontamination flushes from water bottles with holes in the cap to be distributed before the demo. Maybe you make DIY chemical decontamination wipes and pass them out on the march.

Packing a change of clothes or wearing an extra layer can help you or a comrade decontaminate or remove dye markers on the fly. Keep a plastic trash bag handy if you're expecting either of these so you can isolate the problem item.


Step 2.1: Ditch the snitch in your pocket.

It might seem wise to bring a phone to keep in touch with your friends & comrades, but there are more reasons to leave it behind by the day. If we start with the logic that rallies and acts of civil disobedience are enough to force the hand of the United States federal government, it only makes sense to treat the actions we take online and in the streets with proportional gravity. This means leaving your device at home, preparing a protest device, or making your personal phone as private & secure as possible then turning it off and stashing it in a faraday bag before you even leave home. It means treating your communications with others that may or may not also be thinking about planning to consider going to the demo (yes, you read that right—let's not implicate someone without their consent).

Between your home wi-fi to the creepy, camera-laden LinkNYCs to that coffee shop you go to every other Tuesday and Thursday (oh you thought they didn't know?) to the subway to the fake networks the police deploy at demos after they jam cell service, the chance that your communication will be logged someplace or intercepted is far too high to take the risk.

LEAs don't need to know what you're saying either, in most cases. Encrypted or not, the story your phone is telling about who you're messaging, when and where you messaged them, how often you message them, and what might've happened after you messaged each other—the breadcrumbs a.k.a. metadata—is plenty. Former top officials at the NSA and CIA admitted as much on a debate panel.

Metadata is a Snitch

“...metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody's life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content.”

Stewart Baker, former NSA General Counsel

Metadata Kills

"....absolutely correct. We kill people based on metadata."

General Michael Hayden, former director of NSA and CIA

Remember, if it's "just a silly march and sit in" then we should be doing something that actually makes a difference, but if we believe that, say, shutting down a train terminal will lead to saving lives and changing the world, we should treat every aspect of what we do with the same seriousness.


Step 3: Document everything.

We shouldn't discount that an arrest can be a painful and traumatizing experience. Make a note of the mental and physical state you're in before you're detained and after you get out and email it to yourself. Include a full-length photo if you want to be extra precautious for situations like needing to prove an injury in court.

Step 4: Are you a Tokyo, a Helsinki, or a Nairobi?

You wouldn't go to a masquerade wearing one of those "Hi! My name is..." stickers, right? All those steps we took to make ourselves anonymous would be suddenly made useless if we used our government names, so we need a pseudonym (or call sign, if we're sticking with the La Casa De Papel a.k.a. Money Heist reference).

Don't feel pressure to choose something personal or permanent, though. This is the fun part! Make it recognizable yet common and feel free to change it as often as you need. Protect it and only use it when engaging in activities related to activism—mixing your chosen name with your given name is like mixing vinegar with bleach. If you don't know anybody's name, you can't accidentally incriminate anybody, right? It also means the cops spend a lot of time looking like clowns staring at a board with bogus names trying to figure out who's who.

For those of us that are queer or trans or have friends that are, you're familiar with deadnames. You likely know the phrase "if you know your friend's deadname, no you don't". We can think about call signs the same way when we're on the streets or in a meeting with your comrades.

There's more documentation on best practices elsewhere on the internet, so don't stop here!


Step 5: Make a contingency plan.

Most people assume they won't be arrested or their arrest will be routine and that they'll be home by dinner. In recent years, however, we've seen protesters detained for weeks. While this is extremely unlikely, it's worth it to make sure someone you trust will know to feed your cat if you're stuck overnight.

Set up a plan in advance to have someone you trust be a point person. Ask for them wait for you to check in by a certain time. If they don't hear from you by then, have them start contacting others in your life. Pet care, family care, obligations like school, work, or medical appointments. Make sure they can access your home if they need or make them the key-holder to let someone else in.

This person will also be the individual that people managing jail support will contact for your government name and date of birth to confirm your presence in a particular precinct's custody. This might seem largely unnecessary since everyone is likely to be released the same day and knowing someone's legal identity doesn't speed up that process. It's worth pacing through the consequences of others knowing your government name and linking it to your involvement with activism. If you know how to access representation or are already represented, you can opt to preserve your anonymity by having your assigned point person be the one to be the liaison between jail support and your attorney who can contact the precinct and / or court.

Activism aside, this is one step you should consider implementing even if you aren't going to demonstrations. Emergencies are part of life. Personally, my partner and I have a plan in place for our cat and plants should something happen.


At the demonstration…

Step 6: Get arrested. (Or don't! But if you do, stay calm & alert. And say nothing.)

So you didn’t evade arrest (or were planning on it) and now you’re pinched. Things are better when you’re not in their hands, but if you got got, you’ll get out. Ride through the storm.

Legal observers from National Lawyers' Guild and ACLU will shout at you to give them your name and birthdate, but if you set up a plan in advance, there's no need to share it with them. While these people probably have good intentions, at any given time, dozens of people are livestreaming, meaning countless people—including adversaries—are watching. Let's not make it any easier for them to cause us harm or slow down our movements. If you'd feel rude ignoring somebody, just mention that you've "got it covered, but thanks".

Mentally document how the arrest played out and key visuals from your surroundings. You'll need this when you get out. Look at the vehicles for a precinct number. If you don’t see one, ask to which precinct you’re being sent. This isn’t helpful until you're out, but if you know the city, it can be grounding while you're inside knowing where you’ll be and what resources are nearby.

At this point, it's critical to stay calm and remain silent. Here’s what you can and maybe should say though: 

And that's mostly it. When it comes to the police, the less you say, the better. Just to be sure we cover our bases, here's a list of what not to do:


Step 7: Hurry up and wait.

Once you’re inside, just vibe. Take a moment to do some stretches and rub out sore muscles. Think about what happened and make mental notes and lock it away. Clear your head. Sing comfort songs. Tell yourself jokes. Replay your favorite episode of Seinfeld. The key is to keep your mind off time.

Move around enough to keep blood flowing but avoid wearing yourself out or needlessly burning calories, especially if it's cold. Working out is a healthy habit and coping mechanism, but you're probably dehydrated and haven't eaten in hours, so now might not be the time to start training like you're Rocky Balboa.

You likely won’t be in for longer than 4-8 hours in most cases and no more than 24 hours on the long end, so it’s about finding those your mental cozy corners and just hanging out then moving to another one when you need a change of scenery. This might be the hardest part about being inside. After about three hours, time starts to drift and warp. At the six-hour mark, 38 minutes can feel like a Lord Of The Rings doubleheader sans the fun. In the unlucky event that they decide to keep you detained over the weekend until a judge shows up for work Monday morning, you'll have to prepare for the long haul. The cops might even be using the time to break you to convince you to talk to them without your lawyer, but like we discussed in Step 6, this is never a good idea.

No matter how long it is, remind yourself that there are plenty of people on the outside eagerly awaiting your release.


At jail support…

Step 8: Celebrate your release (carefully).

Don't forget that you're still in front of a precinct. The place where they made you peel off most of your clothes then held you against your will for hours, wasted everyone's time and energy, and sapped your community's resources. Don't forget that the area is blanketed with cameras & mics. Keep everything sensitive to yourself—treat this area no differently than you did the van or your cell, like we discussed in Step 7. Send your comrades off with a smile, a nod, and a “solidarity”—there will be plenty of time to recap when everyone isn't sleep deprived or running on tepid coffee and cigarettes. Take it easy and enjoy the party.

Before the next demonstration…

Step 0: Ask yourself if it's worth the risk.

Put yourself out there. Be active. Throw down with others. Speak the truth about the atrocities occurring and the history that led us here. Nobody should feel dissuaded from action by this material. It's certainly not meant to discourage people from organizing or building a new world.


"To the daring, belongs the future."

Emma Goldman

We should, however, reflect on our tactics and strategies, interrogate our methods, and make adjustments or pivot where we find room for improvement.


It goes without saying that if an action puts people in the way of harm and mitigating the risk is impractical or impossible, it's just not worth it, but if you can minimize the risk and plan for any fallout, it might be worth considering.

The reality is that every arrest—while sometimes a radicalizing experience—consumes enormous amounts of community resources. From rallying bail funds, to coordinating jail support so that everyone released gets adequate aftercare, to pro bono lawyers being spread thin, to recovering from an injury caused by the pigs, to outlandish charges that are hard to fight, to your friends & comrades being out front of a precinct until after sunrise, it all begins to add up and wear us thin. Arrests burn people out until they fall out of the movement—and the state knows it. We should use every available means to keep as many of us from getting arrested as possible.

Allow each other space and grace to be imaginative when concocting angles to fight the good fight. It's infinitely safer to convince 500 people to withdraw their money from Wells Fargo and Chase so they can't fund a defense contractor or the next pipeline than it is to redecorate a few of their branches. (It leaves a bigger dent too.)

With that said, stay safe, stay dangerous, be water, and look out for each other—we’re all we’ve got. And remember: we have nothing to lose but our chains.