Photo by Delia Harrington
Attending political events like protests and rallies has been one of the most enriching aspects of my life in travel. While this is partly due to my love of social change and participation in activism, protests can offer something for everyone, even those new to the issue or on the other side of the political spectrum.
What do political actions say?
Demonstrators often talk about the problems they don’t think are being prioritized, so you can learn about life beyond the headlines and stereotypes. Watch how those in power treat people who disagree with them, and how political actions are reported both in the local and international news, and you’ll learn a lot about which issues matter most in your host country, the local system of government, and rights of citizens.
What do political actions look like?
Political actions can take many forms, from marches and candlelight vigils to rallies and moments of silence. They can support all manner of causes, including government policies, community change, fundraising, or awareness. Even public displays that don’t seem political, like a walk supporting breast cancer research, are still demonstrations of values and quests for change.
Political actions can be joyful, like Pride parades; cathartic, like memorials; or emotionally intense, like speak-outs, where folks take turns sharing their personal experiences with an issue.
While I encourage you to always look into attending public political actions, here are some issues of logistics, safety, and philosophy that you should consider before you go.
Do your homework.
Before you go, you should have an idea of who is organizing the protest, what it’s about, and if it’s part of a greater movement. You should see if there tends of violence, whether by protesters, law enforcement, or onlookers, and whether protesters generally welcome outsiders.
Researching in advance will help you decide if you want to attend and how to behave if you do. For example, when I was in northern Greece, we learned there was a history of agents of the state posing as protesters in order to take photographs to target protesters for retribution later. I used this information to modify my behavior: I didn’t bring a camera — that way, I could observe without interfering or upsetting anyone.
There’s safety in numbers.
It’s best to go in a group, and it’s even better if you can find a buddy who speaks the local language, is from the country you’re in, or is a member of the group that’s protesting. If you are with someone, you can work to keep one another safe, discuss what you’re witnessing, and check in to make sure you’re both on the same page with your participation.
Make sure that you know local emergency numbers, have cash on hand, and can get in touch with someone if you need assistance.
Keep an eye on the law.
Free speech laws vary widely between countries, and laws can differ for non-citizens. Remember that rights can always be violated, even when they’re protected by the law. Even those with a solid tourist or work visa may find their statuses threatened if they are seen as participating in protests.
Take some time to learn what your rights are in your host country.
Think about your role.
Demonstrations can be a great way to learn or participate. Keep in mind, however, your level of knowledge about a topic. When I’m at an event for an issue that’s new to me, I spend most of my time listening. I ask open-ended, nonjudgmental questions. This allows more knowledgeable people to guide me in the right direction. I also bring a pen and notebook, so I can take notes, especially when people reference events or acronyms that are unfamiliar to me.
Keep in mind who the leaders are. Often, folks will identify themselves with armbands, hats, or flags, so you can get guidance on the route of the parade or when speakers are welcome. Respect the efforts and expertise of event leaders by following their instructions. If for some reason you’re not comfortable with what they’re asking you to do, consider whether or not participating in this particular action is the right choice for you.
Move up, move back.
It is important to think about your identity and how it fits into the issue at hand.
If I’m at a women’s rights rally, I would feel comfortable speaking up. However, if I were at a racial justice rally, as a white person I need to see it as an important opportunity to listen and absorb the messages of others around me, who may have very different perspectives based on their own life experiences and research.
We are all made up of many overlapping and intersecting identities, but, unfortunately, some of those identities are prioritized over others. Even in my first example of a women’s rights rally, the voices of certain women could be elevated over others. Keep in mind the intersectional identities you inhabit, and remember to make room for voices that tend to be left out. When I take up less metaphorical space in the conversation, it makes room for someone else.
Consider offering skills.
Some demonstrations are looking for assistance. This help or service can be offered neutrally or in the name of the movement.
If you have medical training, you could consider offering your services as a street medic, a person who is not affiliated with the demonstration or its goals but helps care for minor injuries and triages more serious injuries.
If you have a legal background in local laws, you could attend as a neutral legal observer, in case of violations.
If you’re well-connected, have a blog, or are good on social media, you could help publicize the event.
If you’re a journalist, you could tell the story of what you witnessed or of the larger movement, with your words or images.
Remember, though, that if you decide to attend as a neutral party, you must act the part and should make an effort to label yourself as such — for example, wearing press credentials; putting a red cross on the back of your clothing; or abstaining from signage, face paint, and chants.
I try to wear socks and comfortable shoes whenever I go to protests, as I’m anticipating long hours on my feet. I bring a refillable water bottle and try to use a restroom ahead of time, since nearby public bathrooms will be packed. If you are bringing a camera or live-tweeting, be sure to bring backup batteries, a charger, and a backup power supply to charge without an electrical outlet. If you’re in it for the long hall, bring a power strip, and no one will ever deny you an outlet again. I usually wear a backpack to store my gear, as well as a raincoat or sweatshirt in case the weather changes or the protests last into the night.
Learning about social movements and your host country deepens your relationship to the place and the people. Protests can be exhilarating and a chance to watch civil society in action, as long as you do your homework and respect everyone involved.
Unfortunately, even if you follow all of these guidelines, there is no guarantee that everything will go according to plan. In my next post I’ll discuss what to do about counter-protesters, staying safe if a demonstration turns violent, how to avoid getting arrested, and more.