Take to the Streets: Our Top Tips for Going to a Climate Protest

If you’ve never been to a climate protest before it’s understandable if you feel a bit nervous about what might happen. We were the same, but what spurred us to go to our first protest in May 2019 was the urgency of the situation and the inaction of our leaders. We felt we’d exhausted all the traditional channels of communicating with our MP and that our voices weren’t being heard.

We decided to “just get on with it” (Jane’s mantra); our personal fears about the risks of going to a protest were insignificant compared to the existential threat of climate breakdown. Our personal experience of that first protest empowered us to participate in more activism and we would urge anyone tempted to protest to go for it.

Recently back from taking part in protests at COP26 in Glasgow with Wanstead Climate Action, Caroline shares some of her top tips for attending climate protests:

Go for it – if you’re tempted to go to a climate protest (local or national), we say go for it – you’re more likely to regret not going!

Have a buddy – go with someone else so you can look out for each other, share food and the experience. If you go in a group, pair up with a buddy so no one is left on their own at any point. Have each other’s phone numbers and arrange a meeting point just in case you get separated.

Go with an open mind – be prepared for plans to change and random stuff happening. Protests can be very fluid and there may be times when it’s not clear what’s going on. For example, a planned march may be stopped by police and there may be a lot of standing around.

Pack wisely – take a small, comfortable rucksack for essentials such as snacks (for yourself and for sharing with others), a water bottle, flask of hot drink, Tupperware and fork/spoon for takeaway food, space for a waterproof coat (and trousers), sunscreen, hand sanitiser, a fully-charged phone. If you’re super-efficient, pack a small cushion or fold up stool to sit on! You’re likely to be carrying the rucksack for most of the day, so make sure it’s not too heavy.

Dress sensibly – comfy shoes are vital, and it’s a good idea to wear layers as the weather can change over the course of the day.

Take an easy to carry placard – an A4 sized cardboard placard that will fit in your rucksack is a lot easier to carry around all day than a giant banner or flag. Other handy tips include hanging a placard around your neck to give your arms a rest; pinning a banner to your back or rucksack; writing a slogan on an old t-shirt or hoodie, or on an apron. You don’t need to take a placard; you may be given a flag to hold, but make sure you give it back before you leave.

Avoid alcohol – it’s not the done thing to drink at climate protests. The non-violent Extinction Rebellion protests we’ve attended have been alcohol free, which helps add to the friendly, uplifting atmosphere. Additionally, it can be tricky to get to a toilet at times, so drinking less liquid can be a good tactic!

Don’t be intimidated – seeing large numbers of police at a protest can seem intimidating and sometimes individual officers can appear aggressive, but generally the police don’t want the hassle of arresting protesters. In our experience, the police will give ample warning before making arrests, so you will have the opportunity to leave before things escalate. Even people who are “arrestable” (choose to be arrested) have to work hard to actually get arrested!

Say no comment – it’s advisable not to get into conversation with a police officer and to say “no comment” to any questions if they try to talk to you.

Be polite – if you are “kettled” by the police (where the police surround the protesters to stop other protesters joining), you can usually leave the kettle in a small group. Being polite means it’s more likely that an officer will allow you to leave, especially if you explain you need to meet a friend, get a train etc.

Know your rights – police often use (or abuse) stop and search powers at protests. For example, they may suspect someone at an XR protest of carrying superglue that could be used to commit a crime and could stop anyone they suspect under Section 1. If you get stopped and searched, ask why and “under what power” and write it down.  Remember you have no obligation to give police any personal details, even if they say they need an email address to send you a receipt. You should ask for a paper receipt as a record. If you have anything sharp (such as a penknife) on you or in your bag, you should declare this before they start the search. You could attend an online training before you go to a protest, but this isn’t necessary from our experience (unless you’re planning a special action!).

Know when to leave – we usually don’t want to leave a protest as it’s a great experience to be part of a group of likeminded people with a shared goal. Personally, we’ve never seen any violence at the climate protests we’ve attended. However, it’s sensible to keep an eye on what’s going on and in the unlikely event that things begin to escalate, leave the protest. For example, if there are signs of violence (from protesters or police).

Remember safety in numbers – in our experience, the police are more likely to pick on (i.e. intimidate or search) protesters that are on their own or on the edge of a crowd. If you haven’t done anything wrong, they shouldn’t arrest you, but a stop and search can be unsettling. This is one reason we like to be in the middle of the action rather than on the edge.

Wear a facemask – as well as being advisable in terms of Covid, a facemask can help hide your identity if you’re worried about the use of facial recognition technology or don’t want to be seen in photos or news reports.

Understand the communication process – if there’s an important message to share, someone may shout “mike check”. They then say the message slowly and the crowd nearby repeat it loudly so that the rest of the crowd can hear and pass the message on. If there are options about what to do or where to go next, a people’s assembly might be held. This is where the crowd splits into small groups of 6-8ish to vote on the preferred option.

Be prepared for entertainment– drumming from the samba band, singing and chanting are big parts of XR protests. It’s easy to join in – a lot of the chants and songs are call and response such as “what do we want?” –  “climate justice”. It all adds to the shared experience and keeps spirits up.

We hope our tips give you an idea of what to expect and encourage you to take to the streets and join your first climate protest. Desperate times call for desperate measures. We have the freedom to demonstrate peacefully in this country, and we believe everyone should exercise this right. History of civil rights movements has shown that if 3.5% of the population takes part in mass civil disobedience, drastic and immediate change can happen. Be part of that change!

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