How to Safely Cover Riots and Civil Unrest
Covering civil unrest can be frightening and dangerous. A crowd may turn violent with little warning and police can target journalists or mistake them for rabble rousers. It’s particularly challenging to maintain social distancing during a riot, so take extra precautions to stay on the edge for quick exit. Bring extra masks, gloves and sanitizer for gear.
Before setting out, research the modus operandi of the organizers as well as the tactics that local law enforcement adopt for crowd control, such as tear gas, pepper spray or rubber bullets. These can vary from city to city. Does the protest have a permit and is it in a public space? Such factors may determine police reaction to the demonstration.
If you know the general area where mayhem may break out (there are often patterns) identify a building where you can seek refuge. This could be a friendly apartment owner, for instance. Avoid chain and luxury stores, which are often targets for looting.
Always carry press and government-issued ID, like a driver’s license. If your newsroom does not have legal counsel, come equipped with the phone number of the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild or the ACLU. Memorize the number in case your phone is seized. Write it in water-proof marker on the inside of your forearm as well. If arrested, shout to someone to call on your behalf. Appoint a person to check in with periodically who knows how to reach your emergency contacts.
Stay on the edge of the crowd, to maintain social distancing and enable a quick getaway. Work in a team of two or three. Anything more is unwieldy. Photographers and videographers especially need someone to watch their backs. Make sure you know each other’s emergency contacts, including news editors and lawyers.
Do not stand in between protestors and law enforcement. Scope out exit routes ahead of time. Try to film from a high vantage point, above the crowd.
Stay behind or to the side of anyone shooting rubber bullets or other "non lethal" projectiles. They hurt and they can kill.
Have your press badge and accreditation accessible but not visible as protestors and law enforcement may be hostile to media. Do not wear identification on lanyards around the neck as you can be pulled or choked if someone grabs them. If the police are moving in on protesters, yell "press, press" to identify yourself. Don't argue with them, just move out of the way. It also helps to acknowledge to law enforcement that you are following their order by yelling "I'm moving! I'm moving!"
Be aware of potential stampedes. Crowds are easily spooked and start to run. In case of a stampede, go diagonally against the flow, link arms and/or hug an object. More people die from being crushed in a stampede than being trampled. Again, know your escape route!
Take turns going in to take pictures, with one person behind the other who can pull them back if police attack.
Watch out for kettling, when police encircle protestors from all sides. If you suspect this is about to happen, run and get out immediately.
Constantly read the mood. If people are getting aggressive, move away where you can see the perimeter, but don’t risk getting trapped in a melee. Remember that you can always return.
Be nimble. No tripods. No leaf blowers. Don’t weigh yourself down with heavy cameras and equipment.
Don neutral clothing that doesn’t scream “protestor.” Avoid wearing black.
Wear sturdy lace up boots that you can run in. They lend more support than running shoes and can protect your feet in case a firework goes off on the ground next to you.
Don’t wear ponytails, scarves, dangling jewelry or anything that can be pulled. But do use a strap around the head for eyeglasses.
Wear a helmet and if available, a flak jacket for rubber bullets. The police are firing indiscriminately, and protesters have bad aim with rocks, water bottles and fireworks.
Wear some kind of eye protection. Ballistic goggles are most effective.
Wear a layer of disposable rain gear, gloves and a mask you can throw away if contaminated by tear gas or pepper spray.
Gas and respirator masks provide good protection but many people find them hard to work in and claustrophobic.
For sound cannons, wear gun-range ear protectors. Bose noise cancelers won’t do the trick.
Tear gas and pepper spray
Take a bottle of water or saline to flush eyes of tear gas and pepper spray. It will hurt but it’s the only way to rinse it out. Don’t use milk; it has acid. For skin (not eyes) affected by pepper spray, bring a bottle filled half with water and half with milk of magnesia and spray on the burned area.
You don't want vaseline, skin cream, makeup, or even suntan lotion on your skin as tear gas or pepper spray can adhere to it. Also, don't wear contacts.
Bring extra face masks. These are still Covid times, and you may need multiple face masks if one gets torn or covered in pepper spray or tear gas. Also, lots of coughing happens when cops spray the crowd, so you don't want to be without a mask when that happens.
Gear and food
Fully charge your phone before arriving. Carry an extra one in case it’s seized. Always have back up batteries with you.
Cross-body sling bags are better than backpacks. They’re more ergonomic, the multiple pockets are within reach on the front of your body and you won’t be pulled from behind.
Bring water, energy bars and toilet paper. You could be out the whole day (or night.)
Hostile law enforcement
Don’t argue with a cop. Move away if they tell you to. Maintain your cool, memorize their badge number. Struggling with police or obstructing an arrest could lead to yours.
Obtain a USAGM “Safe Passage” letter to be out after curfew, and print multiple copies to keep in different pockets and/or bags.
Editors should speak with police headquarters to ascertain whether journalists should be clearly marked as such, and to seek assurances that they will not be targeted. Get the cell phone number of senior brass in case of arrest to cite to officers if detained.
Bring a spare phone in case yours is seized or lost. Back up important data just in case. Make sure both phones are fully charged before reporting.
Use encryption, two-step verification and hard-to-crack passwords.
Remove personal information from social media posts.
For communication with sources and colleagues, use Signal for encrypted end-to-end messaging.
And finally, trust your gut. If you don't want to be there, leave.