Protest Safety: All the Links

The upcoming workshops I’m leading on Protest Safety cover a lot of ground: verbal assertiveness, non-verbal communication, boundary setting, de-escalation, intervention, and tactical nonviolence. Since we can’t do justice to all those areas in one session, I’m posting these more detailed resources. If you’re coming to a workshop, feel free to print the handouts and bring them with you for reference. (I’ll have some handouts available at the workshops, but we often run out.)

Boundary Setting (PDF)
De-escalation (PDF)
Intervention (PDF)

Finally, the following resources are referenced in the Basic Protest Safety handout above; I’m putting the links here again for ease of access:

Know Your Rights: Free Speech, Protests & Demonstrations (ACLU)
Search and seizure (EFF)
How to use your smartphone in a protest
Tactical Nonviolence: philosophy & methods (Bruce Hartford)
Crowd psychology and safety
Activist’s Guide to Basic First Aid
Pepper Spray & Tear Gas: Avoiding, Protection, Remedies

Fuck Civility; or, How to Be Rude for Democracy

NB: This is a quick overview of a section from my Affinity Group Protest Tactics workshop. The full workshop covers stuff like assertive communication, boundary-setting and emotional grounding, intervention, and de-escalation, so the advice below is necessarily incomplete. Moreover, since conditions are changing so rapidly in American civic discourse, it’s hard to say which approach will work best in any given context. We’re all learning as we go, so take this as a starting point.

Assertive communication, rudeness, and civic protest

Assertive communication fosters a healthy balance of power in a relationship. In an everyday relationship, it’s often a warning sign when a person ignores your “No,” talks over you, or otherwise violates your boundaries—such behavior indicates the person does not respect you.

In public discourse, ideally, people with different opinions argue in good faith and respectfully listen to each other’s positions.

When we encounter people not arguing in good faith (trolling, sea-lioning, distracting, etc.), we may choose to set a boundary (blocking on social media, for example), or to foil our antagonist by other means (like mockery or sarcasm). Our choice may depend on what we want from the interaction, and what we want observers, if there are any, to notice/think about the interaction.

Talking to elected representatives is a special type of communication, which is vital to our culture and has some established norms:

  • Citizens are expected to be respectful of government leaders.
  • Leaders are expected to at least act respectful toward voters.

But elected officials have much more power than most individual citizens do, and some may use this power to silence and bully voters they disagree with. They may also allow or even encourage their supporters to silence others.

When elected officials repeatedly refuse to hear what their constituents are trying to tell them, they are acting disrespectfully and abusing the power we have granted them. An elected representative who refuses to listen is not holding up his or her end of the civic contract. They are seeking to take control a structure that is supposed to benefit all. We can think of that as theft, oppression, or violence. Whatever we call it, we have the right to resist it.

Some important points about non-violent protest (which is what you are doing if you disrupt a townhall meeting, congratulations!):

  1. A common goal of non-violent protest is to expose structural violence, including the latent violence of racism, misogyny, homophobia, economic violence, etc. This means that all TNV practitioners run some risk of violent treatment. And in practical terms, it is almost inevitable that some TNV practitioners will suffer violence of some kind. That includes verbal violence and threats.
  2. An audience is critical to successful nonviolent action. You are exposing violent, disrespectful behavior. People who have been unaware of that behavior, or willing to ignore it, need to see what is happening. Record everything, alert the press, take pictures, write down details. Remember, you can’t spell #Indivisible without “visible.”
  3. “Nonviolence” isn’t all one thing. Philosophical nonviolence means trying to love your enemies. Tactical nonviolence means you can feel any way you want about them, but you behave nonviolently. This doesn’t mean you are automatically polite, or that you don’t disrupt or inconvenience others. “Good manners” are one of the most powerful ways we normalize and enshrine the inequities in our society. A goal of nonviolent action is to expose the hypocrisy of those who commit violence while simultaneously calling for “civility.”
  4. Have an explicit agreement among your group that everyone is committed to nonviolent behavior during the action. This is not to say that nonviolent protest is the only way or the best way or a morally superior way of effecting change. The more immediate consideration is that if some of you believe you are acting nonviolently and others do not believe that, the people using nonviolent tactics will be placed at a huge, unexpected risk. Don’t do that to your allies.

Some Townhall Strategies

  1. Go in with a question. Share questions among your group, and decide who will ask each one. If the official refuses to answer the question from one person, another might ask it.
  1. Ask your question, even if they try to stop you. One option is to keep repeating it, like a broken record. You can rephrase it in small ways for variety if that helps you. (Here’s an example of Elizabeth Warren using this technique on Ben Carson:
  1. Even if people tell you to stop or talk over you, you can keep talking. You might choose to raise your voice. But don’t assume you have to stop talking just because someone tells or asks you to. If you keep talking, there is always the chance that someone, somewhere will hear you—in a recording, through others who witness your efforts, etc. (here is an example of Senate Democrats using this technique in the middle-of-the-night vote on repeal of ACA; note especially Senators Franken, Heitkamp, and Duckworth: )
  1. If the official responds with generalities or tries to change the subject and doesn’t answer your question, interrupt to point this out: “You’re not answering my question.” Restate the question.
  1. Remind them: “It’s your job to answer our questions.”
  1. If the official or their staff or other audience members try to shut you down, allies can say things like:
  • Answer her/him!
  • Answer the question!
  • Do your job and listen!
  • We want an answer!

(Having small clusters of your people spaced throughout the venue will help make this more effective.)

  1. If they try to move on and steamroll you, you can shout and drown out the next thing if you choose.
  1. Have a plan for leaving, and make sure everyone in the group agrees to it in advance. Many political events these days take place on private property, and either the official or their “hosts” are likely to tell you to leave or be arrested. If they ask you to leave, how will you respond? How much security is there? How many are in your group, how many people in attendance are unhappy that you’re there? Remember that you can keep speaking as you leave.
  1. IMPORTANT: NO ONE LEAVES ALONE. Have enough people go out to keep the person safe. Film your exit.

Here are a few follow-up questions that are easy to remember and often very disconcerting, if you have a chance to ask them:

  • Why?
  • Why not?
  • Just give me one example (when they say it’s too broad a question).
  • You are talking about your intentions. I am asking about your actions.
  • I understand you are still deciding, but will you commit to . . .?
  • Why should I vote for you if you . . .?

You might want to try roleplaying some questions before your event. Use questions you plan to ask, have someone stand in for the official, a few others as hostile attendees. Have the bulk of group your act as allies.

Protest Safety Basics

I’ve created a handout for some upcoming workshops I’ll be doing, and thought it might be helpful to post it here. Below is the information with embedded links; there is also a downloadable PDF version linked at the bottom of this post.

Protest Safety: Some Basics

This handout is intended for novice protesters. For more detailed information, see
Know Your Rights: Free Speech, Protests & Demonstrations (ACLU)
Search and seizure (EFF)
How to use your smartphone in a protest
Tactical Nonviolence: philosophy & methods (Bruce Hartford)
Crowd psychology and safety
Activist’s Guide to Basic First Aid
Pepper Spray & Tear Gas: Avoiding, Protection, Remedies

Basic skills
● Think in advance about your own tolerances for risk, injury, and emotional engagement. Know that protesting may test some of your tolerances. Remember that this is OK and can help you become stronger and more self aware.
● Learn and practice basic skills in boundary setting (PDF), de-escalation (PDF), and intervention (PDF). These are useful in all facets of your life but can be especially helpful in the emotionally charged atmosphere of a protest.
● Know that violence at U.S. protests is (currently) the exception, not the rule. Also, remember that choosing to protest does not mean you forfeit your right to safety or due process.

Planning and reconnaissance
● Assess the protest site/march route ahead of time. Look at a map if you haven’t been there before. How will you get in and out? Where are the safest places to go if there is trouble? Where can you seek medical help, food, shelter, water, and bathrooms?
● Check the weather and prepare for a range of conditions.
● Make sure someone who won’t be at the protest knows where you are and when to expect you back.
● Plan a way to connect with your group if separated. Don’t just rely on cell phone contact, and don’t rely on your phone to remember people’s numbers—write them down. Designate a meeting place and check-in time(s).
● Find out who is organizing the protest and what actions are planned. If there are marshals or other on-the-ground leaders, make sure you can identify them and are comfortable following their instructions.
● Ask if there are legal groups who will help protesters if arrests occur.

On the ground
● Use common sense: Bring funds for cab or bus fare, not a ton of cash. Secure your wallet. Wear purse straps across your body, not just over one arm. Wear comfortable shoes. Bring a water bottle and any medications you need.
● At the protest, monitor traffic patterns and the pulse of the event. Be alert for crowding or shoving, direct confrontations (verbal or physical), shifting police barricades, and other changes to the terrain and mood.
● Watch out for individuals actively trying to start trouble—shoving people into others, provoking cops. Agitators usually circulate and try to disrupt at multiple points. Ignore or avoid them or try setting a verbal boundary (“We’re not going to use violence! Go away!”).

If trouble arises
● If things grow chaotic, make a decision about whether to leave or stay. Don’t feel bad about leaving. You can always come back later if it seems safe.
● If you or others with you are especially vulnerable (children, elderly or mobility impaired, for example), GET OUT.
● If staying, identify potential exit routes in multiple directions (look 360 degrees around you). Note the hazards and obstacles: dead ends, bottlenecks like gates, bridges or doorways, police blockades.
● If you choose to stay or cannot get out, decide on a role you can fill: Witness? Recorder? De-escalator? Intervener? Obstructer? It’s OK to change your role as the situation develops. The point is to assert some agency, and not let yourself be swept up in events around you.
● In a crowd, you want to avoid falling down or being compressed against walls or other people. Keep your wits about you and your feet beneath you.

Reflecting and sharing
● After the protest, check in with others who participated and compare experiences. What did you observe and learn?
Normalize dissent. Share your experiences. Public demands for redress are an integral part of American history and civic life; we can build support for protest by talking about it as a rewarding, positive experience.
● Share what you learn about effective safety practices during protest. We’re all learning as we go.

Download a PDF of this information: protestsafetyhandout.

No Response to Letter on Austin Police Use-of-Force Training

In December 2014, in collaboration with other concerned Austinites, I sent this letter to Austin’s Chief of Police, asking about specific elements of our police department’s use-of-force training. After applying some pressure through the Austin City Council, we finally received a reply. In response, we sent the following letter, asking to meet with relevant city representatives to discuss how police use-of-force training could be improved. Four months later, we still have received no reply from any of the twelve city officials to whom the letter was sent.

Two days ago, Austin police shot and killed a naked, unarmed, 17-year-old black boy who was behaving erratically.

October 13, 2015

Art Acevedo, Chief of Police
Austin Police Department
715 E. Eighth St.
Austin, TX 78701

xc: Mayor Stephen Adler
Council Member Ora Houston
Council Member Delia Garza
Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria
Council Member Gregorio Casar
Council Member Ann Kitchen
Council Member Donald S. Zimmerman
Council Member Leslie Pool
Council Member Ellen Troxclair
Council Member Kathie Tovo
Council Member Sheri P. Gallo

P.O. Box 1088
Austin, TX 78767

Dear Chief Acevedo,

Thank you very much for your response to our previous letter about police use-of-force training. We are heartened to learn that the Austin Police Department takes de-escalation training seriously, and exceeds state training requirements. And we deeply appreciate your willingness to help us understand how APD handles this portion of its officers’ training.

The training requirements you describe in your letter are laudable. We are glad to know that APD exceeds TCOLE standards for cadet training. However, in-service training for officers seems much less intensive, apart from the monthly firearms training. As you are no doubt aware, communication, cultural awareness, and emotional regulation are skills that must be practiced regularly in order to be used effectively in an emergency. Additionally, your letter states that tactical communication training is elective, not mandatory. For these and other reasons, we feel there is still room to strengthen APD’s use-of-force training procedures. Recent events in Austin and across the country should strengthen our resolve to do so.

Law professor and former police officer Seth Stoughton, writing in publications such as the Harvard Law Review, has recommended that police departments prioritize the following updates to their training:

  1. Add ongoing risk calibration training. As Stoughton explains, police training needs to go beyond emphasizing the severity of the risks that officers face by taking into account the likelihood of those risks materializing. For all of its significant risks, policing is safer now than it has ever been. In percentage terms, officers were assaulted in about 0.09 percent of all interactions, were injured in some way in 0.02 percent of interactions, and were feloniously killed in 0.00008 percent of interactions. Adapting officer training to these statistics doesn’t minimize the very real risks that officers face, but it does help put those risks in perspective. Officers should be trained to keep that perspective in mind as they go about their jobs.
  1. Training should compensate for the unconscious racial biases that lead officers to perceive a greater threat from black men than from others. Officers are not unique in having racial biases, but it is of special concern in the context of policing because officers use more force when they perceive a greater threat. While the cadet Community Immersion projects your letter described are no doubt helpful, research strongly suggests that other methods could complement and deepen this important training. In particular, scenario training that takes place in a de-adrenalized setting not only improves subjects’ decision-making processes, but trains the body to be calm in decision-making moments. Such experiences can actually lower trainees’ cortisol levels in the moment and help them plan ahead, thinking about possible scenarios, which makes it easier to respond more effectively (and calmly) in the moment. These somatic approaches to crisis response can lead to more accurate threat identifications, and help correct for racial bias that officers may not even be aware of.
  1. Use-of-force training should also emphasize de-escalation and flexible tactics in a way that minimizes the need to rely on force, particularly lethal force. Police agencies that have emphasized de-escalation over assertive policing, such as Richmond, California; Kalamazoo, Michigan; and Seattle, Washington, have seen a substantial decrease in officer uses of force, including lethal force, without seeing an increase in officer fatalities.
  1. Officers should be trained and required to initiate non-enforcement contacts with community members. Building on training that grew out of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Strategic Social Interaction Modules training, a “non-enforcement contact” means an interaction in which officers are prohibited (except in emergencies, of course) from taking enforcement actions: no asking for identification, no running criminal history checks, no issuing tickets, and no making arrests. The purpose is threefold: give officers and community members the chance to get to know each other as individuals, emphasize the agencies’ visible commitment to community policing, and teach officers communications skills that they will use countless times over the course of their careers.
  1. When violence isavoidable, officers should be required to use tactical restraint even when that means holding their position or temporarily withdrawing. We are curious about APD’s official policies on tactical restraint, and whether its use might be expanded.
  1. Police executives need to move beyond the reflexive refusal to engage in meaningful review of police uses of force. Walter Katz, Deputy Director of the Inspector General’s Office that oversees the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, has suggested that police shootings be reviewed by applying the Human Factors Analysis and Classification system used to investigate plane crashes. The emphasis is on identifying that factors that contributed to incidents so they can be prevented from happening again. Officer training should be constantly revised to incorporate the lessons learned from those reviews. We would like to know more about APD’s review process, how it compares to the Human Factors system, and what changes have been made in recent years as a result of use-of-force incident reviews.

We want the community we live in to be a national model of respectful, just, community-oriented policing. Many changes are needed locally and in the larger culture in order to realize that ideal, but ensuring the very best training for law enforcement is an important step in the process. We know that APD’s officer training program faces many constraints and challenges. However, we believe that improved training methods would significantly improve citizen safety and community relations with APD. We also feel that state-of-the-art de-escalation training would significantly reduce the risk and stress experienced by the officers who serve our community. Therefore, we would like to further discuss these types of training with you, and to advocate with the city on behalf of the police department for appropriate training resources.

To that end, we are requesting a meeting with available City Councilmembers, relevant APD and City staff, and interested citizens to further discuss these and other suggestions for stronger de-escalation training at APD, and how we can best contribute to making Austin’s police force a model of responsible, community-based policing.

We look forward to continuing this conversation with you, and further strengthening the spirit of collaboration between APD and the greater Austin community.


Susan Schorn, PhD
1900 Forestglade Dr.
Austin, TX 78745
(512) 693-8020

Scott Swearingen, PhD
Paige Schilt
Tina Posner
Jason Craft
Michael Craigue
Dr. Lisa Lynne Moore
Jack Kaulfus
Laura Hayden
Carmel Drewes, MSW
Laura Gomez-Horton
DeAnna Harris-McKoy
Wen Nguyen
Dr. Pauline Strong
Dr. Trish Roberts-Miller
Victoria Davis
Lisa Rawlinson
Doris Ann Newton
Coty DeLacretez
Graham Smith
Alicia Philley
Dr. Barbara Jones

Remarks from Gun-Free UT Rally

Gun-Free UT rally

Gun-Free UT rally

Today I spoke at a campus rally against the implementation of a state law that will allow concealed carry of firearms on public college campuses throughout Texas. For an hour, informed, compassionate, articulate staff and faculty at UT spoke out about the many ways this law will endanger the campus community. I was particularly struck by the words of Matt Valentine, a fellow staff member here at UT, who told us something remarkable about the Founding Fathers’ interpretation of the Second Amendment as it pertains to college campuses:

The University of Virginia Board of Visitors took up the issue of campus carry in 1824, and didn’t have to look far for an originalist perspective—Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were in attendance. The board resolved that “No Student shall, within the precincts of the University … keep or use weapons or arms of any kind, or gunpowder.”

Tragically, while our rally was in progress, a mass shooting was taking place on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseberg, Oregon. Initial reports indicate ten people have died and another 20 are wounded.

Here’s a rough transcript of my remarks:

I work in the School of Undergraduate Studies here at UT; I was an undergraduate and graduate student here, and I’ve taught here. I’ve also taught self defense for over fifteen years. There are some counter-protestors here with signs about how guns are necessary for self defense, and I want to speak particularly to them today. I teach and write about violence prevention and self defense policy, so I want to talk about the impact this law will have on women’s safety, and I especially want to address supporters of the law who claim it will reduce campus sexual assault and make women safer. It will not.

Sociologist Jennifer Carson, writing in the journal Violence Against Women, has described our culture’s “fetishizing of the gun as the primary tool of self-defense. The NRA,” she points out, “has become the predominant public face of self-defense, and its positions and politics are often seen, erroneously, as representing those of all self-defense advocates.”

As a teacher of feminist empowerment self defense, I’m here to tell you the NRA does not speak for me, or our movement. the NRA’s insistence that women must have guns to stay safe is unsupported by data. There is a robust research base to the contrary, most recently a random controlled trial involving 900 college women that was reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, showing that women who participated in feminist-informed self defense–not gun-based–experienced a 50% reduction in sexual assault. Resistance can and does stop sexual assault, without guns. It does so every day. Despite the proven effectiveness of such training, the NRA claims that women have no power or agency over their own safety unless they carry a gun. Their support of this law, their desire to flood our campus with guns, is an attempt to make women complicit in the ongoing militarization of our communities. We will not comply.

If we allow guns in classrooms, office, and dorms at UT, more women will die. This is a fact. Dr. Deobrah Azrael at the Harvard School of Public Health said the following about campus carry laws earlier this year: “What we know is where there are more guns, more women die. That’s just incontrovertibly true. . . . everything we know suggests that access to firearms increases the likelihood of death and injury. Disproportionately to women . . . . If more women have guns, have them accessible, the likelihood that more women are going to die by suicide goes way up. What we know is that . . . when there are more guns and they’re more accessible, unintentional gun deaths will increase. What we know is that alcohol and guns are a terrible combination.”

All of which is incredibly relevant to the college environment. If there is a gun in your dorm room, actuarial evidence shows—the statistics compiled by insurance companies, not lobbyists—that you are at greater risk of dying from that gun than from any other possible event happening. Having a gun in your dorm room is the greatest threat to your life on campus.

I’d also ask everyone here to remember that if we allow concealed carry all over campus, we are giving rapists and potential rapists permission to carry a weapon everywhere with them, which will make the commission of rape that much easier for them. Rape is already a crime of power. The last thing we need to do is give rapists firepower.

Thank you.