Preparing to Protest in Washington, D.C.

Preparing to Protest in Washington, D.C.

If you visit D.C. on any day of the year, more likely than not a public demonstration of some sort will be taking place. Two weeks ago, a Kurdish Independence Referendum, Black Lives Matter Protest, Pro-Trump rally, Cancer Research Festival, and Juggallo (appreciators of the Insane Clown Posse) protest/concert took place, all on the same Saturday.


Protests are part of everyday life in D.C. and if you’re going to live here, you’ll eventually have to decide how much you want to participate. Regardless of your political affiliation or ideologies, if you do decide to take part in a protest or rally, it is essential to know your rights. A representative from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) visited The Washington Center this past week and during his visit I was embarrassed to discover my own political and legal illiteracy. So, think of this blog post as sort of sponsored by the ACLU, because I’m going to share some of the information, advice, and tools they shared with me.


When Exercising Your Rights

Remember Everything
If you suspect a police officer of wrongdoing or an abuse of power, try to remember or record everything you can. Get their badge number, squad car license plate, name, precinct, etc. The speaker who visited The Washington Center made an important point when he said “you can’t win a police abuse case on the street." In the end, the officer has the power in the situation and resisting only gives him or her more allowance to abuse that power. Don’t give them the opportunity. At all points, try to remain calm and don’t make any sudden movements. After the interaction, send the information and a description of your experience to the ACLU or a similar organization such as the Center for Constitutional Rights, Southern Poverty Law Center, or the First Amendment Coalition.


Record Police Officers
Many people are confused or unsure about this point, but it is entirely legal to record an on-duty police officer as long as you're not interfering. If you have a smartphone, download the app MobileJustice, a recording app developed by the ACLU. If you suspect an instance of misconduct, begin recording with this app and the video will immediately be sent to the ACLU’s server. This way, even if your phone is confiscated or broken, your video is still intact.


Be Mindful of Who You Are (and Who You're With)
The legal rights of immigrants, international students, and foreign visitors are not the same as those of an American citizen. Depending on the status of one’s visa, attending a protest or demonstration can lead to deportation and cause problems in the future with re-entry. If you don’t have American citizenship, then you must take time to carefully consider the consequences of your political actions.


Be Vocal, Even When You’re Silent
The right to remain silent feels confusing whenever you actually want to invoke it. To invoke your right not to talk, you must clearly and directly say “I invoke my right to remain silent."  It may sound awkward, but always voice your intentions, even if they are to say nothing. If you don’t say it aloud, the questioning officer has the power in the situation. You must be firm and consistent in proclaiming your rights. Which leads me into my next point…


Speak with Confidence
Police officers are legally allowed to lie, intimidate, and bluff. Police officers are trained to make you contradict yourself and question your own rights. This is why it's so important to internalize your rights. Police officers may try and gaslight you, to which you must reply with firm, unshakeable certitude. It’s not an excuse to be rude or crass, but you're not being especially nice either. The police may have broad authority, but they are subject to the same laws you are, but only if you enforce them.


Don’t Lie
Whatever you do, don’t lie to a police officer. Either tell the truth or invoke your right to remain silent, but always stick with your choice.


A march through downtown DC


Key Phrases


“Am I being detained?”
While many of us have internalized the narrative that police have ultimate authority, you are actually not required to interact with the police at all if they are not actively detaining you. If you are stopped by a police officer, the first question to ask is if you are being detained. If the answer is no, then you have no obligation to any answer questions or to stay in place.


“I do not consent to a search.”
These few words can save you a whole lot of headache. A police officer may ask you at one point to look in your bag, or to pat you down, “just in case." No matter how polite an officer is being, or how intimidating they appear, you are don’t have to allow any kind of search. Again though, confidence is key.


“Can I see a warrant?”

If the police come to your door, you are not required to let them inside, talk to them, or even open the door. If they wish to enter, ask for a warrant to be slid under the door or pressed against the glass. Furthermore, there is a difference between a warrant and an “Administrative Order of Removal." The latter is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) document that does not grant the same authority as warrants. While they often look similar, Orders of Removals are not signed by a judge. If the paper the police provide for you is this type, then you are not obligated to open the door or allow them in. When determining whether a document is a legitimate warrant or not, always look for the judge’s signature, the type of warrant, and the limits of where they are allowed to search.


Utilizing your first amendment rights is a responsibility and also a privilege. Being politically active in D.C. is incredibly easy; there are established structures and organizations ready and waiting for your participation. It’s important to acknowledge, though, that this is a special city, and in many places across the country these structures don’t exist.


It's easy to attend a protest, but organizing one is another whole other story. I’ve come to further appreciate those in my home state who continue to create spaces and opportunities for people to raise their voice, despite the obstacles. If you’re able to, I highly recommend going to a protest. There is no better feeling than the camaraderie of a community coming together to condemn injustice. I hope this post gives a quick guide of some of the more practical measures of knowing and utilizing your rights. Here's a link to the ACLU’s page on free speech and police interaction for further reading. Happy protesting, my friends!


Read Noah's previous blog post

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