Slacker’s Syllabus: What To Know If You’re Arrested At A Protest

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If you’ve ever been to a protest, you know shit can get real fast.

Police can get aggressive, prompting protesters to protect themselves. Clashes sometimes turn violent. Then the cops tend to break out the cuffs.

It’s hard to determine exactly how many people are arrested while protesting each year. But in the two weeks after the murder of George Floyd, police arrested more than 10,000 people at protests.

You might think you’d never do anything to get arrested.

People don’t get arrested that often, right?

Think again.

Arrests are very common. Every three seconds, somebody is arrested in the U.S., and 80% are for low-level offenses like “disorderly conduct.”

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Sometimes, people think only “bad” protesters are arrested, and the “good” ones are left alone.

That dichotomy doesn’t exist — especially if you’re protesting the police.

When you’re protesting where police are present, you should assume you’re under the risk of arrest.


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First: Don’t go to a protest without telling anyone.

At least one person who isn’t protesting should be aware of your plans.

This person should have your basic information — like legal name and date of birth — so that, if necessary, they can find you in the jail roster.

You can also let them know of any emergency contacts to notify if you’re arrested or injured.

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Avoid protesting alone, if possible.

It’s better to attend protests with at least one trusted person.

This way, you’re able to watch out for each other. You should also have each other’s emergency contacts in case of injury or arrest.

Don’t forget that phones can be broken or lost, too. So write that information down on your body!

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If you are arrested, you’ll need a way to get yourself out.

In most cases, that means paying bail.

Bail amounts are set by judges and can vary widely depending on factors like whether you have any current charges against you or an existing criminal record.

But racial disparities and colorism in the cash bail system are very obvious.

“Cash bail has been used — not as a form of release — but actually as a form of incarceration and control.”

If you can’t afford bail, find funds you can tap into.

In general, national organizations like The Bail Project and Believers Bail Out assist low-income people and Muslims, respectively, with bail funds. You can also look into location-specific projects, like the Minnesota Freedom Fund and the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, for organizations specifically helping protesters in your community,

If you’re attending a protest organized by specific groups, they may have jail support to track arrests and organize bail, too.

Write all bail-related contact information on an easily accessible part of your body.

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What should you do after you’re arrested?

First, you may not actually be under arrest.

You can be arrested by police, but you can also be simply detained. When you’re arrested, you’re taken into custody and charges are coming. Detainments have no charges attached and should be “brief and cursory.”

Theoretically, you’re free to leave if you’re being detained. However, detainments can turn into de facto arrests — meaning you’re arrested in practice, even if not legally.

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In most cases, police just arrest you at protests.

The difference between being detained and arrested matters more to your lawyer than anybody else.

In practice, as a Black Muslim woman, I treat being detained as if I’m under arrest. Because what do I look like taking my chances with the police?

That may be the best course of action for you, too.


I’m all for radical action, like de-arresting people. But depending on the action and numbers of protesters compared to police, resisting arrest may not be the best course of action.

Be aware of the risks of resisting arrest. It can catch you serious charges. You may be beaten, Tased, or worse.

Resisting arrest isn’t only explicitly fighting back. Not cooperating with restraints, or refusing to walk when and where you’re told, may also be considered resisting.

Stay. Quiet.

Your right to remain silent is guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment.

Use it.

Depending on the state, you may be required to provide your name and some other basic information to an officer. But otherwise, the most you should ever say to police is to request a lawyer.

Be clear with that request. In 2015, a man in custody asked for “a lawyer, dawg.” The judge said that since the man asked for a “lawyer dog,” his request wasn't clear, and anything he said during the interrogation could be used against him. 🙄, I know, but just say exactly what you mean — and nothing more.


Your rights may be violated while you’re in custody.

It’s a dim note to end on, but it’s important to know. It’s better to assume you’ll be mistreated by police and prepare for a protest with that in mind than to expect anything else.

What mistreatment looks like varies. For example, my hijab was illegally removed in a Minnesota jail. I’ve known trans women who were placed with men.

This is a general guideline, so it’s impossible to give individualized advice. But do research into how people with your identities have been treated. Then consider how you’ll respond if you encounter a similar situation.


If you want to know more:

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Know Your Rights article is a good tool, and it includes a section on what to do when your rights are violated.

You can also look at this post for more info on your legal rights from a criminal defense lawyer.