Freelance journalist Dominik Bärlocher has spent the past three years on “riot duty” at a Swiss newspaper. He’s turned his experience covering violent football riots and May Day protests into a handy survival guide for journalists about what to wear, how to behave in protest crowds and minimize the effect of crowd control weapons, and what to do if you’re arrested.
For three years now, I have been doing what we call “Riot Duty”. I go to football games and stand in the ranks where there is most likely going to be violence. I also go to political protests to hear the message the protesters want to get across and to document the destruction, like on May 1st. That day is known as either the International Workers’ Day or, simply, May Day. Usually, the protests on that day start off harmless and then get more and more violent as the mob mentality starts taking over. The same happens at football games. Once the fans have reached a certain level of frenzy, it starts to get violent rather quickly.
The recent G20 protests in Canada have shown me that there’s a shocking lack of education when it comes to covering violence, protests or riots. Nobody at the universities tells the students how they can properly prepare and then do their jobs in a situation that can get violent and see journalists injured quickly. This is why I have written this article. In this guide, you will learn how to properly prepare for a situation in which riots might occur, how to behave in a protesting crowd, how to minimize the effects of crowd control weapons and how to act if you get arrested. The goal of this guide is to get you in and out of a protest or riot safely so that you can still make your deadline and remain unhurt.
Wear comfortable, good shoes
I’ve seen a lot of journalists go into these situations wearing sneakers or even heeled shoes as well as fashionable clothing. In situations like these, you need functional clothing and tightly laced shoes that you can run in. I get my “Riot Gear” from military surplus stores and wear black cargos and a ripstop jacket with heavy boots. Lace up your shoes and boots as tight as you can. The shoes shouldn’t cut off the flow of blood to the foot, but they should be as tight as possible.
Pack your rucksack
Forget handbags or shouldered bags, because they’re easy to lose and tend to get caught on corners. Another reason for rucksacks is the additional shielding it provides against water cannons, rubber bullets and whatever else anyone could throw at you. It doesn’t sound like much, but every bit helps. Make sure your rucksack has at least a strap across the chest and preferably another one around the waist. These straps keep the rucksack from bouncing around and hindering you, especially when running. The backpack should also have at least one open pocket at the side. Everything you carry in the rucksack should be expendable. Generally: Leave everything you don’t want to lose or see broken at home or in the office.
Carry a bottle of water
In the open pocket at the side of your rucksack, you should carry a bottle of uncarbonated water. This water is intended for tear gas attacks, when you have to flush out your eyes and clear your mouth and nose. Carry at least 500ml with you.
Carry your press pass outside your wallet in a pocket
When asked for it, you must be able to produce your press pass and some form of ID. Carry both of those things separately in a separate pocket. Preferably, that pocket should be closed.
At the scene
Don’t introduce yourself as a member of the press
In an agitated crowd, identifying yourself as a member of the press is a bad idea. There’s always someone with a fiery hatred of press around. Since the crowd is large and agitated, you do not want to agitate them any further. If you need statements, ask them casually and then ask if you can use it in your article after you’ve got what you need. Besides, people in these situations usually have better things to do than to give an interview.
Take as few notes as possible
Riots and protests really are situations where you can exercise your memory. Protesters do not like people walking alongside them, taking notes. Even worse is when the notes are taken on paper with the newspaper logo on it. This is another thing that could easily get you in trouble and see you hurt in the end.
Walk along the sides of the protesters
The people who throw stones and such usually do that from the middle of the mass of protesters where they can blend back into the crowd. They rarely ever hide at the fringes of the protest unless it has evolved into an all-out riot where it doesn’t matter where you stand anymore.
While at the protest-turned-riot, the police will treat you as one of the protesters. So when you see policemen running towards you in full riot gear, run away from them. Standing there like a log and fumbling for your press pass or yelling “I’m Press” won’t help you one bit. When the police are charging towards the crowd, they do it with a good reason. They do not have the time to look at something the size of a credit card that is being held up by one person standing in their way when there’s a mob tearing apart the city behind them. They will just tear through you, arrest you and then ask questions. Besides, digging around in your pocket might easily be misinterpreted: This is the one thing I’ve seen most journalists do wrong. We’re conditioned to think pulling the press pass solves everything. In this situation, it doesn’t. You see the police, you run as fast as you can.
Do not pick anything up
Leave everything that flies your way on the ground. If you pick up a rock the protesters have thrown, you can get yourself arrested because it might look as if you’re going to throw it. If you pick up a tear gas canister, you’ll badly burn your hand as most of them are really hot.
Do not resist arrest
When being arrested at a protest, you’ll be taken to a holding area and have to wait for processing, due to the massive amount of arrests. Identifying yourself as the press right away won’t do you any good, as the middle of the riot is neither the time nor the place to explain who you are. Do that in the holding area, where the police officers in charge are more relaxed. They’ll let you go pretty quickly in most cases.
During the riot
Run away from smoke, fire, police and flying things in general. Do all this while your head is down.
If you manage to get hit by tear gas, run away from the police as fast as you can while breathing as little as you can. Once you’re safe, take the bottle of water you’ve got with you and flush out your eyes. It will still hurt, but not nearly as bad as it does when you leave it in. Also, gurgle a bit of the water and – if you can – flush out your nose.
This is what the police officers use most of the time. If you can’t run or duck behind something, turn your back against the police, get down on your knees, keep your head down and protect your face. You will feel the bullets, there’s no way around that. But your backpack will shield you quite a bit. If you’re really worried about your back, wear a snowboarder back protector, as long as you can run with it. As soon as the barrage is over, run away from the police.
Even though these are pretty easy to spot – a big truck with a gun-looking thing on top – it can happen that you get caught in a blast. If that happens, turn around, cower down, close your eyes and make a sort of tent in front of your nose and mouth so that you have a bit of air left. It can happen that you’ll be swept away by the water, because this is nothing like being splashed with a garden hose.
No matter the reason for the riot or protest, keep your head down and your senses alert and you just may make your deadline.
Dominik Bärlocher is a freelance journalist from Switzerland. He likes to write stories about public transport, football and political riots, rock concerts and those weird stories nobody would expect to be good. In his free time, he plays football – the European kind, not American football – practises Aikido and reads a lot.