Mass demonstrations have erupted in cities across the United States in the wake of the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by police in Minneapolis. These protests have focused the nation’s collective attention on a conversation that wouldn’t be happening otherwise—namely, how black lives are disproportionately targeted in acts of police violence, a trend that has been documented extensively for decades across the nation.

Mass demonstrations are among the most effective means of resisting state violence, especially when they’re organized, focused on key messaging, and tied to long-term legislative goals. But when documenting these demonstrations, it’s vital to understand the risks involved.

The Risk of Police Violence

We have seen numerous disturbing incidents coming out of protests in various cities in the last week showing journalists and individuals being targeted by acts of police aggression. (A fair warning: many of the following links depict graphic injury.) These incidents include journalists shot in the throat and blinded by rubber bullets, a traumatic brain injury for a young bystander from another rubber bullet, a CNN reporter arrested on live television, and many, many, many others. It is clear that any filmmaker planning to go out in these times should consider the possibility that their safety might be threatened by similar acts of state violence.

The Risk of Spreading COVID-19

In addition—and crucially—filmmakers must keep in mind the unique risks the coronavirus pandemic poses during mass demonstrations, which could become super-spreader events that risk putting severe pressure on healthcare workers. Complicating this even more is the reality, documented by the Centers for Disease Control, that the coronavirus pandemic affects black and brown communities disproportionately higher than the national average. (In light of this, the recent revelation that George Floyd tested positive for COVID-19 shouldn’t be surprising.) There is also the very real possibility that any COVID-19 spikes in the weeks following mass protests could be used as a weapon against the movement. The seriousness of the overall coronavirus pandemic threat cannot be underestimated, so proper safety considerations are key.

This might all seem overwhelming, but it is the hard truth of the matter. If you plan to document the demonstrations, you should protect yourself and others from the dual threats of acts of police violence and COVID-19. We hope this article can serve as a guide to help educate filmmakers about how to be most effective and stay safe. Remember above all else that no shot is worth compromising your personal safety and that of others.

Know Why You’re Filming the Demonstrations

It is worth preparing for a demonstration by asking yourself what you want your purpose to be as a videographer. Filming the demonstrations can serve specific purposes: exposing violent and discriminatory policing against protestors (like excessive uses of force or targeting peaceful demonstrators), spreading public awareness of the issue of disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system championed by protestors, and amplifying the voices of the leaders in the fight for greater police accountability.

John BoyegaActor John Boyega giving a speech in London during a Hyde Park demonstration.

Know Your Rights

In general, you have a right to film law enforcement in the United States as long as you are in public and you don’t interfere. The question of interference is entirely up to the police officer on the scene—if they tell you to back up, immediately comply with their orders. Stay at least 6 feet away from the subject of your footage, just to be safe.

Respect Demonstrators’ Identities

As a videographer, be especially sensitive about respecting the identity of protestors; anonymity is essential for protecting demonstrators from potential retaliation. Do not post recordings of people who could be easily identified by distinctive clothing or because they’re not wearing a mask. Blurring out recognizable faces before posting videos and images on social media is essential unless you get explicit consent. YouTube even has a tool that helps automate this process.

Footage as Evidence

If you’re interested in documenting the demonstrations from the perspective of protecting human rights, you must hold your filming practices to the highest possible ethical and strategic standards. I highly recommend thoroughly studying video guidelines laid out by human rights organization WITNESS.

Their advice is to focus your filming style on veritability—focus on details like landmarks and street signs to establish your location. Turn on GPS features if they’re available on your camera. Film continuously to prevent the perception of editing or manipulating your footage. Focus on police officers and details about their number, behavior around protestors, use of force, if they have weapons and how they use them. Pan slowly and hold your framing for ten seconds or longer—civil rights advocates should easily be able to tell what’s going on. Footage of this kind could potentially, though rarely, be used as evidence in a courtroom.

Stay Up to Date

When you go to a protest, you should understand the full extent of what you’re getting into. Black Lives Matter in Seattle has created a protestor safety guide that is worth studying in detail. Watch recent videos and study reports documenting your local police force’s tactics. Know what to expect when you’ll be at risk of acts of aggression or violent arrest. Stay aware of your surroundings. Make an escape plan. Know where to expect police presence, and screenshot or print paper maps to take with you in case you become separated from your phone.

Share what you learn with your fellow filmmakers, demonstrators, friends, and family. Never pass up the opportunity to learn or teach something that could protect your physical and mental wellbeing.

Use the Buddy System

When demonstrating, avoid going by yourself. It’s safer to travel in pairs or with a group. Stick with your group in case the demonstration becomes chaotic. Take a roll call before and after. Prioritize the voices of people of color in your groups, and listen to their needs especially if things get violent.

If You Get Arrested

Tell people who you trust when and where you’re going out, and make sure they know your full legal name and birth date. In case you get arrested, they will be able to help locate you until you’re processed and out of custody. Write important phone numbers on your arm using a permanent marker, including someone who can help bail you out of jail if necessary, and a lawyer (such as a local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild).

If police engage with your group, stay calm. Insulting police officers or advancing toward them is not productive and can be very dangerous to yourself and others. Stick with your group, document the interaction, and know what to say if you’re detained. If you get arrested, say you wish to remain silent, request your phone call immediately, and then say nothing else.

Protect Your Phone

Use a 6-digit lock code and disable face ID and thumbprint ID unlock features. Read up on the specific features of your mobile device and decide what the best balance is between cloud backups for documentation using your camera, using and disabling tracking features, and protecting your data. If you get arrested, know that your phone will be taken from you until you’ve been processed and released, so lock it accordingly.

Protect Your Face

Masks protect you from exposure to COVID-19 if they properly cover your nose and mouth. They also protect you from being identified—as outlined earlier, anonymity is very important to protect yourself and others from retaliation.

Social Distance

Public health experts agree that in crowded environments, you should try to keep as much distance from other people as possible and wear a mask to avoid exposure and transmission of the coronavirus. Be especially careful of situations when the police use tear gas or pepper spray, as this may disproportionately cause higher chances of exposure to COVID-19 since people in close proximity are likely to remove their masks, cough, breathe heavily, and touch their eyes and face in response to the effects of chemical irritants.

Protect Yourself from Chemical Dispersants

If you get exposed to pepper spray, mace, or tear gas, don’t touch your skin. Strip your clothes and bag them, rinse yourself (outside, preferably) with cool water and gentle soap, and avoid staying in close proximity to others who are coughing. Don’t run or breathe deeply—walk quickly and take shallow breaths.

Protect Your Eyes

Your eyes are especially vulnerable to rubber bullets, chemical dispersants, and coronavirus transmission. Protect them with safety or ski goggles (good), swim goggles (better), or gas impermeable goggles (best). Avoid wearing contact lenses—they can trap chemicals and gas against your eyes.

Protect Your Skin

Wear clothes that fully cover all your arms and legs in case of exposure to burning chemicals. Do not wear lotion, makeup, or oils—they trap chemicals against your skin. Avoid wearing anything synthetic, including surgical gloves, because they will melt to your skin. Use tactical gloves instead, or else bring hand sanitizer and use it often to avoid spreading COVID-19.

Protect Your Head

Bike helmets or hard hats are best. Hats or beanies are good to consider because they cover your hair, which could be used to forcibly grab you.

Protect Your Mental Health

There’s a possibility you might suffer from trauma based on what you witness, record, or directly experience in the course of filming a demonstration. Check in with yourself often and know what your resources are in case you need help, whether they be friends and family or professional services.

Bring Extra PPE

Bring additional masks, bandanas, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) with you to share in case the people around you don’t have their own. Prioritize your and others’ health and model proper pandemic safety protocol.

Know When to Stay Home

You should always honestly assess whether or not you are prepared to face the potentially harmful effects of filming a demonstration. In case of arrest, you should consider how likely you are to be held in custody instead of being quickly processed and released from jail (things could get complicated if you have a criminal record, complicated citizenship status, or even unpaid fines). 

Because of the unique seriousness of the risk posed by COVID-19, you must be especially discerning. The coronavirus doesn’t just affect you if you get sick. In the midst of a pandemic, the disease carries additional risks to friends and family, first responders who could be exposed through caring for you, pressure on the larger healthcare system, and the fact that these effects will hit black and brown communities the hardest

Ask yourself: Are you at a high risk of contracting COVID-19? Do you live with vulnerable people such as older people or people with preexisting health conditions? Are you a first responder or have a job that requires you to be in regular contact with people? Are you responsible for caring for others? Have you not been able to quarantine or live with someone who hasn’t been keeping quarantine since the pandemic began?

Know the risks, have frank conversations with the people you live with, and make preparations before deciding to put yourself and others at risk.

Protesters in MinneapolisProtestors raise their hands in solidarity outside of the Fifth Police Precinct in Minneapolis in response to the death of George Floyd. (May 30, 2020)

As a final note: This should go without saying, but DO NOT BRING WEAPONS or any illegal items with you. There is no excuse for violent behavior—after all, that’s what this is all about in the first place.

Stay safe out there, and keep filming.

Adrian Vásquez de Velasco is a video journalist, documentary filmmaker, interactive designer, and communications organizer for Young Progressives of America activists in New York.