Protesting with Kids

Crowd standing behind a barrier at a rally. People holding signs. Photo by Life Matters on

Facebook memories reminded me on this date in 2018 many were protesting the separation of parents from children at the US – Mexico border. In subsequent summers many have rightfully protested the murders of Black people by law enforcement, and most recently the Supreme Court’s abhorrent overturning of Roe v. Wade and taking away a fundamental right for families and people with uteruses.

Public protesting has brought many important social changes. Gathering and being vocal brings media attention, elevates important issues with policymakers, and as social beings, many find comfort and connection by being part of a common cause. I also recognize public protesting isn’t for everyone. For some being in a crowd is mentally and physically too hard to participate – that is fine there are many ways to be part of social movements (in another post I’ll include ways to support protests in other ways).

While there aren’t any huge protests planned at the moment (or at least that I know of), now seems like an apt time to prepare. Earlier today Anti-Racism Daily (ARD) published a Protesting 101 guide too. Make sure to subscribe to their daily emails too.

Anti-Racism Daily covered the basics of protesting, so make sure to read their guide. My post will focus more on how to involve kids in protests. These are tips I’ve gathered over the years from friends, colleagues, and other sources. Many thanks to people who contributed to this over time.

How to Include Children in Protests

Before you go:

VERY IMPORTANT – Make sure the protest/march/rally you’re attending is appropriate for the ages of your children. Not every event is comfortable for all ages. Use your judgment and decide your tolerance level for taking your children.

Explain before you’re going what the protest or rally is about and have the child relate to it in their own way. Watch a kid-appropriate video (e.g. YouTube, etc.) about the topic, read a book – Let the Children March, We March, ¡Sí, Se Puede! / Yes, We Can!: Janitor Strike in L.A., and Enough! 20+ Protests that Changed America are a few to preview – make sure to read them alone before sharing them with kids so you can judge if they are right for your kids, share personal stories so they understand the topic.

Explain why it is important to use the voices, bodies, and collective voices to protest. Protesting is often about putting bodies on the line and taking physical risks for something we believe in. Recognize this might not be for every child and respect their discomfort.

Have your kids make a sign to take with them – kid artwork is great to see at gatherings.

Let your kid ask questions and answer as honestly as you can about the topic. For children of color, the questions may be very different than white children, especially based on reading historical events (i.e. civil rights Children’s March) – will the police dogs bite, will they put you/me in jail for being at the protest, will people help me if I get hurt? Remind them it will be a peaceful protest and you will do everything you can to keep them safe.

Put together a transit plan – don’t count on driving and parking to the event site. Do you plan on walking/marching the full route or stopping mid-route? Make sure to have a plan.

Talk to your kids about what to do if you get separated. Where should they meet up with you. Don’t count on cellphones to find each other. Have a plan and coach them on what to do if they get separated – who are people they can find who can help them – police or firefighters (caveat for law enforcement below), go into a store and talk to someone in a uniform, or another plan that is right for your family.

Day of Prep:

Prepare a backpack with snacks, water/juice, sunscreen, cash, baby shampoo (more on this later), umbrella, tissue or toilet paper, and medication(s) for you or your kids if needed during the day anticipate being out longer than you think, just in case you get stuck. Backpacks or bags that allow you to keep your hands free are good. Check with the organizers to make sure the event allows bags and what the size regulations are.

Don’t carry anything you don’t want to lose – leave valuables at home. Explain to your kids not to bring extras toys/stuffies either.  

If attending as a family wearing matching colors could be helpful. Wear comfortable shoes and dress for the weather. If you are attending a protest without kids that might be confrontational read the ARD advice about wearing black and not standing out.

Take a picture of your kids in their outfits and text or email it to a friend/family member – sending the picture to a friend/family member is helpful in case your phone is lost or disabled and you need the picture.

Use a Sharpie (permanent marker) to write your kid’s name, contact phone number, and other important info (e.g. allergies, medical, etc.) on their arm/leg/stomach. Make sure it is covered in case people take pictures in the crowd. Put the Sharpie in your bag in case you need it later that day. For adults, ARD recommends writing a legal support number on you in case you get arrested.

Give your kids a signal or a code word to signal they need to pay attention and possibly leave. If you say “we need to go,” they know they need to leave now and not argue or ask to stay longer. Explain this before the rally.

Remind them how important it is to stay with you – it is a large crowd with a lot of people, and you don’t want to lose each other. Remind them of the safety and separation plans you discussed earlier.

Use the bathroom before you leave the house and again at the staging area if you see one. Have a plan for what to do in case you or your kids REALLY have to use the bathroom during the event. This is a funny/helpful Twitter thread. Don’t forget to pack some tissue or toilet paper, just in case.

Remind your kids protests/rallies/marches are often fluid events that may not start on time, or if they are large events it may take a while for your portion of the march to start. It is part of the experience and being uncomfortable is part of how social changes happen.

At the Rally/March/Protest:

Stay towards the sides and back of the pack. These areas are often calmer and easier to step aside. It is perfectly fine to stand on the sidewalk and support the march from there.

If your kid wants to tap out respect that and leave. This is about sharing an experience with your kid, not your agenda as a parent. If it feels right set reasonable expectations for participation ahead of time, such as “we’ll walk until XXX point and decide if we want to stop there” or “We’ll stay for an hour, then see how we feel.”

Do not offer personal information to anyone at the rally.

Do not count on law enforcement to protect you or your family at the protest. The police are not there to protect you or your family. If approached by law enforcement – stay calm, keep your hands visible, tell your kids to stay with you and stay still. You do not have to consent to bag or phone searches unless they have a warrant or probable cause. Read the ACLU’s guide for more details.

Cellphones – Read ARD’s notes on having a cellphone at the protest, think about digital surveillance. As a family decides if having your personal cellphone on you is the right thing to do. Some organizers recommend bringing it because personal safety is important; you can always turn it off or put it on airplane mode if you don’t want your cellphone signal tracked, however, this prevents incoming calls/texts from reaching you.  Make sure to have backup plans with other adults that DO NOT rely on cellphone communication. Often cellphone signals might be disrupted because of the number of cellphones in the area or other disruptions. This guide to prepping your cellphone before a protest is helpful too.

Trust your judgment and be aware of the energy of the crowd. If you sense the event is getting violent tap out. Many events are intended to be peaceful, but periodically the event may be infiltrated by people who want to incite violence.  

According to @DGlaucomfecken, an ophthalmologist (via Twitter) Pepper spray is oil-based, baby shampoo (no tear formulas) will help to remove the pepper spray. DO NOT rub your eyes, immediately blink as much as you can to wash it out with your own tears. Then wash your eyes with baby shampoo and lots of water. Remove contacts right away, it is safer to wear glasses at protests.

After the Event:

Debrief with your kids about the protest. Answer questions, have ongoing conversation, and remember one protest isn’t going to change bad policies and practices – ongoing work for racial justice is needed.

Before posting pictures to social media, make sure your pictures do not ‘out’ anyone else attending the event. While it is a public event, law enforcement has been known to go through social media to find people who were at the event, including using facial recognition technology to identify people.

White People and White families Attending Rallies – Especially Racial Justice Events:

Follow the lead of Black and Brown people.

Put yourselves closer to the police, do not incite violence.

Act as human barriers when needed for Black and Brown people.

Deescalate law enforcement.

Bring extra masks, hand sanitizer, and other COVID19 protections to share.

This isn’t about you, this is about being an ally for people of color. Your job isn’t done after one day or after one rally. Be in for the long haul.

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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.