First off, this is NOT a tip sheet on how to cover a protest. That’s between you and your editors. This tip sheet is about how to get through a protest with minimal pain or injury, culled together by J-- R--- and S--- L--- at the Toronto Star from experiences at WTO protests in Seattle, FTAA in Quebec City, IMF and World Bank in Washington, the OAS in Windsor and attendance at the protester’s own training camps.
· Get a gas mask. Old army surplus gas masks may offer some relief from tear gas, but filter canisters have a limited shelf life. Check expiry dates. Keep the mask concealed until needed. People may want to take it from you, and they won’t ask politely.
· Keep a bandana soaked in vinegar in a Ziploc bag with you at all times. If your gas mask is stolen, or you don’t have it with you, it will be a backup. Place the bandana over your nose and mouth.
· If you are stationed at an active fence demonstration, consider a helmet. Hardcore protesters throw rocks. Again, keep the helmet concealed until needed.
· Ear protection. The sound cannons are new, so the best advice we can offer at this point is get good ear protection, from ear plugs to construction-grade ear covers. The closer you intend to get, the better protection you'll need.
· Water bottle with a spray top. Not just for drinking. If you are gassed, and it gets in your eyes, spraying with water is the only cure. Aim for the corner of your eye by your nose. Water should flush around your eye and clear out the gas. Better yet, get someone else to do it. Not surprisingly, the protesters tend to be good at this.
· How you dress is important. If you look like a protester, you are more likely to be treated as one by riot police. If you don’t dress like one, more militant protesters may surmise that you are a member of the main stream media or police and target you. In Quebec, hardcore guys threw paint-filled balloons at media. It was Barney purple, and very difficult to remove. So, try to strike a balance in how you look.
· No natural fibres. Tear gas sticks to natural fibres, so wear nylon, polyester, etc. The last thing you want is to take that stink home, and we don’t want it here. Consider a change of clothes for going home.
· Hide press credentials until you need them. Protesters often don’t like the “corporate media.” That said, riot police in the heat of the moment may not care if you are press, even if you happen to be Lloyd Robertson.
· Food and caffeine. Carry with you. If the protests get bad, shops will close and you will have a tough time staying fed and caffeinated without leaving the story. High-energy power bars are good.
· Know where you are and how to get out fast. Police in the past have fired waves of tear gas, at varying distances, all at once. This can cause great panic amongst less hardcore protesters and cause a stampede.
· Rubber bullets, at close range, will break bones.
· Don’t pick up a detonated tear gas canister with bare hands. They are hot. Very hot. If you must, kick it away.
· Concussion grenades. These are loud bangs that will make you think a gun has gone off right beside you. They are meant to disorient, and they do. They are also hot, so don’t touch.
· Tasers. Given the bad press for Tasers, we may not see much of them here, but they were used in Quebec City to break up protesters who sat down in the road and refused to move.
· If you get enough of a snoot full of tear gas, you will find yourself on your hands and knees, leaking big time from eyes, nose and mouth. It will be very hard to breath. This is normal. You will be disoriented, but try not to panic, find relative shelter, if you can, and ride it out. You’ll feel like you’re dying but you’ll live. Flush your eyes.
· If at all possible, pair yourself with another journalist and watch each other’s back.
· If you are carrying electronics, beware of water canons. A waterproof bag is a good idea.
· Have a pencil stowed away. In the event you and your notepad take an unexpected shower, you can still write with that. Those big, thick pencils meant for kindergarten classes are best, since the leads don’t break as easily.
Sensitivity to gas increases as the protest goes on. Tear gas can be like bee stings – it gets worse with each hit, so stick closer to these tips as the protest wears on.
You will need a shower after a day of being gassed. Remember, that the gas will cling to your hair (it’s a natural fibre), so the first thing to do in the shower is hold your head back and stick your face into the shower.
Otherwise, the gas in your hair will go straight for your eyes.
Be careful, and alert, and you’ll be okay.
If you are going to the protests next weekend and want to meet a real life Star reporter, to maybe get your picture with them or something, I have created the following professional-grade sketch of one, so you can more easily identify them in the flesh. Keep in mind, his bandana baggie and camera are stashed in his back pockets:
The reporter might also look like this: