mass action handbook
getting your community on the road and into the street


legal information & policing

we are not lawyers, and this is not legal advice

arrest: there are four ways to get arrested at protests

  • civil disobedience: this is when a group of people decide to do an action which intentionally breaks the law with the intent of getting arrested in order to make a point about the injustice of the system. sometimes, these arrests (and even the charges) are pre-negotiated with the police. other times they are not. often groups organizing civil disobedience make sure that things stay very calm, so that the situation is safe for elders to participate without risk of injury.
  • failure to disperse: the US constitution affords us the right to "peacefully assemble" in public space. this right is rarely upheld by the police. when they decide they've had enough of it, they clear us out. sometimes they give dispersal orders, threatening that anybody who stays in the area is subject to arrest and/or use of "non-lethal" weapons. some people disperse at this point and many others stay. at this point it becomes a numbers and geography game. if there are less than a hundred people, it's likely the cops will go ahead and arrest them. if there are more than a hundred, it's a big hassle for the police. while there have been a few instances of arrests of 500-600 persons, it is very rare. if there are several hundred people in the area the likelihood of arrest is low, no matter what the cops say. (at this point your main concern becomes use of non-lethals. keep your eye on exits, stay together with others and remember that if they use non-lethals the goal is to get you to disperse, so they'll probably let most of you do so. you are always safest with the largest group of people. it's best if the whole group stays together so they can't pick off or brutalize smaller groups; stay in solidarity!)
  • pre-emptive arrest: sometimes the police think that it'll make their lives easier if they arrest people before they actually exercise their free speech rights. there have been a handful of raids on meetings, organizing spaces, or corralling and arresting small groups (20-50) or so who are on their way to protests, meeting in a park, etc. the goal of these arrests is to get people off the streets for a few days. there's really no way to avoid these arrests, so there's no point worrying about it. also a lot of times the police move around in such a way as to raise fears of a "raid". almost all of the time, this is an intimidation tactic used to disrupt our work. this is the time to be clear that we really can't let our fear take over. it's best to stay focused on work and be aware that lots of very smart and talented folks are in there with you. if you do get arrested in a raid, since folks generally haven't broken any laws it's hard to get a conviction. but this is part of why you want to make sure you are never carrying anything that could be construed as a weapon (like, for example, a metal nail file or a swiss army knife), because then you will get a charge that could stick. settle down in jail and learn some new songs and have a teach-in. you'll be in there with other awesome people and it'll be a great learning experience.
  • targeted arrest: there are two kinds of targeted arrests: [1] people perceived by the cops to be "organizers", who can be charged with felony conspiracies and put out of commission by jail time or exorbitant legal fees. [2] seemingly random "snatch" arrests which serves to terrorize people. if you are type [1], keep a low profile. the only protection from type [2] is to make sure somebody is watching your back. when people stay close together and are alert they can often thwart a "snatch" in progress.

jail solidarity: if you get arrested at a protest, particularly if you did not intend to get arrested, it is likely that you will be arrested with a lot of other people. if you want to minimize your charges, the best thing to do in this situation is to participate in some form of jail solidarity. read the Just Cause guide to jail solidarity. the key things to know about jail solidarity are:

  • even if you are not planning to get arrested, do not carry your id (or anything with your name on it). if you are arrested unexpectedly, it is best to participate in "jail solidarity". if you carry your id, you will not have this option; but if you don't carry your id, you will still have the option of giving your name.
  • if you are arrested, you should immediately start using your nickname with other arrestees in the van. when police ask for your name, say you are refusing to give it. then use only your nickname at all times while in custody, including phone calls, in cells, etc.
  • all the group's ids should be stashed together at the house in a spot where the legal support person knows where they are.
  • again, even if you are not planning to get arrested, jail solidarity is an important thing to know about. everyone should be versed in the basics of jail solidarityas it is particularly important in situations of unexpected arrests.

your rights: exist in theory, but not in the streets. protest policing tends to take the form of "clear them out of here and let the courts sort out the legality in a few months." nevertheless it's nice to know what your rights are so that you can be aware of when they are violated. every once in a while, showing that you know your rights will prevent cop misbehavior. sometimes these violations will help your case in court. read Legal Information on Encounters with Police (includes info on Questioning, Detainment, Searches, Arrest).  Here's a shorter version from the National Lawyers Guild and here's a comic-style version

if you witness (or are victimized by) police misconduct, exessive use of force, etc: fill out a Police Misconduct Report as soon as possible (while all the details are fresh) and turn it in to the legal team so they can use it as part of cases and class action suits.

legal support: the legal support structure includes three elements.

[1] on the ground at the action, a legal team provided by the host organizing committee will provide lawyers and jail support for all arrestees. each affinity group (or cluster) traveling to the action provides the other two elements.


[2] a member of the affinity group or cluster is appointed to be on-the-ground legal support. this person needs to stay fairly green during the actions. this person will move into high gear if anyone in the affinity group/cluster is arrested. they will be responsible for tracking their person through the legal system, staying in contact with the action legal team, and communicating with the third element, at-home legal support.

[3] one person needs to be willing to commit to being by the phone and providing legal support for the duration of the action days. this is a great role for someone who really wants to be involved in the action but needs to stay home. it's also a great way to help lovers/partners who are staying home to feel very involved. the person providing at-home legal support has several responsibilities.

  • hold a list of each person on the trip. here's a form:
    • nickname
    • regular name
    • emergency contacts (parents, lovers and other people who need to be updated in case of emergency)
    • contacts in case of delay in return (boss, etc.) and what to say to them
    • emergency medical information
    • best way to round up bail money or other emergency $ for this person (credit card info, family contact, etc.)
  • be available by phone 24 hours a day during the action days
  • make these contacts in case anyone is arrested, injured, or delayed
  • organize bail money, if necessary (this person should also have a list of local supporters who can be contacted for bail money in an emergency)
  • providing advice and support to the on-the-ground legal support person. it's important for the-at home legal support to familiarize themselves with the legal procedures and legal handbooks discussed above.
  • contact the at-home media team

common misconceptions: there are a number of aspects of protest policing which are counterintuitive.

  • the police know what they're doing: other than in DC, the police are quite unused to policing protest. they are unfamiliar with the relevant law and they are at least as scared as you are. the situation feels very out-of-control to them. they know there is a lot of hostility to them and they do not feel safe. also multiple contradictory orders may be given. their confusion is a good reason to stick around when things get hot because you may get to see them retreat, stumble, go different directions, or perform many other entertaining blunders.
  • the police have all the power: in some situations, they have a lot of power, but people have used a wide variety of tactics to assert power, evade arrest, de-escalate from imminent attack, interrupt brutality, and rescue people from harm. pretty regularly, activists outwit, outrun, and out-take the cops.
  • the police obey the law: often the police don't know the law. even more often, they are empowered to act in flagrant violation of it and your constitutional rights in service to the higher laws of traffic flow and convenient corporate plunder.
  • the police mean what they say: 99% of police operations at protest are designed to intimidate you. they are working very hard to convince you that they are in control, that they are everywhere, that they are all-seeing, that they will catch you if you do anything sneaky. while police certainly will do sneaky, illegal, and brutal things, the protesters will also manage to do most of the things they came to do. the other side of police misspeak is that they are legally allowed to lie to you. that means even if they have made agreements with protesters to behave in a certain manner, they can (and likely will) do otherwise. since they are totally unreliable, it's best not to worry about them and to focus on doing your thing.

security culture: it's becoming more common for activists to operate in an atmosphere of secrecy and suspicion bordering on paranoia. it's just our [not original] opinion, but we think security culture is very destructive. here are some [not necessarily original] notes, from this perspective:

  • security concerns have become excessive when they obstruct people from doing what they came here to do.
  • security culture is totally counterproductive when it leads us to treat each other with suspicion rather than embracing one another joyously as valued comrades
  • we might as well assume that almost all of our meetings are infiltrated and that police know what we are doing. since what we're doing is expressing our free speech rights in creative ways, we shouldn't feel that we have anything to hide. besides the more they hang out in our meetings the more they'll know (and we'll know that they know) that we are non-violent, democratic, and have some pretty interesting ideas about the world...
  • if we are particularly concerned to keep knowledge of an action away from the police, we organize it with a very small group of people who we trust, and then we don't have to do security culture.

incriminating other activists: be aware that felony conspiracy is a serious charge which could get some activists some very long jail time. never, ever, ever, ever indicate that you know who organized, planned, or led an action. don't allow yourself to think or feel that it's really "cool" that you know. the "cool" thing to do is be in solidarity with all other activists and treat any information you have as sacred and private, not to be shown off or shared. if anyone (even your mama) asks you whose idea an action was or who organized it, change the subject. it is illegal to lie to a police (even though it's legal for them to lie to you!) it is legal for you to refuse to talk to them. if a policeperson asks you who organized an action, say "i am not going to talk about that." feel free to repeat that line over and over and over until s/he gets bored. also check out the Just Cause guide to talking to the media without causing legal problems for yourself or your friends.


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Table of Contents

  1. introduction/home page
  2. get ready! what you need to know to make your participation effective
  3. becoming an affinity group & living the world you want to see
  4. putting on a teach-in
  5. outreach is something that everyone does!
  6. trip logistics
  7. legal
  8. media
  9. at home, while the mass action is happening
  10. when you get to protest-town
  11. back home, after the action

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links you need:

international listing of major protests.


Video Activist Network,
Big Noise Films, Whispered Media, Cascadia Media, indymedia videos



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