White nationalist demonstrators clash with counter-demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017. A Unite the Right rally is planned in Washington, D.C., on the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville demonstrations. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
White nationalist demonstrators clash with counter-demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017. A Unite the Right rally is planned in Washington, D.C., on the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville demonstrations. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

CPJ Safety Advisory: Covering Unite the Right rally and counter-protests in Washington, D.C.

Hundreds of protesters are expected to join a “white civil rights rally” in Washington, D.C., on August 11 and 12 to mark the one-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which became violent and resulted in the death of one woman. A coalition of local organizations is planning counter-protests in Washington on the same weekend, beginning on August 11. There are additional events expected in Charlottesville to coincide with the Washington rallies.

These demonstrations are taking place against a backdrop of hostile rhetoric against large sections of the media. Journalists should keep in mind that if violence breaks out they could face arrest by police or be the target of physical or verbal assault by protesters.

This has already happened at other protests. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, 31 journalists have been arrested at protests and 36 have faced some form of physical attack or interference at protests since the beginning of 2017. In January 2017, nine journalists were arrested as part of a kettle during inauguration protests.

Journalists are encouraged to be on the lookout for agents provocateurs in the crowd whose sole intent is to harm the media for doing their job.

CPJ’s Emergencies Response Team issued the following safety advisory for journalists covering or planning to cover these protests.

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press will have attorneys on the ground in both Washington and Charlottesville to provide emergency legal support to journalists covering the protests and counter-protests. Journalists who need legal assistance can call the Reporters Committee’s hotline at 1-800-336-4243 or contact the Reporters Committee via email at [email protected]. Journalists should consider plugging the emergency number into their phone, and carrying it in a separate piece of paper should their phone be confiscated or lost.

Basic preparedness:

  • Plan the assignment and ensure that you have a full battery on your mobile phone. Know the area you are going to. Work out in advance what you would do in an emergency.
  • Always try to work with a colleague and have a regular check-in procedure with your base. If you are a photographer, try to work with a partner who can keep their eyes on the street while you focus on shooting. It is easy to lose situational awareness while viewing a scene only through a lens.
  • Filming/recording equipment will obviously identify you as a journalist. There are times when looking like a journalist is important to signal to others, including police, that you are there to observe. However, in some instances, it is a good idea not to wear identifying logos, clothing or badges related to a media organization, or to be able to conceal them when necessary. Keep press credentials out of sight unless it is necessary to show them.
  • Maintain situational awareness at all times and limit valuables you are taking. It is important to understand the crowd dynamic. Be aware of the group’s focus shifting toward the media.
  • Wear clothing and footwear that allows you to move swiftly. Avoid loose clothing and lanyards that can be grabbed as well as any flammable material (i.e. nylon). Wear camera straps on your shoulder, not your neck, to avoid being strangled if the camera is grabbed.
  • Consider your position. If you can, find an elevated position that might offer greater safety. Make sure elevated positions have multiple exit points, to avoid getting trapped.
  • At any location, always plan an evacuation route as well an emergency rendezvous point if you are working with others.
  • If working in a crowd, plan a strategy. It is sensible to keep to the outside of the crowd in order to not get sucked into the middle where it is hard to escape. Identify an escape route, and have a team emergency meeting point if working with others.

If dealing with tear gas:

  • Wear personal protective equipment including a gas mask, eye protection, body armor and helmet.
  • Individuals with asthma or respiratory issues should avoid areas where tear gas is being used. Likewise, contact lenses are not advisable. If large amounts of tear gas are being used, there is the possibility of high concentrations of gas sitting in areas with no movement of air.
  • Take note of any potential landmarks (i.e. posts, curbs) that can be used to help you navigate out of the area if you are struggling to see.
  • If you are exposed to tear gas, try to find higher ground and stand in fresh air to allow the breeze to carry away the gas. Do not rub your eyes or face as this may worsen the situation. Once possible, shower in cold water to wash the gas away from skin, but do not bathe. Clothing may need to be washed several times to remove the crystals completely or even be discarded.

When dealing with aggression:

  • Read body language to identify an aggressor and use your own body language to pacify a situation.
  • Keep eye contact with an aggressor, use open hand gestures and keep talking with a calming manner.
  • Keep an extended arm’s length from the threat. Back away and break away firmly without aggression if held. If cornered and in danger, shout.
  • If aggression increases, keep a hand free to protect your head and move with short, deliberate steps to avoid falling. If in a team, stick together and link arms.
  • While there are times when documenting aggression is crucial journalistic work, be aware of the situation and your own safety. Taking pictures of aggressive individuals can escalate a situation.

Journalists who are injured or require assistance can contact CPJ via [email protected].

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has also published a brief guide for journalists covering protests in the U.S., which can be found here.

For more information on basic preparedness, assessing and responding to risk, or safety measures when covering civil conflict and disturbances, journalists should review CPJ’s Journalist Security Guide. For additional information and tools for pre-assignment preparation and post-incident assistance, visit CPJ’s resource center.

CPJ encourages local and freelance journalists and media organizations covering the August 11 and 12 rallies to closely follow the safety principles and practices of the ACOS Alliance, which can be found here.