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Self-Defense for Activists

How do you stay safe when engaging in activism? We want to stand up for our principles. We want to make a statement. We want our voices to be heard. We want to influence our world so that we can eventually leave it better than we found it. And we want to do that without violence. But we don’t want to get our necks broken in the process.

How do you stay safe when engaging in activism? We want to stand up for our principles. We want to make a statement. We want our voices to be heard. We want to influence our world so that we can eventually leave it better than we found it. And we want to do that without violence.

But we don’t want to get our necks broken in the process.

Yesterday, in Keene, New Hampshire, a person who is active for liberty was seriously injured while chalking the city commons. Whether the act of violence that harmed him was defensive in nature or aggressive, and thus unprovoked, the damage can not be undone.

But you can take steps in order to keep yourself safe while engaging in activism in the future. And you can do it without shooting mailmen or waving pistols around.

16 Principles for Activist Self-Defense

The goal of self-defense is to avoid becoming a victim of violence. The goal is never to win a fight with an aggressive person, boost your ego (or your street cred) or be declared the victor of a pissing contest.

  1. Avoid dangerous people and dangerous situations. You decide whom you associate with. Do what’s best for you. If there is an activist, interloper or cop who is acting inappropriately, get away from them.
  2. Your safety is your number one priority. There are people who care about you, who need you in their lives and who depend on you. Stay safe for them. The cause comes second. This is why I am on a hiatus from my street activism. I have a son that depends on me.
  3. Be prepared to retreat. You are in charge of your own security. No one else is. There is no shame in retreating in the face of aggression. This lit distribution or that march is not the final stand. It’s just an early skirmish. Once, I was ambushed in college by the ex-boyfriend of a girlfriend. You better believe I ran from that guy. He was a giant and a street brawler!
  4. Be aware of what is happening around you. Anything can happen. And it will unless you pay attention and take action.
  5. Avoid tunnel vision. When engaging with someone, you can get amped up and focus so much that you actually stop seeing what’s in your peripheral vision. This situation is ripe for disaster. Just disengage, look around and re-evaluate. I remember getting tunnel vision while talking to marshals in Philadelphia in 2010. Luckily, they did not attack me that time.
  6. Remain calm. Counter-protestors, assholes, cops and security guards will try to provoke you so that they can later justify their aggressive violence. Do not allow yourself to be provoked. Marshals in New Jersey harangued us outside a courthouse in 2010. We remained calm and realized that they were playing a stupid game.
  7. Do not threaten anyone. You either do or you don’t but you don’t talk about what you are going to do in a confrontation. Be an activist of few words. Engage in action instead.
  8. Remember why you are there. You are there to make a statement, to test police resolve, to inform people, to influence hearts and minds. But not to get into a fight. Realize that any violence that takes place will overshadow your activism and defeat your purpose.
  9. Trust yourself. Listen to your gut. Honor that little voice inside your head telling you that things are going off the rails. I should have trusted my gut the day I was framed by marshals in Allentown. I could tell that things were going south but I quieted that voice instead of heeding it. The cost was high.
  10. Tune out the bullshit. Forget your ego. Don’t worry about outdoing or keeping up with fellow activists. Screw any thoughts about building or protecting any mythical street cred. Don’t get sucked into games of social dominance. You are above that.
  11. Make noise. Communicate clearly with confidence. If someone is too close to you, tell them. This is one thing I did right in Allentown. I told the marshals over and over again to stop attacking me.
  12. Lead yourself. Don’t wait for others to tell you what to do. Be clear on your options ahead of time or just appoint yourself the leader and do what you think is best in an emergency.
  13. Explore contingencies. Decide how you will handle different situations. Visualize common attacks, decide how you will respond to them and practice those responses. Work together with fellow activists and communicate with them about it, whether that be in an in-person meeting, via blog post or video. This is a lot of work but it could save you untold suffering and inconvenience.
  14. Set limits. What are you willing to fight for? What are you willing to lose? What’s your trigger line; i.e., at what point do you just book out of there?
  15. Enforce your personal sphere. Stick your arms out in front of you. Now rotate them around your body. Do the same with a leg. The limits of the reach of your limbs is your personal sphere. You must remain sovereign and unchallenged within this sphere. Only allow people into this zone if they are proven trustworthy. Do not allow others to invade your zone when in a confrontation. Back up, move to the left or right or just run away. But do whatever it takes to protect this personal sphere. Once an aggressive individual has invaded this sphere, you are already committed to a confrontation.
  16. Train martial arts. Not weightlifting, not jogging, not mixed martial arts where you beat the crap out of each other but something like aikido, judo, hapkido or kung fu. You don’t want to get into a knock-down drag-out fight. You want to be able to neutralize their aggression, in the worst case, and then get the hell out of there. A quality martial arts practice is also an excellent way to develop the habit of situational awareness.

Weapons Won’t Save You

The possession of a firearm, pepper spray or other weapon alone will not necessarily save you. In fact, it could sink you. If you lose control of it, it could be used against you. And the fact that you had it and used it could be used against you in a court of law. In fact, cops may use it as justification for deploying excessive force against you. If you want to be armed, that is your choice. Choose wisely though. And even if you are armed, these above rules remain essential for your personal protection.


We still live in a statist society. The tools of polycentric law – dispute resolution organizations, private defense agencies and universal incentives against aggressive behavior – don’t yet exist. We can’t even control what police do in our name and with our money. Make the best of a bad situation: protect yourself using these principles while you are out doing activism. Stay safe out there. Our struggle is a long term one and we need all hands on deck.

Further Reading

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Have you ever felt threatened while engaging in activism? How did you handle it?

Photo Credit: shoothead via Compfight cc

By George Donnelly

I'm building a tribe of radical libertarians to voluntarize the world by 2064. Join me.

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