Tips and Tactics for Militant Activists

Hey Kids! With all the massive protests planned this summer for Philadelphia and Los Angeles, and the NAB convention right here in San Francisco to shut down in September, check out these tips for militant demos, some of them updated from the July 1989 Slingshot published for the Anarchist Day of Action of that year, some from a great package sent out by Canadians who recently protested the World Petroleum Congress, and some we just thought of.

What to Bring

Carrying water in a squirt bottle, for drinking and for gas/pepper spray is highly recommended. Use a fanny pack or bag that doesn’t get in the way in case you have to run. A bandanna or cloth to hide your face from photos and teargas is also a good idea. If weather permits, water repellant clothes protect skin from pepper spray. Layers are good because the provide padding and can be used for disguise/escape. Bring some non-black clothes in case you need to “blend in”. If it’s going to be hot and sunny, wear a hat and sun protection so you can stay out longer. Wear good running shoes. Don’t wear contact lenses, jewelry, long hair or anything the cops can grab, or any oil based skin product. Never bring drugs or anything that would get you in trouble if arrested. Never bring address books or sensitive information. Gas masks, goggles and helmets make you a target but can be useful.

Affinity Groups/Decision Making

Affinity groups are small action cells-usually 6-12 people-who share attitudes about tactics and organize themselves for effectiveness and protection. The best affinity groups are people with pre-existing relationships who know and trust each other intimately. Decisions are (hopefully) made democratically, face-to-face and quickly on the spot. There is often division of labor in affinity groups: someone doing an action, others acting as lookout, someone at home as support in case of trouble, etc. Talking about politics, tactics and group process, trust building and practice in advance helps, but organizing a group the night before an action is better than nothing. A few affinity groups can get together in clusters, and clusters or affinity groups can send representatives to spokes councils for democratic decision making in large group situations.

In a chaotic situation, affinity groups make decision making (as opposed to just reacting) possible, and protect individuals. Affinity groups with experience and a vision can take the initiative when people are standing around wondering what to do next.

Lock Downs

There’s too much to write about lockdowns for the scope of this article. They are an important innovation over a sit-in, where cops just arrive and haul people off. Locking down allows people to block an area or intersection longer and more effectively because the police have to cut people out or torture them to make them unlock. Lockdowns use U-locks or steel tubes with locks inside.

Building Barricades

A more controversial but highly effective way of causing disruption is to build barricades in the streets. This doesn’t usually involve property destruction (although it can) and is best done at least a block from any sizeable police presence. Look for alleys with lots of dumpsters. It only takes 2 or 3 people to roll the dumpster to the middle of the street and turn it over. 3 or 4 dumpsters will completely block a large street. Construction sites also have lots of good barricade building stuff. Temporary chain link fences mounted atop steel pipe stands are especially great because you can drag the whole thing at once. Newsboxes, heavy cement trashcans, and other urban debris are also great.

Mobile Tactics

Sometimes blockades and barricades work; other times they play right into the cops hands. The cop’s job is to keep order. The most orderly situation for police commanders is where they know where all the demonstrators are and they have them surrounded. That represents order. The worst situation for the cops is where they aren’t sure where demonstrators will pop up next, or what they’ll do. If the heat is on at a blockade, sometimes the best thing to do is send a mobile group a couple of blocks away and divert police resources away from repressing the blockade. Open a second front. Open new situations lots of places 5 minutes apart, so as soon as cops get to one place , they have to move to another. The confusion will keep cop radio channels tied up and perhaps save or prolong a blockade in a crucial location. The cops are organized centrally, an their central commanders can only deal with so many situations at once before their lines of communications tart to break down.


In chaotic arrest situations where demonstrators vastly outnumber cops, it is often possible to “unarrest” unlucky folks who get grabbed. Each case is different, but consider this option as an alternative to watching friends and family captured. The cops are trained to retreat and abandon a prisoner if things get out of hand.

Tear Gas

Stay calm and focused. If there is wind, the gas may blow away quickly so don’t freak out immediately. Use a bandanna soaked with water, witch hazel, vinegar, or lemon juice over your nose and mouth to help breathe. Keep eyes barely open or closed until gas dissipates. If the gas is heavy, walk calmly to clean air if you have to. In Seattle, many, many blockades held strong after being teargassed, so it isn’t always necessary to run away from gas. Everyone has to decide individually what their body can accept, no questions asked. Throwing gas canisters back is heroic and looks great, but be careful of hitting other demonstrators or burning your hand. The canister might be fairly cool right after it goes off but heats up quickly-a heavy glove helps. Also, watch out about heavily gassing yourself while picking up and throwing the canister. Know where you might throw it before picking it up.

Pepper Spray

If still wet on skin, carefully sponge off. Don’t spread it around. Don’t rub eyes or touch face. It can get in your eyes hours later if you wash your hands or face, even if it didn’t originally hit your eyes. Two treatment ideas: (1) wipe mineral oil on skin. Immediately wipe all off with rubbing alcohol. The oil traps the chemicals, so take it all off. (2) mix 10% vegetable or mineral oil with water and 1 Tbs of liquid dish soap. Wipe solution on skin and rinse off with water or babywipes.