Everyone has the right to free speech, and sometimes that speech can become disruptive to your plans. As event planners, we have seen our share of protests. In light of recent events, we wanted to offer our advice on how to maintain safety at during events with protesters.
When protestors show up, the first instinct is to try to remove them. However, these efforts embolden people and can quickly escalate the situation. Best practice is to section off an area specifically for protestors ahead of time. Creating a space that allows for peaceful protests is always better than leaving it to chance. This will then allow you to factor it into the flow of your event, schedule security, and ensure safety regulations are met.
Rehearse with your staff, security, and other volunteers how to respond to protestors. This practice will keep the messaging consistent and calm through the entire event. The response should be polite and thank them for caring about the issue. In some cases it may be prudent to assign representatives to answer questions and make official statements. Be sure everyone involved know who the representatives are and how to contact them.
Check Google and social media to find out what people are saying. This is a great way to gauge how much resistance there may be. Frequently, the most vocal opposition will call or email directly. If that happens, let your team know so they can be prepared.
Communicate to your team the difficulties that a protest can create. Knowing what to expect and having a clear plan will help maintain a calm environment and allow for any problems to be dealt with quickly. Research the laws and ordinances of your area regarding protesting and mass gatherings. Establish when police enforcement becomes necessary and decide who will make that call.
You can take every precaution and still have interruptions. When that happens there are three steps to take.
Remember that a successful event is the goal, but safety is the top priority. Never ever touch a protester. Not only could that cause legal issues, but it can create tremendous safety issues. In the event of an altercation, let the professionals handle it. Regardless of whether that is local law enforcement or hired security. Events can be rescheduled but people cannot be replaced.
Even as professionals it is impossible to guarantee everything will go perfectly. However, using these tools makes it easier. An example of this in action was at the Governor’s Climate Summit a few years ago. There was a panel on stage answering questions from the crowd. Suddenly, an alarm went off and it was the sound of chickens clucking…loudly. That must have been a signal of some kind because before the clucking stopped several people rushed the stage. They were all yelling, shouting, and holding banners. Our head AV technician cut the microphones and the stage lights, he then came over the microphone and politely thanked them for coming to the summit. All of the protesters were then quickly escorted out by security. The stage lights then came back on and the summit continued as planned.
We were able to resolve this quickly because we were prepared. Planning for protesters allowed the trained technicians and the security to react immediately. The panel knew not to try to argue with the protesters, and everyone stayed calm. As a result, the experience was disruptive but was resolved in a calm and professional manner. The hope is that by sharing these tools we are able to help you maintain peace in a potentially high stress situation.