In this guide, you will learn how to de-escalate tensions at a protest. Using these de-escalation tactics will help keep your protest non-violent.
Article quality: ⭐️⭐️⭐️ (3/5)
Take the initiative to act
The most important thing is this: If a challenging and potentially violent situation emerges please DO TAKE THE INITIATIVE promptly as this may prevent tensions escalating.
Get others around you to join in carrying out whichever tactic you are using – they just need to copy you / be in support of you. If you’d like lots of people to join in, establish silence (see below) and then explain clearly, calmly and briefly what you’d like to do and why.
If someone from an NVC (nonviolent communication) or de-escalation team is immediately contactable, great. If not, most of these tactics are easy to initiate as a group and involve either no or minimal risk.
However, some people may be more vulnerable or at more risk than others and everyone should already have reflected on which ways it is safe / wise for them to take the initiative. This isn’t so straightforward. Some people, such as women or elders may be/feel more vulnerable, but less likely to be at risk in some situations. People of colour may be more likely to be at risk.
If, for any reason, you don’t feel able to take the initiative or think it may be risky for you then please do respect your own reasons, boundaries, or limits on your confidence.
If you feel able to ask someone else to take the initiative then this is an alternative, and if that doesn’t feel possible either, that’s ok too. We all have different contributions to bring to the Rebellion and our diversity is our strength.
Ideally in one-to-one or small group situations get the help of the NVC or De-escalation Teams, or someone well practiced in conflict transformation and de-escalation.
Breathe. Ground. Notice your sources of support.
Remember The Humanity of All
Empathy Before Education
Ask First - Is the other person ready to hear your perspective? A is also for Authentic expression
BreaTHE. Debrief with Support
Connect to the human response in tense situations.
Someone who has the experience of being heard is more likely to calm down and listen to you.
Be curious and open to feedback. There’s always something to learn from people’s anger and frustration. It’s impossible to be curious and afraid at the same time.
Where the attention goes, the energy flows.
Theatre, Fun, Music and Song
These can all be used to entertain and change the energy.
If the energy is getting too excitable, music and especially drumming can be used to first meet the energy of excitement and then gradually calm things down by slowing the beat until it is the same as a calm heart-beat.
When tension is building, start up a calming song, and invite others to join in. Teach and then sing it slowly and calmly.
If arrests are starting to happen, or if tension is rising for another reason, ask any musicians playing to slow things right down and play something calm, or with a slow heart-beat type rhythm. You might want to ask them to stop altogether, so the crowd can be together in song.
In large crowd situations where the tension is rising, it can be really helpful to establish silence, because it can be calming in itself and because it will enable you then to initiate other tactics, with everyone aware and joining in.
One person falls quiet and raises their hand, whilst inviting the people around them to do the same. This works well if enough people are practiced.
Project without shouting and say ‘Clap once if you can hear me’ and then clap once. Say ‘Clap twice if you can hear me’ and then clap twice. Say ‘Clap three times if you can hear me’ and then clap 3 times. Each time, more people around you should be joining in, until everyone has clapped 3 times and then fallen silent, waiting for what’s coming next.
You can then very briefly and calmly let people know what you’d like to do next and why (why nonviolence and de-escalation are important), invite people to join in with a song or use one of the tactics below.
Sit Down and Invite Others to Sit Down Too
This can have a very calming effect.
Make sure there is plenty of space around the violence / conflict, especially a free route to withdraw.
It can also be helpful to fall silent. .
This is especially useful for conflict between lines of police or riot police and activists when tension is building too much.
1. Explain to the police that you will be asking activists to give them space and reduce tension.
Form a line of people between police and activists with one person facing toward police, one facing towards activists, alternating. Explain to the police that you will be asking activists to give them space and reduce tension.
Invite activists to take two steps backward to give the police some space and then sit down.
Remind rebels that through this action rather than 'giving in', they have enhanced their nonviolent stance and strengthened the held space.
Withdraw the line when all is well.
Mass Hummm and “Stop” Hand Gesture
Ideally, first get the crowd to be quiet.
Everyone “hummmms” and assumes the “stop” hand gesture towards the aggressive action, arm outstretched. The hand gesture is palm facing towards the situation, fingers pointing upwards.
Keep the “hummmm” going.
We are not shaming and blaming angry people. There’s a lot to be angry about, so we want to support the people in not venting their anger in unhelpful ways. Make sure that there is plenty of space for the people to withdraw from the crowd.
Ideally, first get the crowd to be quiet.
‘Peace, Love, Respect’ is a sing-song chant that worked very well on Extinction Rebellion’s Waterloo Garden Bridge in April 2019
Lots of other possibilities here, or make up your own, keep it simple.
This next one is only appropriate to use when engaging with aggressive police and other people too.
Then begin saying “We’re nonviolent. How about you?” think about how you are delivering this. Does it sound gentle and suggestive or confrontational? (see below)
Extreme Anger or Threatening Behaviour
If you can’t deal with it, get help elsewhere.
This is a last resort to be used if someone is going to be hurt. The intention is not to inform on people or create difficulties in people’s lives. The intention is to keep people safe.
We believe engaging with and practising nonviolence in its broadest, deepest sense can bring huge personal learning, growth and satisfaction. It’s also one of the best, most beautiful hopes we have for creating the world we want to live in.
Improve this page
You can make this article about de-escalation during protest actions better. Here are some suggestions:
Translate this article in other languages.
Add more external resources about de-escalation.
Link to other related articles on Activist Handbook.
This article is an adaptation of one written by Extinction Rebellion. Review the article so it becomes more universally applicable for other activist movements.
Related articles on Activist Handbook:
Safety, Security, Rights & Conflict Deescalation by Indivisible
Collection: How to De-Escalate by Digital Library of Nonviolence
Academic: The Need for De-escalation Techniques in Civil Disturbances by George Raymond McCord Jr (2018)
News article: De-escalation Keeps Protesters And Police Safer. Departments Respond With Force Anyway by Maggie Koerth and Jamiles Lartey
De-escalation, bystander,and community safety training and resources by Bridging Divides Initiative, Princeton University
Policing At Protests: Best Practices by Institute forConstitutional Advocacy and Protection
Nonviolent de-escalation is a method of diffusing tension by Crisis Consultant Group
Guide to Trauma-Informed De-Escalation During Actions and Protests by Open Table Nashville - ⚠️ Insecure connection
PDF: De-escalation, How You Can Help Defuse Potentially Violent Situations by U.S. Department of Homeland Security - ⚠️ Government website
Work from the following sources was reused in this article:
- Section 5.4 of the Action Wellbeing Handbook by Extinction Rebellion (no reusable licence, but they’re generally cool people, so we’re quite sure they won’t file a copyright complaint).