Primer for Demonstrating on the Streets of NYC

Antonia Cedrone | July 24, 2014

The following are accepted rules of practice and do not constitute legal advice.

When demonstrators are in the streets of NYC they are confronted by one of the largest armies in the world – the NYPD. The goal of the NYPD is to contain and control the presence of demonstrators in the name of public safety and order. Our ability to express our views is our knowledge that we have rights, under the First Amendment of the Constitution, to gather, be seen and be heard.

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States reads that:

Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or bridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

The people of New York City have the right to engage in peaceful protest activities in public parks, on public sidewalks and in public streets. This includes the right to distribute leaflets, display signs and hold rallys. You do not have the right to demonstrate on private property, such as courtyards owned by a private building unless the owner consents. You can attempt to do so, but you may be evicted by private security or the police.

You have the right to chant, use whistles, drums or other non-amplified sound.

The organization ACT UP (“Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) “At the Demonstration” guidelines are very informative. A practical excerpt follows:

Potential demonstrators often ask “can the police do this…referring to a particular type of restriction on demonstrating. The correct legal answer often boils down to whether the restriction is a reasonable time, place or manner restriction under the circumstances – something a judge might have to decide later on if there happens to be a trial on the matter. However, the practical answer to the potential demonstrator’s hypothetical is that if the police feel like it, they can and will do what they want and worry about the legal consequences later”.

A permit (permission) from the NYPD is required for events with more than 20 people in a NYC park, to march in the streets (not the sidewalk) or use amplified sound. If you are granted a permit, you are agreeing to act within NYPD rules, such as following a specified parade route and being contained in a barricaded area (pen) in a location chosen by the police. Therefore, the decision to request a permit should be made with consideration of the accompanying restrictions.

If you are expecting a thousand or more people to march who would not be easily contained by a sidewalk, you may request a permit to walk in the street. If the permit is granted the NYPD has the right to regulate the action and would probably provide a police “escort” with officers on foot or vehicles.

In the case of a large march it is advisable to have marshalls appointed by the organizer to help regulate the flow of the march. If you are walking on the sidewalk from one location to another a marshall at the head of the demonstration can help regulate the pace of the march and make sure that all traffic signs and lights are obeyed.

Signs can be used if affixed to cardboard tubing or hand held. Signs cannot be affixed to public property (e.g. lamp posts, police barricades).

It is illegal for more than two persons to wear masks in a demonstration.

You are not required to answer questions about a demonstration asked by the NYPD Intelligence Division. The Intelligence Division monitors the websites of political organizations and so knows when an announced action will take place. They often call before an action, with questions such as: “What is your march route?”; “How long will you be here?”; “Who is in charge?” You are also not required to answer such questions of an officer at the scene of an action.

Friendly smiles or “chit-chat” with officers can be interpreted as an acquiescence to their actions. A neutral posture and facial expression is recommended. You do not need to engage. Angry or rude behavior is a waste of time and energy and detracts from your peaceful expression of your views.

Having a pen and pad available and visible to the police says that you are taking this seriously and may serve as a deterrant to abuse of your rights.

It is a good practice to write down the names and shield numbers of all officers on the scene. This can send the message that you are aware of your right to know the identity of each officer and that they can be identified as individuals who can be held accountable for their actions rather than an anonymous body. Officers are required to display visibly a shield with name and number. You can simply walk up to an officer and take down the information on the shield. If so inclined, you can say, “I am recording your name and shield number”. You do not have to give a reason. You may say, “It is my job to observe the interaction between the police and the demonstrators”. You may want to assign one or two members of your group to obtain that information. The officer may perceive this to be confrontational. You do not need to engage in a discourse. Remember, it is your right to have that information. It is not necessary to wait for an incident to occur to obtain that information. Detectives and TARU officers typically do not display a shield. However, if asked they must give you their name and shield number.

It is legal to photograph or film an officer or scene at an action as long as you are not interfering with them doing their job.

It is not legal for the NYPD, including the TARU anti-terrorist special forces unit to photograph or videotape you unless there is specific information that a person or group is engaging in unlawful activity. If you see an officer with a camera, it is advisable to take a photo of the officer with the camera, even if the officer is not using the camera at the time. Get identifying information. State that it is illegal for the officer to photograph demonstrators. Notify your organizer and a senior officer. Ask to speak with an NYPD attorney. Stand by while the senior officer talks to the officer. Take down the names of witnesses. This law was a hard won right under “The Handschu Agreement” which should not be taken for granted.

You have the right to object if you are touched or restrained by an officer, unless it is in the course of an arrest. You can say, “I do not consent to being touched.” Never touch an officer.

There are specific guidelines for “stop and frisk” situations that are covered elsewhere.

There are no “good cops” or “bad cops”. For the most part, police officers act as soldiers who follow “marching orders” given by their supervisors. Very little discretion is given to an individual officer.

Remember that the mandate of the NYPD is to control and contain. Officers frequently give incorrect information in an attempt to meet their goal. For example, an officer may tell a demonstrator that he/she is not allowed to carry a sign or to stand on the sidewalk. The fact is that a person is allowed to stand or walk on a sidewalk as long as he or she is not blocking an entrance to a building or impeding pedestrian traffic.

Your strategy should be to choose one side of the sidewalk and stay within that boundary. Fellow demonstrators should be reminded to not stray outside the boundary. People who are flyering should stay within the designated area or move to another place on the sidewalk so that half of the sidewalk is always reserved for pedestrian traffic. In doing so you are demonstrating that you do not require the police to erect barricades to contain you. You can say: “We don’t need a barrier. We know how to contain ourselves on the sidewalk”. Notify your organizer. Ask to speak with a senior officer. Ask the senior officer to call his or her legal department. Ultimately, the police may enclose you in a pen if your group is large or for your “safety”. Often the pen will be placed a block or more from the protest target. Demonstrators must be allowed to be within “sight and sound” of the protest target. State that right if you are moved away from the target.

Rarely, the NYPD declares an area to be a “frozen zone”. That means that no pedestrian is allowed in that designated area if not escorted by an officer. If there are pedestrians walking in an area, a demonstrator should be allowed to walk or stand in that area. Use that as a guide. If you are asked to vacate a non-“frozen” area, state that you have the right to be where other pedestrians are. You should not be treated differently because you are holding a sign or verbalizing your political message.

At times the NYPD enforce more restrictive rules, for example when the president is in the area.

If an officer insists on ignoring your rights, you can say that your action is protected under the First Amendment. Notify your organizer. Ask politely to speak with a superior officer. Suggest that the officer call his or her legal department to verify your legal rights.

If you are threatened with arrest, state that you do not want to engage in an illegal action. Ask, ”What’s the charge?” Ultimately, you can be arrested even if you are not doing something which you think is illegal. The police can make an arrest in any circumstances and address the legal consequences at a future time. It is your choice whether to risk arrest by holding your ground if you are acting within legal guidelines. It is rare that an arrest is made without a strong (often repeated) verbal warning. However, refusal to obey an officer can result in arrest, with or without a warning. You must disperse on order if the situation becomes “disorderly”.

There are times when you may choose to act outside of the legal guidelines in a “civil disobedience” (CD) action. In a CD, demonstrators usually block traffic or an entrance to a building, resulting in arrest. CD’s should be planned carefully and exercised for a specific purpose, preferably with press coverage. Guidelines for conducting CD’s are covered elsewhere.

If you are being prevented from leaving an area by an officer ask, “Am I free to go?” If the officer says yes, you can walk on without answering any questions. If the officer says “No”, you are being detained but you don’t have to say anything. You can say, ”I wish to remain silent. I want to talk with a lawyer”.

Special recommendations for what to do if arrested are available from the National Lawyers Guild and the New York Civil Liberties Union. Generally, unless you have a specific goal in being arrested, your energies and body are best used on the street rather than in a jail cell.

Legal observers sponsored by the National Lawyers Guild (212-679-6018) or an independent “People’s Advocate” (212-683-3338) can be requested to monitor the interaction between the police and demonstrators and record and report the details of incidents. Legal observers can be helpful as witnesses in the courts. Anyone can perform the functions of a legal observer. It is very important to write down the details of police interventions and obtain the names of witnesses.

There are many sources for information on what to expect and do if you are arrested.

It is advisable to have a “buddy” at the demonstration to witness and provide for your safety. Let that person know the names and numbers of people to contact in case of arrest or injury. Tell a person who is not attending the demonstration where and when the demonstration will be and let them know when the demonstration is over and you are safe.


National Lawyers Guild – “Know Your Rights”

NYCLU – “Know Your Rights: Demonstrating in New York City”

Occupy Wall Street: “Legal Information”

ACT UP – “At the Demonstration”

Antonia Cedrone is a long-time peoples'rights advocates & legal observer during protests.