Protesters protect the crowd with umbrellas on Capitol Hill.
Protesters protect the crowd with umbrellas on Capitol Hill. Omari Salisbury / phloating_man on Reddit

You’ve probably seen the video by now: A line of protesters faces a line of cops on Capitol Hill, an eye-catching purple umbrella held toward police as a shield. There’s no sign of aggression until a cop decides he wants the umbrella; there’s a short tussle; and then the police let loose the chemical agents against the crowd.

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As they spray, other protestors hold up shields of their own, which the cops dart forward to try to grab as well. But most of those shields are just out of reach, allowing a small group of protestors to remain on the south side of the street. In similar protests against state violence around the world, shields have emerged as an important mechanism to keep people safe from security forces—so let’s take a look at how other protestors have shielded themselves and others.

Umbrellas seem to be the most ubiquitous and effective means of protection, provided that the people wielding them stay out of melee range. In particular, umbrellas became a symbol of resistance in Hong Kong in 2014, and remained in steady use through the protests of 2019. They’re cheap, lightweight, and it’s easy to carry several of them or hand them off.

Hong Kong’s protesters developed a system of hand signals to indicate that umbrellas, hard hats, and other supplies were needed on the front lines of a protest, and created human chains to quickly deliver them. In some locations, a larger supply of items was kept at the back of the crowd and passed from person to person to the front, with runners carrying them for the last stretch. If an umbrella was snatched by police seeking to do harm, another was quickly put in its place.

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Other actions have involved shields made of … let’s say sturdier materials. In Kiev, citizens wielded large metal sheets with handles affixed to the back, allowing them to block rubber bullets. (For something more light-weight, cosplayers will tell you it’s easy to make a shield out of a garbage can lid and cabinet handle.) They also erected nets over police barricades, blocking stun grenades. As in Hong Kong, many came prepared with helmets.

In Chile, protesters came with whatever they could to protest human rights abuses: A kitchen sink to deflect bullets, street signs, cardboard boxes, and sheets of plywood. One protester became known as “Pare Man” or “Captain Pare” after he was photographed shielding himself with a stop sign, along with a street dog named Matapacos who was hostile to riot police.

There’s rain in the forecast for this coming weekend. But you never know when you might need an umbrella.

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