[NB: The author is not an expert in this area, and this article is merely designed to raise awareness of the importance of safety when engaging in any form of activism. This piece was prompted by the author’s observation that there’s a huge range of awareness of the kinds of risks faced by activists, and a wide range of behaviours ranging from quite cavalier to very careful. Please obtain professional advice at every turn in your safety journey, do your own thinking and research, and make up your own mind about what you personally should be doing vis a vis safety].
Keeping yourself safe is vital. Not just for you, but for the people you’re working with or trying to help and anyone else in your life you’d like to be as safe as possible. Unfortunately, activism always comes with some risks.
Perfect safety is unattainable, but you should at least make the attempt to minimise all possible sources of harm to yourself and others. The good news is that there’s a lot of information available to help you come up with practical measures to put in place.
Safety means different things to different people. What is most important to do or prioritise depends on what you’re doing. Precisely how you go about putting in safety measures depends on what you’re doing, what you can afford to spend on safety measures, and your own personality and lifestyle preferences. No one size fits all.
Safety starts with thinking about it. This may be hard if you’re currently at risk or feeling afraid or anxious, and so stressed that you’re not being reflective enough. Try to put aside a clear day with no distractions to come up with a basic safety plan or at least to start working on one.
What follows is not a comprehensive set of measures to enhance safety, but rather a way of thinking about safety. It’s not the only way, and the scattered ideas / tips in it aren’t even remotely exhaustive. At the end of the article is a selection of websites that have great practical tips and tricks for improving safety – a lot of people have done a lot of work in coming up with these tips and tricks, and there’s no point reinventing the wheel! Some of the sites also present broad ways of thinking about safety that are a bit different from this article and they’re also worth reading too – don’t just skip straight to the tips and tricks. This is because having some sort of framework for thinking about safety is good because it helps you come up with creative / innovative ideas to deal with your own special situation when nothing you’ve read quite ‘works’ for you or your circumstances.
THINKING ABOUT SAFETY
Identify domains of personal safety
A useful way to get moving on a personal safety plan is to break down all the areas in your life that you may need to think about putting in or improving safety measures. Areas to think about might include the following. You may think of others.
- Safety from personal harm for yourself.
Personal harm could be, at the extreme, being killed or ‘suicided’ (being killed in such a way that it’s made to look like you killed yourself), or it could be being hurt (e.g., injured, poisoned, drugged). It could also include your being incarcerated or otherwise deprived of your liberty / contact from necessary sources of support.
- Safety from personal harm for people you care about.
- Safety of your data.
‘Data’ just means any information that you have that you need to make sure doesn’t land in the wrong hands, get lost, or otherwise have something happen to it that you don’t want to happen. Data might be written communications with others, what you’ve got on your computer, what you’ve got on your phone, important tape recordings, etc. If you have important data, you need to have a plan for how to keep the data safe. What ‘safe’ means is going to depend on what you’re doing, what you’re trying to achieve, and other factors. For example, for you, data safety might need to involve thinking about whether the simple fact of who you’re talking to is something you’d prefer certain people not to know about.
- Safety of other people’s data.
- Psychological safety.
Psychological safety is often overlooked by busy activists. Harassment can sometimes occur simply for the purpose of upsetting you or destabilising you long enough to keep you quiet, or deter you from your course. It’s natural to get upset in the face of an attack, but it’s important to try to keep yourself on an even keel too. Try to sleep well, exercise, and eat well – these all help improve your state of mind. Doing these things will help you stay the distance (burnout is all too common among activists). Also, even though it’s important to be safe, it’s just as important not to become so obsessed with it that you end up doing nothing else and lose sight of what you’re really trying to do. Look after your mind as much as anything else.
- Safety from reputational blows.
Attacks on your credibility can be every bit as devastating as any other attack. Reputational blows might come in the form of character assassination, people coming forward to contradict critical aspects of what you’re saying without actual proof (as they say, a lie can get around the world before the truth gets its boots on), or elsewhere. Much of this can’t be avoided, but some things are in your control. For example, if you indulge in prohibited drugs, apart from the obvious health problems associated with doing it, it’s also potentially damaging to your reputation. If you’re a bad driver, start driving sensibly and following the road rules. If you’re the kind of person who takes people at their word, that’s nice, but not always sensible – you can suffer reputational damage simply by spreading disinformation.
- Safety from petty persecution / harassment.
Persecution can come in so many forms it’s impossible to list them here, but some examples may suffice. Before that, however, bear in mind that a lot of petty persecution is simply designed to keep you from doing what you’re trying to do by keeping you so distracted or stressed that you veer off course. For example, your mail might be tampered with and your bills stolen so you get levied with late penalties by service providers. You might get irritating phone calls from people who are just trying to upset you and prevent you getting on with what you should be doing. You might find that someone’s hassling your friends or family. How you respond depends on the circumstances, but might be as simple as blocking someone from being able to call you if you think the only reason for it is to upset you. Or it might involve getting some legal advice about how to stop the persecution / harassment stopping.
Identify possible sources of safety threats
You should also then think about sources of possible safety threats. These might include:
- People who have a direct personal interest in harming you.
This may include a perpetrator of a criminal offence that you’re pursuing or members of their family. This may seem relatively easy to work out, but see if you can extend your thinking a bit more to identify who might be at direct personal risk of something happening that they don’t want to happen if you continue to do what you’re doing.
- People who have a direct personal interest in harming people you may be working with.
You may not personally be a target, but someone you’re working with might be. For example, you may be supporting a survivor who’s currently pursuing a perpetrator. The people you’re working with needs you to act in ways that don’t put them at unnecessary risk of harm either. Safety should involve thinking about them too.
- People who have an indirect personal interest in harming you.
This may be harder to work out, but could, for example, could include members of an organisation that may perceive you as a threat because you’re (say) exposing one of their members for criminal activity. Some activists may find out the hard way that a perpetrator they’re pursuing is highly connected / protected at high levels of an organisation or even the police or the government. It doesn’t hurt to assume the worst and be ready for the possibility that you’ll discover you’ve made more enemies than you first guessed you might.
- People who have an indirect personal interest in harming people you may be working with.
- Existing people in your life
Unfortunately, the activist world does contain wolves in sheep’s clothing. Even a person who has so far been ‘great’ could be other than what they seem. Even a person who is completely kosher can be a risk if they don’t fully understand what you’re doing, can be relied upon to do what you ask about (say) keeping something you’ve told them to themselves, or have good safety plans and measures in place themselves. It’s wise to think about the extent to which you share information and with whom.
- New people who come into your life.
Meeting new people is terrific, but be aware that before you really get to know someone, you have no real idea who they are, no matter how highly recommended they may come from people you trust. Don’t ignore your instinct – your gut feeling about someone can often be more reliable than you may think. Even if someone feels ‘right’, you should still take a little time to really get to know them before deciding how to relate to them.
- People who are not in and of themselves at odds with you, but who may be an innocent liability to you under certain circumstances.
This group may include non-activist friends or family members or even people you work with. They may be a risk to you simply because they know you or know things about you (e.g., where you regularly travel to and from, where you work, etc.). How you deal with this is up to you. It might involve telling these people what you’d like them to do or not do, it may involve not sharing too much of what you’re doing with them that you’d rather didn’t get passed on, or something else. It all depends.
- Random people or things that just cause problems.
Sometimes, you’ll have no idea if something crappy that has happened to you was done deliberately by someone with malicious intent, or if you just got unlucky. An example might be a break-in: it may just be a straightforward crime of opportunity. Another example might be getting hit by a car at a pedestrian crossing by an inattentive driver. Another example might be being seriously upset by someone who’s just a horrible person with a personality disorder who makes you feel badly about yourself or deters you from what you need to do. Safety here involves putting in place the kinds of measures that even non-activists do, and generally being careful in how you behave and who you associate with. Psychological safety comes in here too: don’t immediately assume that something yucky that happens is directed at you. Take it as a learning opportunity to improve your safety in that area, take positive steps, and keep yourself stable.
As awful as it might sound, sometimes thinking about the worst that could happen is a good way to insure (at least a bit) against the probability that it will go wrong for you. Going directly to that case in your mind, and then working backwards will often help you identify things you should be doing now and how you’ll deal with it if it looks like it’s about to happen. Playing through different scenarios in your mind and imagining how you’d deal with them is not just practically useful, it’s also psychologically beneficial in giving you a sense that you’re as prepared as you can be for anything that might come your way. A little role playing might even be in order to help cement in your mind what you’re going to do in a certain situation. That said, try to avoid scaring yourself to the point you give up on everything or get so bogged down in working on preventing threats that you don’t do anything else.
This is critically important. You know better than anyone what to worry about, and even if what you’re doing safety-wise is quite involved or perhaps a little odd, do it anyway. No-one really wants to look like the paranoid type, but which is worse – leaning heavily on the side of taking precautions or appearing a bit odd? Try to avoid being embarrassed or pressured into doing things you don’t want to do. For example, if you’ve ever had the horrible experience of having your car tampered with (brakes cut, etc.), you might like to think about changing your driving habits if you aren’t sure you can avoid more interference with your car, which is fairly hard to avoid. This might involve (say) sticking to driving on roads with low speed limits where you’re less likely to be killed or seriously injured if your car suddenly acts up, even if that means taking longer to get somewhere. Who cares if you might seem a little eccentric to some people? Short of wearing a tin foil hat, there’s not much that you might do as part of your safety plan that can’t be passed off as you simply being the cautious type.
Know yourself, develop yourself
No matter how well you plan, no matter what you’ve got in place as part of your safety plan, and no matter how much scenario planning you’ve done, eventually, you’ll encounter something you’ve never experienced before. Or perhaps a slight variation on something that’s happened before, but in a new environment, so it feels new. How you respond under the pressure will depend a lot on the circumstances, but also a lot on your personality and coping style. To give just one example, do you tend towards ‘flight’ or ‘fight’ in the face of a threat? It’s a good idea to ask yourself what the answer means for your safety planning. Ask yourself what you might need to do by way of personal development to ensure you respond more appropriately in a bad situation? For example, if you’re prone to becoming aggressive when confronted with a threat, that might not necessarily be appropriate – e.g., if the objective of the threat (say someone riling you up) is to provoke you into doing or saying something stupid and disproportionate to the threat that can have negative repercussions for you (e.g., reputational damage or even criminal charges). You may need to work a little on your temper and learn when it’s better to just ignore someone or walk away from them. Correspondingly, if you tend to ‘run’ at the first whiff of danger, that may not always be the best thing either – for example, if you’re cornered and at risk of a physical assault, and running isn’t an option, you might like to think about doing a basic self-defence course (note, however, that you should read up on the risks associated with fighting back in certain situations).
Know your rights
Some threats / attacks are illegal. It’s helpful to have a very basic grasp of the law or to look up whether what someone or some group is doing to you involves breaking the law. You may be able to stop something continuing to happen by having the confidence that you know that what’s happening is illegal, know where to go for assistance (or who you’re going to tell), have evidence of a crime, and are ready to pursue the matter as far as it takes. This doesn’t just go for attacks from ordinary members of the public – all government officials are in some way bound by the law, even if they don’t always act consistently with that. Community legal centres can be useful sources of advice and information about your rights, whether you’re dealing with the ‘authorities’ or ordinary people.
WEBSITES WITH SAFETY TIPS AND STRATEGIES
There’s heaps of stuff on the Internet about safety. The following list of websites is by no means an exhaustive coverage of all the things you can read about to improve safety, but will give you some good ideas that you might use for your safety plan. Not all have been written with the activist in mind, but are still very useful: it’s not just activists who have to think about safety! Reading through this information will almost certainly also help you think of other things you can do that you might not find on the Internet.
- Safety tips for ritual abuse survivors
Comment: While this advice is specifically designed for ritual abuse survivors, it appears to contain some very useful tips for personal safety, including some great advice for avoiding being ‘suicided’. There’s also a good list at the end with even more potentially helpful websites to read.
- Maximising personal safety
Comment: While this too is written for ritual abuse survivors, there’s what looks like useful information in here for any activist. The discussion on safety relating to phones, your home, and your car, emails, and documentation has some good pointers in it. There’s also some astute advice for avoiding always assuming that something bad that is happening is anything but random bad luck – this is important for psychological safety.
- Communicating with others
Comment: This is an excellent resource for electronic communications safety written by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It’s a bit technical in places, but overall it’s easy to read and understand.
- Personal safety for women
Comment: What’s said here about personal safety for women obviously applies to men as well as women. The page covers personal safety at home, in your car, and on public transport.
- 10 rules for dating safety
Comment: Even though this article was written to help women be safer on dates, it has generally useful information on personal safety, which could be particularly helpful for meeting with new people.
- Stalking safety planning
Comment: Although this page has been created to help people being stalked in a ‘standard’ stalker scenario, it is generally helpful for anyone looking to enhance their personal safety.
- Guarding against robbery and assault
Comment: This is a generic page for advice on avoiding or dealing with robbery and assault. There’s some very useful and practical information about comporting yourself more safely on streets.
- Smart Traveller
Comment: Although written with the overseas traveller in mind, this website has some very good ideas about personal safety.
- Staying Safe: Security Resources for Human Rights Defenders
Comment: This is an excellent overview piece about safety for human rights activists. It shows the importance of flexibility in thinking about safety. It also has links to some other great pages on safety.
- Activist security resources
Comment: This is a fantastic page with a wealth of information about activist safety. It has several links to websites with very detailed information about activist safety, including ways of thinking about safety, all of which should be scanned for ideas. Most of the links also contain links to even more resources.
- Google ‘personal safety devices’, ‘personal safety technology’, etc.
Comment: There’s a huge amount of gadgets and tools you can purchase that can help you achieve your safety goals, ranging from very cheap to very expensive products, with a huge variation in attributes. Searching for specific things like ‘personal safety alarms’, etc., will most likely take you to commercial websites – have a look and see what’s available – new technology is being made available every year. Scout around for things that you think might be helpful, and research products well before purchasing. Consider speaking with law enforcement or specialist security professionals for advice as well.