Counter-Protesters or Counter-Demonstrators
by Susan Basko, esq.
Counter-Protests, also called Counter-Demonstrators, are people who show up at a protest or demonstration to voice an opinion contrary to the main protest. The overall rules are that the counter demonstrations are allowed, if they can be accommodated so they do not interfere with the original protest and so both groups are kept safe and separated. How this plays out is largely depended on what local police choose to do.
The spectre of counter-demonstrators showing up has become much more intense in the past couple of years. In states that allow open carrying of guns, there have been demonstrations that are for gun control, at which gun enthusiasts show up openly carry their guns. This can be terrifying for protesters, especially in the wake of mass shootings.
One main point is that no type of violence is ever legal at any protest, on any side. There really is no good reason for protesters, on any side, to show up with flag poles, sticks, cans of anything ignitable, or any other thing that can be used as a weapon. States might want to step up their games and outlaw open carry at any street gathering. A few people carrying guns on the street can chill the right to free speech and freedom of assembly for the mass of people who feel unsafe in that situation.
Another thing done, often by a lone counter-protester, is to show up with a megaphone and barrage the protesters with the shouted ideas of the counter-protesters. Most towns and cities have noise ordinances, and in many cases, the use of a megaphone without a permit is illegal. If this is happening at your protest, speak with local police and ask them to handle it. At the recent March for Our Lives marches against school shootings, in one city, such a counterprotester shouting into a megaphone was seen surrounded by a circle of armed police. They let him shout his pro-gun diatribe at the marchers, but made sure he and the marchers were kept separated from one another. Sometimes people see police "protecting" a counterprotester in this way -- and that is what the international rules say is supposed to happen. If possible, both sides are allowed to protest, and both sides are to be kept safe and separate from harming one another.
Let's look at excepts from international guidelines: https://www.osce.org/odihr/226981
An assembly that is convened to express
disagreement with the views expressed
at another assembly, and takes place at, or
almost at, the same time and place as the
primary assembly (page 120, Glossary of Terms)
manifestation of government authority, the police demonstrate a state’s
commitment to upholding the rule of law and protecting fundamental human
rights and freedoms. The police must facilitate all peaceful assemblies,
including spontaneous and simultaneous assemblies and counter-demonstrations,
and protect participants in assemblies, allowing them to express their
views freely within sight and sound of the intended audience. This handbook
promotes a change of police mentality in approaching the policing of assemblies,
from looking at assemblies as potentially dangerous events to recognizing
assemblies as manifestations of an important human right that the police
must respect and protect. The majority of assemblies are, in fact, peaceful
and do not present particular public order challenges. However, it is crucial
for police to be well prepared and trained to prevent any conflicts related to
assemblies, as well as to de-escalate tensions should they arise." (page 7, Forward)
"Counter-Demonstration: This is a particular form of simultaneous assembly
in which participants wish to express their opposition to the views expressed
at another assembly. Emphasis should be placed on the state’s duty to protect
and facilitate each event where a counter-demonstration occurs. The state should
make available adequate policing resources to facilitate such simultaneous
assemblies, to the extent possible, within sight and sound of one another.
However, it should be noted that the right to counter-demonstrate does
not extend to inhibiting the right of others to assemble. There may be
Part I. Chapter 1. The Right to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly 17
circumstances where the authorities may legitimately restrict the right of
counter-demonstrators to protest within sight and sound of the assembly they
are protesting against in order to protect the other assembly." (pages 16-17)
"If an assembly is confronted by a counter demonstration that seeks to restrict
the rights of people to peacefully assemble, then the counter demonstration
is no longer protected by international human rights law." (page 21)
"The fact that an assembly is likely to face a violent counter-protest, or even to be directly attacked by dissenting people, should not, as a matter of principle, lead to the prohibition of the peaceful assembly. In that case, it is the responsibility of the police to protect the peaceful assembly against the attacks or the violence of counter-protesters." (page 21)
"The starting point for police should always be the proactive policing of order
rather than the reactive policing of disorder. The relevant police commander
will need to continuously monitor the situation to assess the dynamics of
the assembly, onlookers and, where necessary, counter-demonstrators, so that
they can best manage the situation to ensure that peaceful order is maintained.
This may mean that the police need to be flexible in relation to any
legal restrictions placed on an assembly and to minor infractions of the law.
An approach that is too rigid to both may increase tension and provoke more
hostile or aggressive responses from participants. Even in situations where
some voices promote confrontation or violence the police should be able to
counter such influences if they remain aware of the differentiation among
participants, draw upon their knowledge of the range of groups and individuals
who are present, maintain a positive relationship with people and act with
discretion and tolerance." (page 24)
"In some contexts the police may need to use force to protect those participating
in an assembly if they are faced by hostile or aggressive counter demonstrations.
In such contexts, the police should seek to differentiate between the
aggressors and the targets of the aggression, and remember that they have a
responsibility to protect the rights of those exercising their right to peaceful
assembly." (page 31)
"Commanders should outline the specific risk (e.g., the risks associated with
the presence of a much larger number of participants than anticipated or the
risks associated with the presence of counter-demonstrators) and how they
can be dealt with. Contingencies should be put in place for emergency situations
and worse-case scenarios (e.g., sudden bad weather conditions)." (page 39)
"In assessing potential risks and hazards, the strategic commander should
always be mindful of a variety of possible different scenarios that may
unfold in the run up to and during the assembly. Scenarios may be
impacted by factors such as the number of people who may attend; their
political affiliations; the purpose of the assembly, including whether they
relate to other events taking place at the same time (e.g., visits of heads of
state, summits); the presence of counter demonstrations; the presence of
other activities in the vicinity; the location of the assembly and the route,
if it involves a march; and the time of day, weather conditions and other
potentially relevant factors." (page 55)
"Information must be gathered about the following areas:
• Why is the assembly taking place? Who is the assembly for or against?
Could the presence of police inflame the demonstrators or onlookers? Is
the focus of the assembly likely to trigger a (violent?) response from other
parts of the society?
• Who will be taking part in the assembly? Previous history? Age and gender
profile? Known intelligence on intentions? Who are the local community?
Who are the transient (passer-by) community? Will there be
counterdemonstrators or hostile members of the audience?
• What are the intentions of the participants (note that intentions among
participants and groups within the assembly may differ)? Is there intelligence
about secondary intentions? Some sub-groups attending an
assembly may have the intention of mounting a secondary protest or
• Where is the assembly due to take place? Are there any significant locations
that may be targeted by the event or some of the participants or
counterdemonstrators? What traffic concerns are there? Intended route?
• When will assembly take place? What time of day and year? What are the
weather conditions? Travel implications (availability of public transport at
time of dispersal)?
• How are individuals going to arrive at the assembly? How are they
intending to leave? Are there suitable exit routes and transport from the
assembly point? Is it going to be a static event or a march? Will there be
structures built, such as stages for speakers or loudspeakers?" (page 60)
ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS: If you want your protest to be legal, it must be non-violent. You should plan it with that goal in mind, including prohibiting your own participants from bringing items that can be used as weapons -- either by them or against them. If you are planning a protest that needs a permit, dialogue with the police or city permit officials regarding the potential for counter protesters. If you are the one planning a counter protest, find out if you need a permit for your gathering. Tensions between two groups can lead to deadly consequences, as has been seen at recent protests. If you are planning a protest that does not need a permit, but you expect there might be trouble with counter demonstrators either being violent or disrupting by, for example, showing up with a bullhorn or megaphone and trying to drown our or overcome your protest, talk in advance with the local police.