Have you ever been caught in a riot? I mean a full-fledged, rock-throwing, violent uprising with smoke, people screaming, and windows being smashed while police shoot tear gas at the crowd? It’s an experience I have always done my best to avoid.
I deployed to Cairo during the anti-Mubarak rioting on January 29, 2011. My assignment was to provide immediate security support for six project teams of Americans under contract to the US Government. Egyptian President Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) headquarters was still burning from being set on fire by rioters the night before as we passed it driving into the city.
It was the height of what the media had glibly named the ‘Arab Spring.’ A time of uprisings and riots that were supposedly going to usher in an enlightened era of true democracy throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The reality would eventually be far different as the Arab Spring staggered into the Arab Winter. A time of more riots, rebellions, civil wars, and assassinations that led to regional instability that is still the norm.
But that was the big picture. We were more concerned with the small details as we made our way to the hotel, where we would set up our headquarters. Tahrir Square was still packed with people, and the sound of chanting and sporadic gunfire filled the air. Our job was to go to each of the six project headquarters throughout the city to assess and improve security and provide training for the staff.
To do that, we had to move around a large city deep in the throes of a violent uprising. Preferably not getting embroiled in the violence ourselves.
Anatomy of Civil Unrest
In the USA, the right to free speech and assembly is protected under the US Constitution. Most of the time, demonstrations are relatively peaceful. But as we have seen over the years, the line between a demonstration and a riot can be thin. All it takes is one person losing their cool or a group (such as ANTIFA) set on agitating the situation to do something provocative to push things over that line. International travelers are warned to avoid demonstrations because of the high possibility that they will turn violent. But we’ve seen plenty of violent demonstrations here in the USA, such as in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charlottesville. And let’s not forget Portland, where the rule of law broke down completely.
Avoiding a Riot
All riots, no matter where they are, have several things in common. Understanding these traits and acting to address them can help you avoid serious problems. The best precaution is to stay in a safe area, but if you have to venture out, take steps to avoid trouble.
Although a demonstration or riot may start at a given location, it can move. While demonstrations may start with a specific target, like a government building or police station, crowds can migrate to other locations. Organizations with a stake in the unrest can easily prod people to new locations through text messages or social media. Just because an area was safe this morning doesn’t mean it will be this afternoon.
Stay Updated on the Situation
Use whatever resources you have to stay abreast of what’s going on. News outlets, traffic reports, and people you know in the area can provide critical information that will help you avoid trouble areas.
Know where you are going and how you’re going to get there before you leave a safe location. Planning a route is simple these days. Use online map sites, a GPS, or your smartphone to plan your route and provide directions. Plan alternate routes and understand the layout of the area before setting out. Make sure someone knows when you are leaving and what time you should arrive at your destination. Check in regularly to let them know how things are going.
Leave nothing to chance. Be sure your vehicle is filled with gas and your phone is fully charged. Make sure you have an emergency bag in your vehicle. It should contain things like a first aid kit, a spare phone charger, some cash, water, and anything else you think you might need.
Avoid the Area
Never knowingly enter an area where unrest is taking place. It’s a free country, and you can go where you want to, but it’s not your job to keep the peace or protect local businesses. And there is no errand so important that you should put yourself at risk to accomplish it.
Surviving a Riot
There may be a time when you suddenly find yourself in a violent demonstration or riot. Whether through poor planning or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, it can happen. If it does, there are some things you can do to get yourself through it alive.
When On Foot
As in any survival situation, panic is your worst enemy. Stay calm and think clearly. Exercise situational awareness and be cognizant of what is going on around you. As always, have a plan for what you will do in the event things turn violent.
Trust Your Instincts
Years of working in hostile environments around the world have taught me that there is such a thing as a sixth sense. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Know the layout of the immediate area and have both primary and secondary routes planned for an escape.
Do not run when leaving the area. Walk quickly but calmly out of the danger zone. Running attracts attention and can cause others to escalate their behavior by chasing you or to panic and start running themselves. Many injuries that occur in riots are simply the result of people being knocked down and trampled by a panicked crowd.
Get To the Edge
Stay on the periphery of the crowd. Crowds can move quickly en masse, like a flock of birds or a shoal of fish. If you are not careful, it will carry you along with it. If you find yourself in the center of a mass of people, try to work your way back out to the edge. Move away from whatever the crowd seems to be focused on.
Don’t try to move against the flow. You will likely get knocked down and trampled. Move generally with the flow but at an angle toward the edge of the crowd.
Watch Out for Vehicles
Beware of areas accessible to vehicles. One person was killed and 19 injured when a man deliberately drove his car into a crowd at an August 2017 demonstration in Charlottesville, VA. Pay attention and be sure you have a means of getting into a safe area where a vehicle cannot reach you. Look for solid barriers like bollards (the heavy posts in front of store entrances) and places where the sidewalk is above the level of the street and separated by a concrete step.
If you are in a building that is the target of a riot, or if you take refuge inside a building, lock the door if possible. Move to the rear, away from the doors and windows. Stay calm and think clearly. If it is a large building, you might find it safer to go up several stories to be away from the ground floor. It might also be possible to escape out a back entrance and get out of the area. Just be sure of what is waiting outside before you open the door.
Interactions With Police
If you are caught in a situation where police are involved, do not run toward them in the hopes they will keep you safe. In all the noise and confusion, the police will not know who you are and may see you as a threat and defend themselves. Instead, get to the periphery of the crowd and find a safe route out of the area.
Always follow the instructions of the police. If they order you to stop or lie down on the ground, comply immediately. They do not know who you are, and you won’t know what their orders are or what they are reacting to. While police in the U.S. are less likely to shoot protesters than in Nigeria or Bangladesh, it can still happen. Especially if they have been shot at themselves. Cooperate even if you weren’t doing anything wrong. Misunderstandings are much easier to sort out than wounds or injuries.
In A Vehicle
It’s tempting to think that being in a vehicle is safer than being on foot, but vehicles can be disabled and broken open. Allowing yourself to become bogged down in the midst of a hostile crowd is a bad thing.
Reacting to Thrown Objects
While working in Iraq, we had to travel between a military base and a distant project site. Routes were limited, and we had to pass through several villages controlled by Mahdi militia factions. They didn’t like Americans. There was no law, and it was common to have our lightly armored SUVs confronted by locals and pelted with rocks. As in any mob situation, the secret was to keep moving and avoid any large concentrations of people.
You may be telling yourself that you would simply drive through a mob if they attacked your vehicle, and that may become an unavoidable possibility. More likely, you would bog down to the point where people could break out your windows and get at you.
Anyone who has ever watched a video of the beating of truck driver Reginald Denny by a mob during the 1992 L.A. Rodney King riots can see how quickly someone can go from being an innocent driver to a bloody victim. Beyond that, deliberately ramming through a crowd in the USA would more than likely end up with you in handcuffs, assuming you survived.
Look for Alternate Routes
I can’t emphasize enough that the best tactic is to avoid problem areas. Pay attention to the news, call people you know and trust in the area, and be aware of current events. If there is even the potential for problems, alter your route or don’t travel at all. If it’s an area you know well, then choose alternate routes. If it is an unfamiliar area, look at a map before traveling and have a plan.
Get Out of the Area
Nevertheless, there is always a chance that you will suddenly find yourself in a bad situation. If you see a crowd down the street where you are heading, stop and go around. Despite all our careful planning in Cairo, we suddenly found ourselves in our car looking down the street at a mob smashing their way into a building. Some of them noticed us and began heading our way. We escaped by backing straight back and then taking a side street.
If you can get out of a situation by backing out of the area or taking side streets, that is the best option. It helps to be able to drive your vehicle backward at high speed. I have done it to get myself out of a tight spot on more than one occasion.
When Surrounded by a Mob
If you can’t escape the situation and you find yourself in a vehicle in the midst of a hostile crowd . . . keep moving. Do not stop. Once you stop, it will be very difficult to get moving again. This is not to say you should put the pedal to the metal unless there is no other option.
Moving forward at a steady pace gives people time to get out of your way but lets them know you are not going to stop. If you can, put jackets or other items up against the windows to protect you and your passengers in the event, someone breaks the glass. Be sure your doors are locked and you have your seat belts on to make it more difficult to drag you out of the vehicle.
Passengers should be hunkered down and covered with anything they can find to protect them from broken glass. If you are armed, do not wave your gun around in an attempt to intimidate the mob. It won’t work and may only provoke a more violent attack. Keep your gun out of sight but ready to use in an extreme situation. I’ll go into a bit more detail on firearms shortly…
If the crowd suddenly breaks all your windows out and tries to drag you or your passengers out of the vehicle, it is time to get out of there as quickly as possible. Just remember that there are going to be legal consequences, but better live in court than dead in the street.
The bottom line, be aware and avoid the situation if possible. If you get caught up in it have a plan to get yourself and your loved ones out alive.
A Note on Being Armed
Some people think that the best way out of an angry mob is to show them they are armed. But that is usually a poor decision.
On August 25, 2020, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse shot three men during the civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse had joined a group of armed citizens in Kenosha trying to protect local businesses and was openly armed with an AR15. Rather than deter the rioters, it made them angry and precipitated repeated physical attacks on him.
Rittenhouse tried to flee the mob, but they followed him and continued attacking him. He was only able to escape after shooting three of the rioters, killing two. He then went through a long and difficult trial to prove his innocence.
If you are armed, keep your gun concealed. Do not brandish or even display it. You will be vastly outnumbered, and displaying it could very easily incite the mob to try to take it away from you. Be prepared to draw and use it only if absolutely necessary to save your life, otherwise, do not let anyone know you have a gun. As Kyle’s situation demonstrated, it’s not an immediate fix. Plus, even if using it was justified, you will no doubt have a long legal battle ahead of you.
The best way to survive a riot is to avoid it. Be aware of what is going on and plan ahead. If you don’t need to go anywhere near the riot area, then don’t go. And that includes work. Even peaceful demonstrations can turn violent without warning.
If you are suddenly swept up in a violent riot, stay calm and use your head.