I’ve been on both sides of a protest — a peaceful protest of citizens carrying hand-made posters, appealing to passersby in a friendly voice and as part of a large group of young people, angry at the school admissions process. That event resulted in shoving, yelling, and creating dangerous crowd crush with me in the middle! It was terrifying.
Like you, I’ve also watched crowds on TV erupt in fury, breaking windows, burning cars, and creating violence and havoc that no law enforcement force could control. In the past couple of years events like these have increased and it’s no wonder average citizens are wanting to learn more about riots, mobs, and civil unrest.
Here in the United States, a citizens protest is protected by our Bill of Right’s First Amendment — freedom of speech, the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to petition the government of our grievances. Every day, somewhere in the country, people join together to voice their beliefs, their displeasure, and even their anger, and almost always, these groups remain calm and then disband and go home.
Unfortunately, though, there are many cases where the opposite happens, and the transformation is fascinating — when watched from a distance. Even an innocuous family reunion or wedding can end up with fists flying and intervention by law enforcement!
The controversy of civil unrest
Everyone involved in a peaceful protest or the worst possible riot believes they are on the “right” side. Whether a person is simply carrying a sign or throwing Molotov cocktails, they are convinced of the righteousness of their cause.
The cause could be free speech, women’s rights, racial issues, or a court verdict, no matter. Each person involved can justify their actions.
“The uproar of the late ’60s – the antiwar movement, black riots, angry women. It was a wonderful time.” ~Molly Ivins
“When a police officer shoots a young, unarmed black man in the streets, then does not face indictment, anger in the community is inevitable. It’s what we do with that anger that counts. In such a case, is rioting so wrong?” ~Darlena Cunha
“‘Occupy’ is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America.” ~Frank Miller
Each of these issues obviously stirs deep emotions and, in fact, you might even be having an emotional reaction yourself just reading these quotes!
To study the phenomena of civil unrest and mob behavior, though, it’s important to disengage emotions and personal opinions and focus on the bigger picture — how to stay safe if and when your safety is in danger from a throng of people, each believing their words and actions are justified.
The sticky wicket of law enforcement and mobs
We train our youngest children to dial 911 if they are ever in fear for their lives, and we do the same. In the case of a crowd of people becoming more violent by the minute, sooner or later the police will be called in. When they arrive, it’s possible that a trained group of “riot police” will be among them.
This group of police is highly trained to respond to violent civil unrest. Before reading on, what do you notice about their appearance?
They are trained to work as a group, in sync, showing no emotion or changing their facial expressions. When they advance toward rioters, they take small steps in unison, and in fact, their formation has a specific purpose.
In the front line are the officers who will directly confront individuals when that becomes necessary. Armed with multiple weapons, they’re prepared to use batons, tear gas, bullets made of rubber, plastic, and wood, and rounds of bean bags. However, their main purpose isn’t to attack but to move the protesters to another location. Protesters who take violent action against the officers will be met by the second line who will begin arrests.
The front line is trained to move to both sides in order to let the most unruly charge forward, right into the hands of the officers trained in crowd arrests.
Going back to the appearance of riot control police, you probably noticed these things:
- Their appearance is dehumanizing with each officer looking identical to the next
- They are protected head to toe
- They are armed but their weapons blend in with the black color of their protective uniforms and other gear
- Face masks and shields provide both physical protection and a psychological advantage
The most important thing to know is that these officers are not there to shield you or lead you to safety. They are there to get the riot under control. Even a mother caught in the middle of this chaos with her young children may or may not receive assistance from law enforcement.
It’s up to you to know what to do in order to stay safe.
What happens when law enforcement does nothing?
In the past couple of years, we have seen a number of instances in which law enforcement officers do nothing to stop violent protests, even when bystanders are being threatened and injured. Recently in Portland, clashes between opposing groups resulted in fights, violence, and a few arrests, but the police department made the decision to step aside and observe.
Some protests become riots and those can last for hours or even days. Do you remember the London riots in 2011? They lasted for 6 days and spread to towns across England, leaving deaths, injuries, massive looting and property damage in the wake. So many people were arrested that courts had to stay open through the night to process them all. In the case of these riots, there was a police presence, but violent protesters were able to stay one step ahead of police through the use of Twitter and other social media.
Moving forward, if you find yourself in a part of town where a protest has become violent, the only option is to escape. If riot police are present and actively involved, they are there to control the rioters, not to protect a mom and her children. Look for routes out of the area. If it’s unfamiliar to you, then use a phone app like Waze to get to a safer location. A call to Uber can get you a quick ride home. Have a plan in mind if you will be in an area with a scheduled protest or an area that attracts protests, such as government buildings and courthouses. You’ll find more ideas for making a plan here.
What to watch out for
If you pay attention to the news on a regular basis, you’ll notice that some issues attract a higher level of emotional response than others. Compare the response to, say, a Presidential Executive Order to combat wildlife tracking with one that requires a government ID to vote in federal elections. The former is a real snoozer for most people but among some groups, the voter ID issue generates anger and resentment. A protest against a voter ID policy is more likely to trigger higher levels of emotion, which in turn can ignite violent reactions.
Rule of thumb — The likelihood of a protest turning violent is in direct proportion to the emotional level of the issue at hand. If you feel you must be a part of a protest, as it’s your constitutional right, then watch for signs of increased, maybe even irrational emotion. Look for people who seem to be the leaders and watch their words and actions. As well, look around the crowd for people who seem to be instigators. It may be the first person to throw a punch or a brick, or you may suddenly notice a handful of people brandishing makeshift weapons, like a length of rebar or a bike lock.
If you’re an active participant, just be aware if the emotional level around you rises, voices become louder, and people actively begin to act out in violent ways. Voicing your concerns is one thing. Ending up at the ER because a rioter slammed you to the ground isn’t exactly the result any citizen wants to experience.
Finally, watch out for counter-protests. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon but it has become a lot more common. With angry people on both sides, why would anyone be surprised when fists start flying?
Be aware and have a plan
Learning about civil unrest is the first step toward being able to protect yourself and your loved ones should you unexpectedly end up in or near a group of people on the verge of becoming violent or already there. You’ll find more tips about civil unrest here.
Be aware of your surroundings. Learn to identify the groups most active in violent riots, such as Antifa. Get to know how they’re dressed, their slogans, and their banners. A lot of these groups make their plans public on social media, Facebook and Twitter, in particular. Do a quick search for names like New York City Antifa and Atlanta Antifascists on Twitter and Rose City Antifa on Facebook. These groups also have very enlightening websites where you can learn about their plans, tactics, and worldview.
When you’re aware and have a plan, you’ll be able to stay safe from the growing wave of civil unrest in our country.
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