How to Survive the Growing Wave of Civil Unrest

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Could you survive civil unrest if caught in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Because it’s not your imagination.

Angry groups gather together more often, protesting perceived injustice, failure of leadership, financial malpractice by our government and banks, and just about any unpopular decision made by a governing body.

Sometimes these groups cast their anger and blame on those far from the source of their original complaint. They may even show up at the private homes of individuals they have targeted for one reason or another.

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. Unfortunately, that event resulted in shoving, yelling, and creating a dangerous crowd crush with me in the middle! It was terrifying.

Riots and mobs have long been a part of life in second and third-world countries, a circumstance that occurred “over there.” But now, like you, I’ve also watched on TV as crowds in various US cities erupt in a 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 want to learn more about riots, mobs and flash mobs, and civil unrest. Unfortunately, as America’s fortunes continue to spiral downward, it’s highly likely that you, too, will be confronted with a mob. This article will give you the tools to survive civil unrest when encountered.

image: police in riot garb walking down a street past people on sidewalk

Definition of Civil Unrest

Let’s begin with the legal definition of civil unrest, or civil disorder, as the OLRC calls it. We have all seen a great deal of leeway in determining when a protest moves from peaceful to violent, but this gives us a common language.

Civil disorder means “any public disturbance involving acts of violence by assemblages of three or more persons, which causes an immediate danger of or results in damage or injury to the property or person of any other individual.”

Here in the United States, a citizens’ protest is protected by our Bill of Right’s First Amendment — freedom of speech, the right to assemble peaceably, and the right to petition the government of our grievances. Daily, 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, 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 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; you might even be having an emotional reaction just reading these quotes!

To study the phenomena of civil unrest and mob behavior, though, it’s essential 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 Problem with People

A while back, a small group of self-identified “anarchists” attacked a Starbucks in New York City.

Reading the article, a few facts jumped out at me.

  • Only 25 people were involved in the group.
  • Those inside Starbucks must have been terrified, with no place to go and probably no forms of self-defense.
  • The anarchists advertised their event.
  • Some were wearing masks, increasing their anonymity.
  • They were willing to attack private property and law enforcement alike.

People are unpredictable; as a general rule, the larger the group, the lower the overall IQ. How else can you explain the crazy college students who burn police cars to celebrate winning a championship game?

Think about it.

These young people had to present their high school transcripts and take at least one admissions test to be accepted to the university. Then, they set cars on fire because their team won or lost a game. A large group of people with a lower collective IQ fueled by alcohol is an even deadlier combination.

The Cloak of Anonymity

Another issue regarding protests and demonstrations is that it increases the cloak of anonymity people believe they have. They feel free to do what they have always wanted to do but felt constrained by the fear of being identified.

images: hundreds of syrians at protest

Look at this photo of a protest in Iran, and you’ll see what I mean. Would you remember the dark-haired guy in the white shirt a third of the way from the front?

Probably not, right?

Many of these groups consist of cowardly bullies who would never confront a police officer on their own or break windows or strip innocent bystanders. Still, when they are part of a larger group, they’re emboldened to do things they would never do alone.

Behavior Adjustments

A final issue with mobs of people is that they adjust their behavior to that of those around them. You can see this occasionally in photos and videos when one protester glances at others around him and raises his voice, increases his level of anger, raises his fist, etc. The mob, not the individual, is in control.

Where does law enforcement come in?

I spoke with a few individuals in various law enforcement departments, and here is the gist of their advice: You’re pretty much on your own if you are ever caught in a riot or other violent demonstration.

That’s right.

Police and other law enforcement departments have multiple plans for dealing with angry mobs. However, they don’t have plans for rescuing you if you are caught in the middle. So you absolutely must have a plan for staying safe. Not for taking on a hundred people single-handed, just staying safe and getting away. Civil unrest survival is up to you.

Following the killing of five Dallas police officers, law enforcement around the country is now very hesitant to go anywhere near protests for fear that they will turn violent again. In the case of a large Black Lives Matter protest that shut down highway 405 near Los Angeles, it was decreed that it was a peaceful protest, and LAPD didn’t show their faces.

And you’re there sitting in your car. Alone or with the kids. Not exactly a positive experience and definitely one with an uncertain outcome.

What happens when law enforcement DOES appear?

We train our youngest children to dial 911 if they are ever in fear for their lives, and we do the same. If a crowd of people becomes more violent by the minute, the police will be called in sooner or later.

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, rubber, plastic and wood bullets, and rounds of bean bags. However, their primary purpose isn’t to attack but to move the protesters to another location. Protesters who take violent action against the officers are met by the second line, who begin arrests.

The front line is trained to move to both sides to let the most unruly charge forward, right into the hands of the officers trained in crowd arrests.

The Significance of Riot Police Garb

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 Remember About Riot Police

The most important thing to know is that these officers are not there to shield 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 to stay safe.

Sometimes Law Enforcement Does Nothing

In the past few years, we have seen several instances in which law enforcement officers do nothing to stop violent protests, even when bystanders are threatened and injured. Recently in Portland, clashes between opposing groups resulted in fights, violence, and a few arrests, but the police department decided to step aside and observe.

Some protests become riots, which can last for hours or even days. Do you remember the London riots in 2011? They lasted for six 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. In the case of these riots, there was a police presence, but violent protesters were able to stay one step ahead of the police through the use of Twitter and other social media.

Principles for Surviving Civil Unrest

Alright, let’s get to the nitty-gritty, shall we?  Here we go.

The Likelihood of a Protest Becoming Violent

If you pay attention to the news regularly, you’ll notice that some issues attract a higher 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. This, in turn, can ignite violent reactions.

Keep these three things in mind:

  1. Rule of thumb — The likelihood of a protest turning violent is directly proportional to the emotional level of the issue at hand. Engaging in peaceful protest is your constitutional right. Even so, watch for signs of increased, maybe even irrational, emotion. Look for people who seem to be the leaders and watch their words and actions. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Finally, watch out for counter-protests. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon but has become much more common. With angry people on both sides, why would anyone be surprised when fists start flying?

Information Can be Your Best Defense

It’s vital to know what is going on in your town as well as national trends. The protests and violence following the Trayvon Martin incident spread far beyond Sanford, Florida. Listen or watch local news and sign up for email and/or cell phone alerts from local TV and radio stations. They will often send out alerts far more quickly than law enforcement.

Staying informed is especially important if you live or work in a high-profile area, such as an urban area with many government and corporate buildings. If this describes you, you should also have a Get Home Bag and multiple routes for getting to a safer place. If you’re not a prepper but just afraid of the increased civil unrest you see around you, a commercially packaged emergency kit like this one will work just fine in most instances.

Learn About Groups Frequently Involved in Riots

Groups such as Communist Students and sites such as Protest.net publicize their grievances, plans, and protest locations.  Law enforcement keeps tabs on these groups, so why not you?  Follow them on Twitter, sign up for their emails (establish a separate email address for this), and track them down on Facebook. If you hear of a protest scheduled near you, at least you’ll have advanced warning. You can prepare, or better yet, be somewhere else on that day.

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. Many of these groups make their plans public on social media, Facebook, and Twitter, in particular. Do a quick search for them. These groups also have very enlightening websites where you can learn about their plans, tactics, and worldview.

What about real self-defense to survive civil unrest?

One law enforcement friend told me he would want to have a concealed handgun if he were ever caught in a mob. (By the way, this simple, basic concealed holster is one that I recommend.) I have no problem with being armed but would think twice about the circumstances and my plan for self-defense.

For example, firing a gun would immediately identify me as a target, especially if my appearance didn’t fit in with the crowd.  I’m not so sure facing down dozens of angry people with my Baby Glock and one extra magazine is my idea of a good survival plan.

As well, stray bullets could hit innocent people or a police officer. Then, I’d have a whole ‘nother problem to worry about.  A firearm might be a better choice for back-to-the-wall self-defense among a smaller mob or if caught in a building that provides a degree of cover.

Never underestimate the force and combined anger of a large group of people and how rapidly it can amplify.  The smartest self-defense weapon in this scenario is your brain and previous planning. If you haven’t yet read Gavin de Becker’s best-selling book, Gift of Fear, it’s definitely worth your time to become more mentally prepared for potential threats around you.

When a peaceful protest turns violent…

Here’s the problem with these protests. They are made up of people, generally angry people, who have a grievance. It takes very little to turn a peaceful protest into a violent one.

In fact, many groups have trained individuals who purposely stoke anger. They seek to cause a violent reaction against police, bystanders, and private or government property. To some, a protest isn’t a success until several of its members are hauled off to jail.

Remember, if riot police are present and actively involved, they are there to control the rioters, not to protect you. If you find yourself in a part of town where a protest has become violent, the only option is to:

  • escape,
  • look for routes out of the area,
  • if in an unfamiliar area, use a phone app like Waze to get to a safer location, or
  • 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 a place that attracts protests, such as government buildings and courthouses. You’ll find more ideas for making a plan here.

More Tips for Surviving Civil Unrest (Video)

I recorded this video with more tips for staying safe during riots. Please add your suggestions in the comment section. For a written list of safety tips, click here.

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.

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.

What steps do you take to prepare to survive civil unrest?

Originally posted April 24, 2018; updated by The Survival Mom editors.

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I'm the original Survival Mom and for more than 11 years, I've been helping moms worry less and enjoy their homes and families more with my commonsense prepping advice.

25 thoughts on “How to Survive the Growing Wave of Civil Unrest”

  1. Richard Steven Hack

    I guess no one is old enough to remember the ’60’s. LOL This is nothing – so far. When they start “domestic terrorism” and blowing stuff up like the Weathermen (although those idiots blew themselves up more than anything else), then maybe I might be slightly worried.

    I live in San Francisco. I’ve seen riots here before and neatly evaded them by simply crossing the street and going up another street before the mob reached me. Most of these riots are limited to locations where they can get TV coverage and rarely spread outside of a narrow area.

    The simplest way to avoid this sort of thing is simply to be aware when people start marching around. Then leave. If you get caught in the crowd or within a police containment deployment, that’s your mistake. Use situational awareness.

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  3. Something stuck out in your blog post, that I feel needs qualification or perhaps clarification.
    “Each person involved can justify their actions.”
    I believe this is mostly true in years gone by… even the “Weathermen” mentioned above had a cause that they were part of.

    There is a fundamental difference between protests, civil unrest and mobs.

    While protests and civil unrest most certainly can and usually do happen for the same reason… a stance against a perceived wrong… Mob participants, most notably in the last decade, do not necessarily need to believe in anything.

    The defense behind my reasoning is this…
    When you have people participating in mobs that act violently against their own interests (IE: burning down a Walgreens where they get their prescriptions filled) just because they can, or to loot, there is no “cause” that they support to justify attacking something totally unrelated to whatever cause the protesters are protesting.
    When people in a mob are asked what they are protesting and cannot even answer the question, they most certainly are not part of a protest.

    Mobs are, by definition, not by purpose a protest. A protest can turn into a mob… but rarely will you see the opposite happen. There simply is no justification to be had for much of the mob behavior occurring in the US today.

    Most of the people involved in mobs simply want to do damage to something, steal something, or in some cases are hired to participate.

  4. one comment – to my eyes, those pictures are not of law enforcement/police officers. I see military. And they do not belong on the streets of America. All you said is true regarding their method, equipage, training. But those are not peace officers who serve the public. They serve the powers that be and that’s all they serve.

    1. They’re not peace officers any longer. They are ‘law enforcement officers. The change in attitude, along with the changes in uniform, go a long way to tell you what they are and what they see as their role.

    2. I disagree. The riot police in uniform are much better protected than our military in battle gear. They also are trained differently. Military are trained to kill, because in battle situations they will almost certainly have to do so to stay alive. Riot police are trained to subdue, and if necessary to arrest. To do that properly they have to be padded up like hockey goalies. Of course I grew up with the military so I have a different perspective than some.

    3. I disagree – those police absolutely DO belong on the streets of America these days. Certain groups of people promote violence just because they want their way. The First Amendment is very clear – the people have a right to PEACEABLY assemble to protest. People these days are violent and that is NOT covered by the First Amendment. We need this officers to balance civility, personal safety of citizens and make sure property doesn’t get damaged. Those who violently protest need to be in jail and prosecuted. I understand peaceful protests – if you are violent – I have no sympathy for you when you get whacked with a baton – that’s your own stupidity. People have choices to make – consequences good or bad always follow.

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  7. Interesting, very interesting. Unfortunately, the whole premise is ruined by its counterfactual examples & discussion of only left-wing civil unrest. In fact, based upon US DOJ, FBI, and many other reputable sources, in the USA, today and for many years past, you are much more likely to be killed or injured from right- wing violence and hate groups. Remember. Charlottesville , the Las Vegas Shooting, etc., etc. We should always stick to the facts when we discuss such politically charged issues. However, I join in the condemnation of violence.

    1. There’s no evidence at all that the Las Vegas shooting was civil unrest, and at that point in your comment, I knew you weren’t coming from a point of being well informed.

      I mention Antifa specifically because they are widespread and well organized. There are many groups that identify themselves as “Antifa” in their own social media accounts and websites. Since there are so many groups and they are spread from coast to coast, they deserve watching and their actions deserve condemnation.

      There are other groups on the opposing side but as of this writing, they have far fewer members and are smaller, isolated groups. I disagree completely that “right wing violence and hate groups” are more dangerous and based on my research, it’s impossible to support that argument when it comes to actual civil unrest, e.g. riots, mobs, attacks on random citizens.

      1. I do find it interesting that you cited dailymail vs. BBC, The Guardian, or The Independent. Or other international sources like Deutsche Welle or Reuters

      2. Your major points, however, about riot safety do hold true. You offer a lot of rational practical advice about prepping. So much so that I have bought your Evacuation book as a Christmas gift for my sister who lives in California.

  8. One thing you can do is to stop taking in so much media. Go for a walk. Meditate. Listen to music. They are attempting to manipulate you by whipping up your fears. Don’t let them. And make sure you get your news from multiple sources, so that you’re not in a news vacuum, where you’re only exposed to one opinion. Prep without letting fear and paranoia rule you.

    1. Good question. The article has been updated. At the bottom of the piece is a notation with the original publication date and that it was updated.

  9. Many valid points. Humans are definitely a herd species and easily brainwashed in mass. Dictatorship starts with brainwashed people following along. Hitler was a master, good people were oblivious. I find it interesting you left out the groups like Oath Keepers. They instigate and come very well armed.

  10. Excellent article and timely. Anyone paying attention should be concerned. Political and class conflct is growing quickly. Those unprepared for civil unrest and even prolonged civil conflict will be caught in a tough situation. Be prepared or be surprised and sorry. Nice job with this article! Keep them coming!

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