Mike’s Briefing: Surviving a Riot

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Have you ever been caught in a riot? As people in Portland Oregon discovered last weekend, it can happen anywhere. Our security expert, Mike McMaken, discusses how best to survive a riot.


I was on a security assignment to Cairo during the 2011 revolution to overthrow President Mubarak. We were providing security assessments and training for several U.S.-funded international development projects operating throughout the city. The work required me to move around quite a bit, and consequently, I had to not only avoid the many demonstrations and riots taking place throughout the city, but actually had to escape from one street where a mob was smashing down the doors to a building.

The streets were clogged with people and vehicles, and at this time there was no police presence in most of the city so we were pretty much on our own. Areas where there were fires burning were easy enough to avoid since the plumes of smoke were a dead giveaway, but other situations were not so easy to spot since you couldn’t see what was going on until you were actually looking down the street. In the situation where the mob was smashing their way into a building, we were in a vehicle and were able to quickly reverse back up the street and then make a sharp turn out of the area. It was a surreal experience, being able to see the pyramids above the skyline as we made our way across a city in turmoil.

Here in the USA, the rights to free speech and assembly are protected under the U.S. Constitution and most of the time demonstrations are relatively peaceful. But the line between a demonstration and a riot can be thin. All it takes is one person or group (such as ANTIFA) to do something provocative to push the situation over that line. HEAT courses warn people to avoid demonstrations in other countries because of the high possibility that they will turn violent, but we also have seen violent demonstrations here in the USA such as Portland, Ferguson, Baltimore and Charlottesville. What are some steps we can take to remain safe if we find ourselves in a riot situation?

When on foot

As in any survival situation, panic is your number one enemy. Stay calm and think clearly. The best idea is to avoid the situation altogether, but if you really feel the need to be there or you suddenly find yourself caught up in something before you realize it, 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. Years of working in hostile environments around the world have taught me that there really is such a thing as a sixth sense, and if something doesn’t feel right to you it probably isn’t.

Know the layout of the immediate area and have both primary and secondary routes planned for an escape.

If you are leaving the area do not run, walk quickly but calmly out of the danger zone.

Running attracts attention and can cause others to escalate their own behavior by chasing you or start running themselves. Many injuries that occur in riots are simply the result of people being knocked down and trampled by a panicked crowd.

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.

If you are caught in a situation where police are involved, do not run toward the them in the hopes you will be 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.

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 and then 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 in order to be away from the ground floor.  It might also be possible to escape out a back entrance and get 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. Again, they do not know who you are and you won’t know what they are reacting to. While police in the U.S. are slightly less likely to shoot protesters than in Nigeria or Bangladesh, it can still happen especially if they are being shot at themselves or are rookies.

In a vehicle

You might 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. I recall traveling between a military base and a reconstruction project site in southern Iraq where there weren’t many roads and routes were limited. The best route passed through several villages controlled by the Mahdi militia factions and they did not like Americans. There was no law, and it was common to have our lightly armored SUVs confronted by mobs and pelted with rocks along the route. As in any riot 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 there is a possibility that might work. 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 the beating of truck driver Reginald Denny by a mob during the 1992 LA Rodney King riots can see how quickly someone can go from being the innocent driver of a vehicle to a bloody victim. Beyond that, ramming through a crowd in the USA would more than likely end up with you in handcuffs, assuming you survived.

It goes without saying 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 a 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.

Nevertheless, there is always a chance that you will suddenly find yourself in a bad situation. If you can get out of it by backing out of the area or taking side streets as we did in Cairo, then that is the best option.

It really isn’t a bad idea to learn how to drive your vehicle backwards at high speed. Believe me, I have done it to get myself out of a tight spot on more than one occasion.

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 petal 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. Put a jacket or some other item up against the driver’s window to protect you in the event someone breaks the glass. Be sure your doors are locked, and you have your seat belts on. 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 it out of sight but ready to use in an extreme situation.

However, 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 alive in court than dead in the grave.

Bottom line, be aware and avoid the problem if possible. If you cannot, always have a mental plan to get out alive.