I have the pleasure of living just outside–and working in–one of the most violent cities in the nation. A city of 600,000+ that sees 250+ murders per year and has associated levels of other violent crime. Recently, this city has been in the news as one of those where a young African-American male died while in police custody. In late April, I was on my way home when I heard on the radio about what sounded like a riot beginning near the only mall in the city, about 3 miles from my location at that moment. Within hours, all of the cable news networks had set up shop in that area of the city, and tensions, as I write this several weeks later, remain high.
I am not going to pretend that I’ve “survived” a riot or try to make myself out to be more than I am. However, as we have seen similar bits of unrest in other metropolitan areas across the country, the possibility exists that our readers can suddenly find themselves in similar circumstances. What follows are my thoughts about some “best practices” in city life that can help you avoid such situations or negotiate your way through if you are caught in the middle of a “protest”. Please bear in mind that, to some readers who are city-dwellers, some of what follows will seem like “no-brainers”. The point is to assist those who do not normally spend time in such environs.
In Your Car
If you are traveling in a motor vehicle through a metropolitan area (whether part of your daily life or just visiting), I am a fan of tuning your radio to whatever local news channel you can find. Forego the music for a bit, as the news may give you some warning about events transpiring. For example, a few weeks ago protesters upset about the planned construction of a new juvenile detention facility pushed abandoned cars across a major thoroughfare here in the city, blocking traffic for over an hour. The speed with which these events get organized on social media means you just never know when it will happen.
When driving in a city, try not to accelerate like a drag racer from red light to red light. If a traffic light ahead of you is red, start slowing down as early as possible. A moving car is much less of a target than a stationary one. Likewise, once you get to a red light, leave a good gap between the front of your car and the back of the vehicle in front of you. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to see the bottoms of the rear tires of the car in front of you. This should give you some room to maneuver around the car in front of you without having to put your car in reverse.
When stopped at a traffic light, in addition to maintaining a high level of situational awareness, occasionally cast your glance upwards. The location of news or police helicopters circling an area may give you an indication of where NOT to go. I make this a part of my daily routine when I leave work each afternoon. If helicopters are circling to the east, I head west and then north to home. If they are to the west, I head east and then north. If I am THAT curious about what is going on, I can watch what is happening on the local news when I am safely home.
Having a vehicle that can easily negotiate a curb or push another car is handy as well. If a violent mob or other situation develops and the car in front of you is unwilling or unable to move, slowly pushing it or moving around it over a curb and onto the sidewalk could be a necessity. Personally, I lack in this area, as I drive a smaller car, but I do have all wheel drive capabilities.
Finally, it should go without saying that you should maintain your vehicle in good working order. A car that overheats in the middle of a riot is putting your life in danger. You should also have some emergency supplies on hand. Simple food items that do not spoil, some water for drinking in case you are stuck for a while, jumper cables, some medical gear, etc. Obviously, if you can go about your day legally armed, then you should definitely do so. If not, then you should carry whatever you can in order to defend yourself (folding knives, pepper spray, a baseball bat, etc.). Finally, all doors should be locked and all windows should be closed at all times while driving through the city.
Portions of the preceding section– scanning the skies for helicopters, traveling armed with whatever you can legally carry, maintaining a high level of situational awareness, and listening to local news–are also applicable when you are on foot.
Other considerations can be made if, despite all of the above, you still find yourself in the midst of a mob. The first rule is to try to find the edges of the mob and work the edge. In a city environment, the mob will sooner or later be against buildings, so if you can get to a building, that is best. If you can keep moving, ideally with your back to the walls as much as possible, that can work. Likewise, you can try to enter a business (but be sure to present a non-threatening demeanor to any business owner intent on protecting his business!) and “hunker down” until the situation outside resolves itself. Another option may be to ask the business owner/worker if there is a rear exit to an alley or side street that you can use to continue to distance yourself from the chaos.
If getting to the edge or escaping the crowd is problematic, “join” the crowd. If protest signs are available, perhaps lying on the ground, pick one up and carry it in order to “fit in”. Even if your ethnicity does not match that of most of the protesters, any protest seems to attract all ilk of college students eager for a new cause to champion, so you could always pretend you are “one of them” until you reach the edges of the crowd.
Finally, in general, make sure that you are wearing some appropriate attire for “what if”. This does not mean that you should wander the cities in riot gear. What it DOES mean is that you should, at the very least, leave the flip-flops at the beach or at the pool. Trying to negotiate through an angry mob in shoes that do not protect your feet if someone steps on you, prevent you from kicking effectively, and slow you down or fall off if you run, are useless.
We all have loved ones who need us to get home every day. Accordingly, keep your loved ones in the loop by letting them know where you are. This is a good policy in general (for example, when flying alone on a commercial flight, I always text my wife my flight # and seat assignment. You never know when that information might be useful), but especially so in times of turmoil. Often in such times, cellular phone service can be interrupted, so using text messaging may be your most reliable means of communication.
A smart phone or similar device can also be useful in helping you to avoid the situation completely IF you are tuned in to social media sources that can give you fair warning. There are also apps/websites that can give you live police scanner feeds that can help you identify “hotspots” to avoid at any given time. I would just advise readers to research this ahead of time to avoid the mad scramble for information when the situation has already gone south.
In a mob environment, defending oneself could be very different than a thwarted car-jacking or mugging. If you are forced to defend yourself, the mob around you has the potential to become even more incensed. Waiting for police in such a scenario could be a recipe for disaster no matter how many rounds your pistol magazine holds. I would instead advocate doing your best to blend back into the chaos, change your appearance (remove a jacket, put on a baseball cap, etc.), and then call the police from a safer location. Obviously, leaving the scene of such an event is generally frowned upon, but a mob/riot is not “standard”, and defending yourself against one person will do you no good if 20 others attack you in the immediate aftermath. This is something, should it happen, you would have to “read” for yourself, in the moment, and make the best decision you can. As long as you can articulate afterwards why you defended yourself and why you left the scene, you should be okay.
In the end, these incidents of mob violence are relatively rare, and with some awareness can be easily avoided, as they tend to be concentrated into small areas. Once avoided, the rest of the above becomes moot. As with so many other things, the best defensive tactic you can use is avoiding the fight altogether.