Worst Case Scenario: How To Survive A Riot

Violent protests are not a new phenomenon. There has always been the threat of mob violence in our country. All too frequently, that threat coalesces into reality. The summer of 2020 brought new unrest to cities all across America, and there’s every indication that will continue into this year as well. Whether you believe in the causes behind a riot or not, the fact is, if you’re caught up in a violent uprising, your first priority is getting out in one piece. You need to know how to survive a riot before one appears in your vicinity. 

Fast Facts: How To Survive A Riot

  • The best way to survive a riot is not be in the area where a riot or protest is about to occur.
  • A change in mood means a change in violence is about to happen. That’s your cue to leave.
  • One person against a riot is a hopeless cause. Retreat is probably your best option.

We turned to three experts in this field to get their take on how to survive a riot. Greg Ellifiritz is a firearms trainer and retired police officer who has also travelled extensively overseas, encountering violent protests and riots along the way. Michael Bane is a firearms writer and the former host of “The Best Defense” and “Best Defense: Survival” on Outdoor Channel. As a journalist, he specialized in covering riots and protests both in America and overseas. Erin Smith is a writer and activist who spent weeks undercover during the 2020 riots on the west coast, where she got a first-hand look at how today’s protests are organized and how they can affect innocent bystanders. 

Easiest Way To Survive A Riot? Don’t Be There When It Happens!

The best way to survive a violent protest is to not be near one when it happens. I asked Smith about what clues to look for if you’re worried about trouble headed your way. 

“It’s getting harder to learn what’s happening in advance,” Smith said. “There are protests that are announced in advance on the news, but the ones that are most likely to get violent aren’t usually announced ahead of time. Social media, such as Twitter, is a good resource to use to see what might happen, especially Twitter Lists where you can scroll through a bunch of accounts at once and see if any trouble is brewing around you.”  

The More You Know, The Safer You Are

“If there have been recent controversial events or anniversaries of events in the past,” Smith continued. “Stay away from where those events occured. Night time is the worst time to be out, and if there’s anything with the words ‘direct action’ in it, stay away. Things are winding down right now, and the groups that are currently out there want to avoid the cops. Because of this, they’re not announcing their presence in advance as much. What they do now is announce a starting point, but they won’t announce where they’re going. If they say wear a mask and the rally point is a mile or half mile away from an obvious target, that’s probably a clue as to where they’re headed and what they’ll be doing.” 

Michael Bane also has thoughts on how to stay one step ahead of the mob. “I’ve signed up for emails from all the protest groups in my area,” Bane said. “Yes, it means I have to read some rather silly propaganda, but it also means I know what upcoming events they’re planning, and how I can avoid them.” 

Planning For When Plan A Fails

Sometimes, however, all our planning doesn’t work, and we find ourselves in the midst of a protest that may turn ugly. Knowing when to cut and run is a big part of knowing how to survive a riot, and we asked our experts about when you can tell that things are about to get ugly. 

peaceful protest

A peaceful protest can get really ugly, really fast

“You can tell by the energy of the crowd,” Ellifritz said. “I’ve witnessed it in events in Peru and Brazil, when peaceful gatherings suddenly turned ugly. The change happens when large numbers of people switch from just watching a spot of trouble develop to being participants in the chaos. You’ll see increased agitation among the spectators, and all of a sudden the party atmosphere switches to an angry, chaotic frenzy. Then you’ll start seeing increased motion, with more people running in all directions, and that’s your cue to leave.” 

What To Do When Protests Turn Violent

Smith offers more insight. “All of the protests I was in had the potential for violence. Spotting when that violence might happen is a holistic thing. If it’s earlier in the day, violence is less likely to occur. Judging the emotional temperature of the crowd is a big factor. If there’s a lot of young males wearing masks, moving as a group and carrying backpacks, there’s a good chance it’s going to get bad.” 

Michael Bane has further thoughts. “It’s an organic thing,” Bane says. You can feel it when you’re in it, and all of a sudden there’s a change in the energy. It’s like the smell of ozone before a lightning strike. The threshold of violence gets lowered in the crowd, and people feed on that energy. One person may throw a rock, and then other people see that rock and they throw rocks. It snowballs downhill from there, and then all of sudden, everyone is throwing rocks.” 

Get Out While The Getting Is Good

Bad stuff happens, even if you pay attention and do everything right. We asked our experts how to survive a riot, even if it’s one that, through no fault of our own, is happening right in front of us. 

“(Greg) Ellifritz, Ed Monk and I discussed this very subject at TacCon this year,” Michael Bane said. “We all agree, if you’re in a riot, get to the edge, preferably against a building. Buildings can offer you a way out, so use them Move diagonally to the edges and blend in. Doorways, nooks, whatever, all of them can be useful. If you have any obvious clothing that might antagonize the mob,” Bane continued, “get rid of it. Don’t fight the mob, you will lose. You have to blend in or else the crowd will turn on you. Worse still, you have to make the assumption that at least a portion of the riot is armed. This means that if you go to your gun, you’re going to lose. We used to think that the crowd would scatter if gunshots were heard. However, we’re not seeing that in today’s riots. In fact, we’re seeing the opposite, where armed rioters are running to the sound of gunshots.”

How To Survive A Riot In The Streets

highway protest

If you’re in your car, you’re in a big steel box that moves. Use it well.

Greg Ellifritz also has more on this topic. “There’s no winning with the mob. Even if you draw and shoot, it may turn into a nasty court case with political overtones. A concealed carry class doesn’t prepare you for deploying your gun in an angry crowd that’s intent on harming you.”

“On the road, the time to leave the vehicle is before it is surrounded by a mob,” Ellifirtz went on to say. “The protesters are using bicycle spotters and radios to block roads and trap people in their cars. If that happens to you, take action right away, and get out of dodge any way you can. Park your vehicle and get out on foot to get away if possible. Move at a 90 degree angle away from the protest until you have some distance and then call an Uber for pickup.  Go back and get your car when it’s safe. If you’re in your vehicle and you’re surrounded, stay inside as long as you can. When you see cars going up in flames or bricks being used to break windows, that’s your signal to get ready to leave. If you stay in your car, the legal case can be better because it can show who was the attacker in the situation.  Bail out bags are great, but stay inside the car as long as you can.”

Don’t Look Like A Target

Smith chimes in with more. “If you have to move through an area where a mob is in full force, be careful how you dress. If you’re wearing clothing that sets you up as a target, change your clothing right away. Ditch any hats with logos that might antagonize the crowd, and cover up any slogans with a jacket. Avoid the “tactical grey man” look at all costs, it stands out with a sore thumb. There might be transitional space around a riot or a mob, where the mob isn’t there yet, but everything is shut down and quiet. This can show up about two or three blocks around an incident, and it can be a sign you’re about to have a bad day. However, I’m seeing more fluid events now, with more movement, so the transition space isn’t as noticeable.” 

Protests can happen any time, in almost any location. The peace and quiet of several small towns and suburbs were shattered last year by rioters, and there is every reason to think it might happen again this summer. How do you survive a riot when the riot shows up on your doorstep? Greg Ellifiritz has some answers to this question. 

Panic On The Streets Of Your Town

Panic on your street

This is probably a bad idea if there’s a protest on your street

“If a riot shows up on your street, “ Ellifritz says, “there really is no reason to go outside your home, unless it’s to get out of the area altogether.  One person isn’t going to stop a riot, especially if the police aren’t getting involved. You can replace the house. Your home has insurance, and paying $500 for a deductible is cheap compared to what a criminal defense costs. Hunker down inside if it’s not bad, run if it is.  I favor getting out early if you have any sort of pre-warning. If not, I’m probably staying locked down in the house unless the rioters are systematically breaking into houses and committing violence (which is not too likely given what we’ve seen so far) or are using fire as a weapon to torch the neighborhood.” 

Know When To Walk Away, And Know When To Run

Michael Bane has more. “There has to be a line. What are you willing to defend with your life? Molotov cocktails are classified as destructive devices, and arson is not only a crime against property, it’s a potentially lethal attack as well. There really isn’t any specific gear that can help in that sort of situation, it’s mindset. An armed crowd is going to negate any firepower advantage you might have. The most important thing you can learn in martial arts or any combat training is to not lose your temper. If you can keep your head and create and execute a plan, you’re going to be able to work your way to safety.”

Final Thoughts

“The closest analogy I can think of about how to survive a riot is how to paddle through Class 5 rapids. In a Class 5 river section, you can’t see the upcoming rapids and you’re not sure how those rapids are going to push against your boat, but you know you’re going to have to ride through what’s ahead of you in order to find safety,” Bane said. 

Let’s hope all of us never have to take that ride.