In 2008, the Republican National Convention came to St. Paul, Minnesota, the capitol of my home state. Being both a current events junkie and a fan of the overtly political band Rage Against the Machine, I decided to see the group perform one town over in Minneapolis. A friend and I bought tickets ahead of time, ready for a fun night of music.
Then the riots hit.
I wasn't oblivious to the likelihood of energetic protestors. Major political events don't feel complete without a little noise in the street. What I hadn't anticipated was the violence. Smashed windows. Overturned cars. Looted storefronts. Fires. These things define the line between “protest” and “riot.”
By the time of the concert, things had made a full transition. Throw in that Rage Against the Machine is far from being a Republican apologist, and the proverbial tinderbox had been placed. Now it just needed a match. The safe bet was on this concert.
Things were feeling sparky when we hit the Minneapolis Convention Center that September night. A booth of communists (not a joke, these were the real deal) petitioned attendees for donations. Apparently, someone had been unjustly jailed. They let people know it. The booth had me on edge and making a note of the exits.
The crowd's attention turned to the music after things started. People were beyond excitable. This was an arena full of emotions ready to burst. After the last note, I wondered what they'd do with that energy.
But nothing happened. The band urged people to be calm. Coupled with the scores of riot police garrisoning the streets outside, the end of the show was about as eventful as an Easter ham sale.
The situation certainly could've went the other way. Had it done so, the big mistake I made would've been highlighted in full detail. Repeat after me…
1) The Golden Rule of Riots: Don't Go to Places You Know Are Going to Be Trouble
If I know a stove is hot, should I touch it? Of course not. The same goes with political riots. Partisan events are announced well ahead of time. It's an unwritten rule that there will be problems on the street level. Unless you're planning on winning your party's nomination for president, stay the heck out of Dodge. The traffic alone is worth the vacation.
If you must be in the area of these events, avoid hotspots. Thankfully, there aren't many, since most protestors are peaceful. The few that do pop up are easy to spot. Just listen for the sirens.
I didn't heed this tip. I knew better. It could've cost me. Don't take the same gamble.
Other tips for surviving a riot include…
2) If You're Near a Riot, Blend In
No, that doesn't mean start breaking windows. It means don't draw attention to yourself. Not to the rioters. Not to police. Those two groups are already paying attention to each other. You need them looking the other way while you make a quick exit.
Remember, the vast majority of people have no interest in being violent. They'll want to get to safety just as much as you do. Sticking with those people should help you escape. There's safety in numbers, especially when they're non-violent.
3) If You're Completely Surrounded by a Riot…
If luck and Point 1 don't work out, this oft-cited article on WikiHow has some good tips should the guy next to you lose his cool. They include sticking to the perimeter of the action, getting a wall behind you and watching for crowd control chemicals (pepper spray, tear gas, etc.).
Those are good, general ideas. But my experience with unruly crowds tells me they don't go further than that. Average folks aren't going to look for a wall. They're going to want to get out of there.
Trust your gut. However you make an exit, do it promptly and without injuring anyone.
4) Don't Be a Hero
Leave the hero work to the people who are willing to take a punch on the job. Get yourself out of there.
Trying to intervene during a fight or looting is just asking for trouble. If the rioters, who are already willing to act violently, don't deal with you, the police will. It's hard to weed out who's who during a chaotic breakdown. That's why police use indiscriminate crowd control methods, such as gas. Takes care of everyone.
5) Be Careful with that Car
You know who doesn't like to be ran over by a car? Everyone. Keep that in mind if you're unfortunate enough to be stuck in a vehicle during a riot.
Driving toward a police line might prompt them to use force to make you stop. Rioters, on the other hand, can't seem to tolerate upright cars. What to do?
This is a judgement call. Don't drive in a way that irks anyone, but be stern enough to let people know “I want to get out of here.”
In any case, the car isn't worth your life. If you need to abandon it, do it without thinking twice.
Worst Case Scenario
A city-wide riot, a la Los Angeles 1992, would be considered the worst case scenario. Faced with nowhere to run and uninhibited violence, no survival tip can prepare you. How you survive is up to your best judgement.
It's not worth getting worked up about, though. As I wrote in this post about gas masks, determine the most likely disaster to hit your area. Adjust survival plans accordingly. Chances are Mother Nature is a greater threat than a city-leveling riot.
I allowed myself a few sprinkles of humor in this article. It's not to make light of riots. They're serious business. But most people reading this won't ever have to use these tips.
That's because most riots, at least in the United States, are predictable. Pay attention. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The best way to survive a riot is from miles away in front of a TV. Enjoy the fact you're not there.
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