What to Do if You’re Caught in a Riot

Some advice on what to do if you're caught in a riot

It doesn’t really matter where you’re at these days. The world is a tinderbox. One minute you’re spending a nice afternoon window shopping, and the next minute, all hell is breaking loose. Do you know what to do if you’re caught in a riot?

Civil unrest is becoming a more frequent occurrence, often organized via social media and messaging apps. Any time there’s a verdict, it doesn’t really matter which way it goes. A riot may ensue. Chaos regularly erupts when there’s a police-involved shooting. The appearance of unpopular public figures, groups who disagree politically showing up at one another’s shindigs, statues that are suddenly deemed inappropriate… it doesn’t take much these days for ordinary people to turn into violent mobs. And if you happen to be unfortunate enough to be in the area when this happens, through no fault of your own, you have to figure out what to do if you’re caught in a riot.

Here’s What to Do If You’re Caught in a Riot

Plan A.) Leave Immediately.

This article assumes that you aren’t deliberately out there rioting with everybody else and that you don’t want to be in the midst of a riot. Perhaps you were attending what was supposed to be a peaceful protest about a cause you deeply support. Maybe you were just walking down the street to the bus stop and suddenly found yourself in the middle of a burgeoning episode of unrest. It could be that the crowd separates your workplace and your parking place.

Whatever the reason you happen to be there, leave. Leave immediately. If you have children with you, go even faster. The very safest course of action is to get away from the riot as quickly as possible.

If you are present when a riot breaks out, leave immediately

Plan B.) How to Get Out of the Crowd

But what if the riot has evolved around you, and you find yourself in the center of things? That makes it a whole lot trickier to just leave. Whatever you do, don’t try to take a horizontal path directly to the sidelines. That’s a good way to get trampled or pushed down by an angry crowd. Make your way to safety diagonally, exit down the nearest side street, and revert to Plan A.

Plan C.) Try to Blend In

Depending on the mood of the crowd, extricating yourself might not be as simple as moving diagonally with the group. Mob mentality is a scary thing and can cause ordinarily nice, law-abiding people to do things they’d never do ordinarily. Dr. Wendy James writes of the psychology of mob behavior:

A mob mentality phenomenon has occurred throughout human history, whether witch-burning, religious zealotry, political protests or reaction to perceived racial microaggressions.

Three psychological theories address crowd behavior.

First is Contagion Theory, proposes that crowds exert a hypnotic influence on their members that results in irrational and emotionally charged behavior often referred to as crowd frenzy.

Second is Convergence Theory that argues the behavior of a crowd is not an emergent property of the crowd but is a result of like-minded individuals coming together. If it becomes violent is not because the crowd encouraged violence yet rather people wanted it to be violent and came together in a crowd.

Third is Emergent-Norm Theory that combines the two above arguing that a combination of liked-minded individuals, anonymity and shared emotions leads to crowd behavior.

Clearly, this is not a good situation in which to find yourself. It’s imperative not to set yourself up as the perceived enemy when people are influenced by a mob mentality. This is literally a life-and-death situation.

You don’t want to break any laws or commit acts of violence or vandalism, but otherwise, blending in is reasonably easy. Even if it goes against your grain, act like the people around you. Chant the same slogans. If there’s a sign on the ground, pick it up. All the while, work your way diagonally to the edge of the crowd (Plan B) so you can get the heck out of there (Plan A.)

What to Do If You’re Caught in a Riot in Your Vehicle

Being caught in a riot in your vehicle is a totally different situation. You’ll see lots of bravado out there in Internetland about how you should just speed up because they’ll either move or get run over. That’s a great idea…if you want to go to prison or get dragged out of your disabled vehicle and beaten to death.

Another not-so-great idea is pulling a shotgun. If you are vastly outnumbered, you’re only going to be able to take out a few people before, again, you are dragged out of your vehicle and beaten to death.

Greg Ellifritz of Active Response Training has an excellent article on how organized many of these riots are, with spotters, drones, snipers, and aerial support. Depending on the level of the situation, you will not be able to drive your way out of this.

In short, his advice:

The only way to win in this situation is to avoid being there.  Most protests are not spontaneous.  The rioters want media coverage, so they announce their protest sites in advance.  Pay attention to your local scene and avoid those areas, especially after dark.  Doing that will be better protection than having a belt fed machine gun in your back seat.  Stay away from this mess…

…If you get caught up in one of these things, you absolutely MUST stay in your car unless the rioters attempt to burn you alive inside.  The vehicle provides at least a little bit of cover from the rioter’s gunshots.  Staying inside proves that you didn’t “go looking for a fight.”  You may also have more legal protection in your vehicle than on the street in states with some form of “Castle Doctrine.”

Again, not being in the area is crucial. Check out his article for several other solutions he recommends.

If you get caught in a riot, try to leave immediately

Can You Use Deadly Force If You’re Caught in a Riot?

Legally, use the least amount of force possible to get away. Either wait patiently if you feel your life is not at risk, or maneuver your vehicle very slowly and carefully. Keep moving very slowly, giving people plenty of time to get out of the way. DO NOT gun it and plow them over. Remember, when this ends up in a courtroom, the side with the most witnesses often wins.

USConcealedCarry.com also has advice about using deadly force if you’re caught in a riot. They recommend that you call 911, capture images and video of the situation, and keep moving (slowly) if you can. Dave Young, founder, and director of Arma Training, concurs with Ellifritz:

Turning around and immediately leaving the area, if possible, is your best option. If you cannot turn around or go around the group, driving your car slowly through a group of protestors may be seen as a reasonable use of force. But unless you can articulate a reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm, you can’t use your car as a deadly weapon by driving over people or accelerating through the crowd.

“If you can drive away, do so. That might mean driving on the sidewalk or on the shoulder of the road or through the median,” said Young. “Escape is your first option.”

What If Your Vehicle Isn’t Drivable?

What if your vehicle won’t move because it has stalled or been otherwise disabled? Then you must judge the demeanor of the crowd. If you’re just surrounded, and they aren’t paying attention to you, sit tight and don’t try to draw attention to yourself. However, if they’re attacking your car and trying to break the windows, the time to fight back may be at hand. Remember – this is your absolute last resort.

Young advises:

“Fighting through a large, violent crowd is one of the most dangerous situations in the world. Often the sheer number of attackers can overwhelm even heavily armed and well-trained individuals. Exiting your vehicle is the last resort in a very dangerous situation,” said Young. “The first and best option is to avoid such situations. If you happen upon such a protest, do your best to get away immediately. There is no telling when the crowd can turn violent.”

If you have family members with you, remember that whatever actions you take, they will pay for too at the hands of an angry mob.

Your Best Bet Is NOT to Get Caught in a Riot

Although it isn’t always possible to avoid every dangerous situation, riots tend to be one of those things that people know about. Set up something like Google alerts and keep apprised of things going on in your area. Unfortunately, it just takes one person to turn a peaceful protest into a violent mob scene, so avoiding protests, even though it’s our constitutional riot to protest, is also the safest route.

Have you ever been caught in a riot? What was the experience like? Share your stories in the comments.

Additional Resources:

What to Do if You\'re Caught in a Riot

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Ash Duncan

Ash Duncan and family live on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where they enjoy hiking with their dogs, spending time outdoors, and watching apocalyptic movies.

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  1. Joe on May 21, 2022 at 3:19 pm

    It’s almost like the powers that be WANT to create chaos (by not stopping rioters) and get us all willing to embrace a police state to just get back to normal again. Nah, that would be like letting/facilitating a major terrorist incident just to get the Patriot Act passed (gotta love their sense of humor when it comes to naming these laws).

  2. Jones on August 28, 2022 at 1:37 pm

    I was driving my car out of sidewalk parking and by bad -or maybe decent timing- into the path of the first advancing protesters of the marching protest. I realized it was a protest only after I was already driving.
    They were only a few and I was able to slide past them without incident in my car and out of there.
    It was scary. They were the advance marchers, and I think at that moment they were still in normal car-pedestrian mindset.
    But it was scary. Human beings, my carā€¦an accident; blockaded; mob retaliationā€¦.potential nightmare.

  3. Stan on October 5, 2022 at 3:48 am

    I don’t normally comment but here goes. When I was 16 I was in a job corps riot ,my first initial reaction was to freeze out of fear. Everything around me looked like it was in slow motion, and the sound was very low. then it all sped up and got loud . I had to be dragged away. And we(me and a couple friends) hid in a basement under the art room until it was over. Then it started back up in the lunch room later that day. Some idiot shanked a teacher and started another riot. bum rushed the line. people fell got shanked and got trampled. This was early 90s. Now for anonymity my name is not stan, nor is that my real email. But the event is real. I was 16 and scared. I will not say the location but it happened. Just look up job corps riots, violence on job corps. . It started with a violent clash in the grassy area between the lunch room and the vocational building. after that it moved to the cafeteria later that day. dozens of corps member guys and girls fighting. They had leather strap belts, nail guns from building and maintence class, pipes from plumbing class and make shift fork shanks. I was present for both events. The first event I was so scared I froze in fear. The second time I behaved in a submissive manner and made myself scarce until I could hide. I pressed my body flat against the wall and let everyone trying to push past everyone to either escape or fight IN front of me. I behaved in a submissive manner and let them by. yes this meant my feet got stomped on. but i was trying to stay away from sharp objects and not get knocked down. I stayed pressed flat against that wall until the violent fighting moved behind the lunch line. corps members picking up hot trays of food and dumping it on people. I felt against he wall as I moved slowly inch by inch without making eye contact. this meant looking down at my feet while still keeping an eye on my surroundings in my peripheral. quietly slowly I felt a door knob turned and slowly hid in a food supply closet. locked it behind me. pushed the shelf against the door. and stayed there. for what felt like forever. I would later find out that the violence spread to the vocational building where students got beat up. people got hurt. later students left in blue bird busses. Where they went I have no clue. I didn’t get hurt because I acted docile/submissive. I backed away slowly, and I hid. I am not saying this will work for you. But that is what I did. People who ran got chased. People who fought back got hurt bad, People who acted aggressive got hurt. Don’t act aggressive, Don’t run, Don’t talk. pay attention to your surroundings. When things slow down keep in mind they are actually very fast. When you see thing moving in slow motion that is your brain warning you that your in danger. resist the urge to freeze. Back away slowly and slowly calmly find a dark quiet fortified place to hide. A closet, a bathroom or a basement with a thick door and hopefully no windows you can lock your self in hide all lights out to hide. stay hiding until its quiet. Until you can’t even hear a pin drop even if it takes hours. Then slowly quietly careful venture out. Now I always look for exits and make note of places I can hide in when I am out and about. Hospitals, single bathrooms in public with no windows make great hiding places. hide anywhere even in a dumpster if you have to. Stay away from windows, Do not go outside. The people fighting are pumped full of adrenaline. there is no reasoning with them. They don’t even know why they are fighting anymore. If you run they will chase you. But if you don’t more your a target. violence can happen anywhere. The best defense is to always pay attention to your surroundings. If its a place you regularly go to make a note of the exits, and anything that can be used to shelter yourself. Violence can happen anywhere. Never confront of challenge a violent angry person. But don’t run or you will become prey. The only way you run is if there is gun/fire etc. But if its an angry mob wielding objects its best to back away in a manner you don’t draw attention to yourself. Hide in a fortified inconspicuous place. making yourself as small and quiet as possible. Stay there until its over. Don’t be a hero. Lots of people got hurt. avoid windows, and when hiding make sure you can lock or barricade yourself in. Because if you can’t then you have just created a scenario where they can get in there with you as some of my corp members found out. . creating a situation you can’t escape from. the best way to avoid a riot is to be hyper aware. Know your surroundings. know your fire escapes know your closets, bathrooms, storm shelters. know where the closet police depart, fire department or hospital is. you can take refuge there and get care. But do not take pictures or film with your phone. Do not try to talk to other people and ask what’s going on. slowly back away. unless there is a fire arm then you run. run in a zig zag pattern until you can duck for cover away from glass windows and anything flammable. if you have to go behind or in a dumpster do it. you can always take a shower. do what ever you need to do to survive. just stay away form gun fire, fighting and anything flammable and glass. Hide in the dark quietly until its over. Physically I was unharmed…mentally/emotionally is a different story but I survived. always remain vigilant. Avoid places where you know there is any kind of chaos or protesting. If you see a conflict beginning then gracefully quickly and quietly make your exist. You can always find out what happened on the news. Don’t stand there watching to figure it out.

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