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Protests and riots: Don’t get caught in the crossfire

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Be alert, have an exit plan and refuse to be a “gawker.”

When you click on the news, you see protests and riots. And they’re not quiet.

You may support protests, but detest riots. Or you may feel sympathy for both. Or neither. But when it comes to keeping safe, your views aren’t too important.

Everyone has a constitutional right to peacefully protest. Sometimes it’s unquestionably the right thing to do. But understand that in many protests, bad actors slip in and transform them from quiet to riot.

That means if you’re a peaceful protester, you must be alert to the possibility of things going wrong. Especially in the turbo-charged environment of this present moment.

In addition, you may not be protesting or rioting. Just watching the spectacle. You, too, are not necessarily safe.

What are the risks of protesting and “spectating”?

  • You may be caught in the middle of a protest-turned-riot. You can’t get out. Now you’re part of the riot and all it entails.
  • You may be injured or killed by rioters, police or a panic-fueled accident. Friends or family may also be harmed in the mayhem.
  • In a scene of mass chaos, police have trouble sorting the good guys from the bad actors. So you may get arrested (or hit with tear gas or worse) even though you only came to hold a sign and say a prayer.
  • As a bystander, you may be confronted by a rioter who views you as a “spectator” or “gawker.”

The risks of participating in a protest may be worth it to you. Good things rarely happen without courage or sacrifice. With that in mind:

  • Count the cost.
  • Be aware of your surroundings. Maintain a posture of relaxed alertness, scanning the environment around you.
  • Avoid staring at people. Prolonged eye contact can communicate hostility.
  • Have an exit strategy. Don’t position yourself with your back to the wall or dozens of rows from an escape.
  • If there are hundreds or thousands of people at the protest venue, consider an alternative location that is less likely to explode.
  • Although there are many exceptions, generally we have observed that most peaceful protests take place during daylight. Events after dark are more likely to devolve into riots and anarchic behavior. Consider this when deciding whether to join a protest.

“Protesting is never a disturbance of the peace,” wrote American activist Bryant McGill. “Corruption, injustice, war, and intimidation are disturbances of the peace.”

If protesting remained peaceable, his sentiment would be correct. But protests can morph into provocation. And innocent people get hurt. A protest may have been called to protest suffering. Yet it can end up multiplying pain and injustice.

Be true to your conscience. But be alert. And always be a peacemaker, not intertwined with peacebreakers.

Vaughn Baker

Vaughn Baker is president of Strategos International, a Kansas City, Mo., -based firm that provides security training, consulting and executive protection services. Baker has 20 years of experience in law enforcement including patrol, investigation, SWAT and special operations. He has trained thousands of school, health care, government, law enforcement and military personnel in security practices. Baker has also developed a specialized intruder response curriculum for schools and churches, including some of the nation’s leading training on behavior pattern recognition.

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