The Key to Sur­viv­ing a Civil Dis­tur­bance Is Re­mem­ber­ing You're a Mar­tial Artist and Ap­ply­ing Your Skills on a Larger Scale!



It seems that ri­ot­ing has be­come the norm in our so­ci­ety. Re­gard­less of whether the in­sti­ga­tors are on the left or the right, all stu­dents of self­de­fense should know how to sur­vive such civil dis­tur­bances be­cause of the in­creas­ing like­li­hood you’ll even­tu­ally end up in one.

As with any fight you might face, prepa­ra­tion de­mands that you learn pre- con­flict, con­flict and post- con­flict tech­niques and tac­tics. Be­cause no two fights are alike, it’s es­sen­tial to pre­pare for a va­ri­ety of pos­si­bil­i­ties. Af­ter all, com­bat is noth­ing if not fluid. You also should en­gage in sce­nario train­ing de­signed to re­duce re­ac­tion time and the hes­i­ta­tion that stems from de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Re­al­is­tic sce­nar­ios form ac­tual mem­o­ries that your brain can re­trieve dur­ing a cri­sis. A riot is not the time or place to ex­pe­ri­ence stress­ful con­di­tions for the first time and then learn what does and doesn’t work. You want to get it right the first time.


Let’s say you feel strongly about a par­tic­u­lar is­sue and would like to join a group of like-minded peo­ple at a pub­lic event. Your first task is to make a threat as­sess­ment of the venue. Ask your­self ques­tions such as the fol­low­ing:

• What’s the like­li­hood of vi­o­lence erupt­ing?

• If vi­o­lence is a pos­si­bil­ity, is it worth risk­ing my safety or the safety of those who will be with me?

• If I do de­cide to go, what kind of vi­o­lence am I most likely to face?

Years ago, I heard a cap­tain in the sher­iff’s de­part­ment where I worked tell his peo­ple, “If you end up pro­tect­ing your prin­ci­pal, you failed the mis­sion.” In other words, you don’t want to get in a fight in the first place. It’s too risky. No mat­ter your skill level, it’s much bet­ter to avoid a fight than to get in one. I’ve been in three ri­ots, all while serv­ing as a po­lice of­fi­cer, and be­lieve me when I say you don’t want to be in the mid­dle of one if you can help it.

If you in­sist on go­ing to a de­mon­stra­tion that could turn into a riot, at least put to­gether a plan. This is called the “ad­vance.” First, gather in­for­ma­tion. Go on­line to find out as much as pos­si­ble about the event and the lo­ca­tion, in­clud­ing the time and du­ra­tion, the sur- round­ing streets and build­ings, the guest speak­ers, the se­cu­rity that’s planned, the groups that might show up to counter-protest, the near­est emer­gency walk-in clin­ics and hos­pi­tals, and case stud­ies of past events the same or­ga­niz­ers have spon­sored.


When you ar­rive at the venue, try to stay away from cen­ter mass. “Cen­ter mass” is a po­lice and mil­i­tary term that refers to the largest con­cen­tra­tion of mat­ter in a par­tic­u­lar tar­get — in this case, the cen­ter of the crowd or wher­ever most of the ac­tiv­ity is tak­ing place. For ex­am­ple, if there’s a speaker on­stage, cen­ter mass will be the crowd around the speaker. If there’s a march on the streets, cen­ter mass will be the front of the march and as far back as that den­sity of peo­ple con­tin­ues, un­til the marchers start to thin out. If the pro­tes­tors reach a po­lice line or bar­ri­cade, cen­ter mass will be the point at which the two sides face off.

Although cen­ter mass is where the best view is — and all the ex­cite­ment — it’s usu­ally where the trou­ble be­gins, and it will be the most

dan­ger­ous place you can be when it does.

How you fight is al­ways de­ter­mined by two fac­tors: the sit­u­a­tion and the en­vi­ron­ment. To avoid cen­ter mass, place your­self at the pe­riph­ery so you won’t be the im­me­di­ate tar­get. That could mean off to the side or at the back. Ei­ther will give you more dis­tance, which trans­lates to more time to react. It will also put you closer to av­enues of es­cape. If there is no es­cape, at least you’ll have the abil­ity to move to a safer space more rapidly without peo­ple in your way.

Po­si­tion­ing your­self tac­ti­cally, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of pos­si­ble trou­ble, is known as tak­ing the “po­si­tion of ad­van­tage.” And it’s not just for wide-open spa­ces; you can ap­ply the same prin­ci­ple to movie the­aters, restau­rants, air­ports and any­place else where there’s a po­ten­tial point of con­flict.

While you’re at a large gath­er­ing or when you have to move through one, you need to main­tain sit­u­a­tional aware­ness at all times. Wher­ever you end up, be it cen­ter mass or at the pe­riph­ery, avoid stand­ing near trash re­cep­ta­cles that could con­tain an ex­plo­sive de­vice. Also, de­ter­mine if you’re in the path of a pos­si­ble ve­hi­cle-ram­ming at­tack, which has be­come the mode du jour for cre­at­ing chaos. The mo­ment you see some­thing or hear scream­ing, you want to be able to duck into a build­ing or be­hind some­thing that would stop a ve­hi­cle.

Keep your eyes open for cover and con­ceal­ment. Cover is any­thing that will stop bul­lets or frag­ments from an ex­plo­sive. Con­ceal­ment is some­thing that you hide be­hind but that might not stop a pro­jec­tile. Re­mem­ber that even if you’re not fac­ing a shooter, you could re­quire pro­tec­tion from thrown bot­tles and rocks. That’s why scop­ing out the area be­fore­hand is a good idea — it re­duces de­ci­sion time when things start fly­ing. If you hap­pen to be part of a march, you’ll need to con­stantly scan the en­vi­ron­ment for cover and con­ceal­ment as you move.

It’s im­por­tant to mon­i­tor the mood of the crowd at all times. The U. S. De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity calls this ac­tion “screen­ing per­sons by ob­ser­va­tional tech­niques,” but it also ap­plies to mass gath­er­ings. If the mood is peace­ful, you have noth­ing to worry about. How­ever, if there are some agi­ta­tors, this should send up a red flag. If there are enough like-minded peo­ple in the group, echo­ing the agi­ta­tors’ call to ac­tion, mob men­tal­ity comes into play, and that’s when things can get volatile.

Once a mob is look­ing for a fight, no one per­son can de- es­ca­late it. Some­times, not even mem­bers of the group can do so if they de­cide things are get­ting out of hand. Every­body starts feed­ing off the en­ergy, and that en­ergy be­comes ac­tion. If you haven’t al­ready ex­tracted your­self, this is def­i­nitely the time to slip out.

What­ever you do in an es­ca­la­tion, do not fight the po­lice. It’s a no-win sit­u­a­tion. Also, every­body will be record­ing video with their phones, and you don’t ever want to be seen us­ing force against the cops. The po­lice have lots of weapons at their dis­posal: ba­tons, chem­i­cal agents, less-lethal mu­ni­tions (rub­ber bul­lets, bean-bag pro­jec­tiles) and even deadly force mu­ni­tions if they feel their lives are in dan­ger. Con­versely, a ri­oter has no le­gal au­thor­ity to use force. In fact, if the po­lice be­lieve that a de­mon­stra­tion is an il­le­gal assem­bly, mean­ing that it’s gone from peace­ful to hos­tile, they’ll usu­ally give a dis­per­sal or­der be­fore they start ar­rest­ing peo­ple or us­ing force. If you ever hear, “This is an il­le­gal assem­bly — you are or­dered to dis­perse now or face ar­rest,” it’s def­i­nitely time to go.

Although you might try your best to avoid get­ting into a fight at a pub­lic gath­er­ing, that doesn’t mean you won’t be at­tacked. This is where good pre­plan­ning helps. For ex­am­ple, it’s good to wear wrap­around eye pro­tec­tion. Whether it’s a pair of bal­lis­tic sun­glasses (the type worn at a gun range) or a pair with clear lenses (which look like pre­scrip­tion glasses), you’ll be glad you had them on in the event of a bomb blast, ric­o­chet­ing bul­lets, thrown de­bris or even po­lice use of a chem­i­cal agent. In all forms of com­bat, pro­tect­ing your eyes is ev­ery­thing.

Be­cause you pre­planned, you’re al­ready wear­ing the proper cloth­ing. You know that good shoes are es­sen­tial. You don’t want to be run­ning in flip-flops in the mid­dle of a riot. A long-sleeve shirt and pants, as op­posed to shorts or a skirt, can be ad­van­ta­geous. Ex­tra lay­ers of cloth­ing can ab­sorb blunt trauma bet­ter, and if you get con­tam­i­nated by a chem­i­cal agent, you can ditch the top layer and still have some­thing un­der­neath. Sim­i­larly, wear­ing a hat can pre­vent a chem­i­cal agent from get­ting in your hair.

It’s a good idea to carry a hand­ker­chief or ban­dana in case you need to cover your face to keep from breath­ing in smoke, per­haps from burn­ing tires, or to serve as a prim­i­tive fil­ter against chem­i­cal agents.

Keep in mind that if you go to an event “too pre­pared” — per­haps with a gas mask, a face mask de­signed to hide your iden­tity, a shield or any type of weapon — you will not be seen as a mar­tial artist try­ing to stay safe. Fur­ther­more, this ar­ti­cle is not for you. True mar­tial artists re­spect au­thor­ity and do not de­stroy prop­erty and harm oth­ers in ri­ots.


Civil un­rest can re­sult in se­vere in­juries. There­fore, you should be able to dress your own wounds or the wounds of oth­ers if, for ex­am­ple, a fly­ing rock or bot­tle strikes some­one. For these sit­u­a­tions and count­less oth­ers, first aid should be a part of your train­ing. The Red Cross and the Amer­i­can Heart As­so­ci­a­tion of­fer train­ing and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Don’t for­get to prac­tice your skills and re­cer­tify ev­ery two years.

When you did your ad­vance work, gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion be­fore head­ing to the event, you lo­cated nearby med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties, and af­ter a riot is when you’re likely to need that knowl­edge — for your­self or oth­ers. Am­bu­lances may be in short sup­ply. For­tu­nately, you brought a printed map of the area, just in case cell­phone ser­vice is down. And that’s pos­si­ble, es­pe­cially when the po­lice use elec­tronic sig­nal-jam­ming de­vices to pre­vent ri­ot­ers from com­mu­ni­cat­ing with one an­other.

If you get ar­rested — which can hap­pen for sim­ply be­ing at the wrong place at the wrong time — re­mem­ber that you have the right to re­main silent. Give only the an­swers to the ques­tions the po­lice ask as they book you (name, date of birth, home ad­dress, etc.) and say noth­ing about the riot. The first phone call you make while in cus­tody should be to a lawyer. Re­mem­ber that there are al­ways two fights: the fight for your life and the fight for your free­dom.

ABOUT THE AU­THOR: Jim Wag­ner first wrote for Black Belt in 1999. He’s a for­mer cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer, SWAT of­fi­cer, body­guard and fed­eral coun­tert­er­ror­ist agent. For more in­for­ma­tion about his per­sonal-pro­tec­tion sys­tem, visit jimwag­n­erre­al­i­ty­

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