Black Belt


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 jimwagnerr­ealitybase­

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