How to survive a riot or protest – Gray man tactics

Protestor with mask
protestor with pepper spray

With the incidents unfolding recently in France and other places around the world during the recent past, it seemed like an appropriate time to dive into the topic of how to navigate protests, riots, civil disobedience, etc. We also can’t forget the violence sometimes associated with these events. They are items of consideration that should be addressed before we head out on that trip, whether at home or abroad. The bottom line is we need to know what to do so survive a deadly riot or protest if we inadvertently end up in one.

Anti-government protests have been taking place across France for about a month now. On November 17, 2018, alone, more than 282,000 protestors took to the streets in France. In Paris, which was particularly badly hit, more than 10,000 protestors smashed windows, burned cars, looted shops, and set up roadblocks.

Thousands of police used armored vehicles in an attempt to maintain the peace and an estimated 1,200 protestors were taken into custody on December 8, 2018. Violent clashes are taking place, cars are being overturned, fires are being set, projectiles are being thrown, traffic is being stopped and more. Throughout this event, dozens of folks have been seriously injured and a few fatalities have occurred.

Paris was essentially put on lockdown. Numerous tourist destinations, public, and government facilities, etc., were closed due to safety concerns. On top of that, sporting events and various other public activities were postponed or canceled due to the violence.

A look at the protest numbers since things kicked off:

  • 17 November: 282,000 protesters – one dead, 409 wounded – 73 in custody
  • 24 November: 166,000 protesters – 84 wounded – 307 in custody
  • 1 December: 136,000 protesters – one dead, 263 wounded – 630 in custody
  • 8 December: 136,000 protesters – 118 wounded – 1,220 in custody

The U.S. Embassy in Paris, France, issued a Demonstration Alert Warning in an attempt to keep folks informed as to what was occurring and what to do. Among the information and tips being offered is the advice to “keep a low profile and avoid crowds”.

The U.S. Embassy recommends taking the following actions if you are in affected areas:

  • Be aware of your surroundings
  • Keep a low profile and avoid crowds
  • Avoid as much as possible the areas of the demonstrations
  • Shelter in place if in the areas affected
  • Close windows and shutters to avoid possible smoke and tear gas
  • Move your vehicle away from areas where demonstrations are expected
  • Consider relocating in advance to another area
  • Maintain easy access to passports and other documents, prescription medicine, infant formula, and chargers for electronics
  • Monitor local media for updates
  • Notify friends and family of your safety

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from these events, especially for folks who travel to international destinations. First and foremost, you should avoid any areas or locations currently experiencing protests or civil unrest. This cannot be said enough. There are very few reasons you should actively and willingly head into an area experiencing this type of activity. It’s a bad idea…don’t do it!

In addition, you need to do your homework ahead of time. For instance, something becoming more and more prevalent here in the States are various forms of protest, civil unrest, and civil disobedience, following verdicts in high-profile court cases. A quick search of the local news of the area you are traveling to can reveal this information. If a verdict is being handed down in an emotionally charged case, it would be best to avoid those areas during that time.

If you can’t avoid being in an area where this type of thing is occurring, there are a few tactics you can follow to lessen the likelihood you will be negatively affected by them. These should be looked at in terms of what makes sense based on your current environment and situation. Always plan accordingly.

car burning

With these recent events in mind and the events that occurred in Ferguson, MO, and Baltimore, MD, we are reminded we should always be prepared regardless of where we are. A little time, forethought, and attention can go a long way.

Let’s take a look at some tips on how we can be better prepared if the time ever comes.


  • Conduct a risk analysis to identify the risk associated with whatever you are trying to do and wherever you are trying to go. This is a simple one. Does the risk associated with being in a certain area or location outweigh the need for you to be there? If it does…don’t go! It’s as simple as that.
  • Check social media for intel on what to look out for. It’s easier than ever for folks to mobilize demonstrations thanks to the digital age. It’s also easy to track where they are occurring. The spontaneity of these events may not give you a lot of time to respond, but something is better than nothing.
  • Monitor local law enforcement and their affiliated media outlets (local news, agency websites, social media, etc.) as well. Some are better than others, but a lot of law enforcement entities will publish protest and demonstration locations ahead of time if they are aware of it.
  • Pre-plan your travel routes to completely avoid protest areas and locations. If there is an event that is pre-planned by organizers, don’t go near it. Even if it’s a peaceful event, the hassle of dealing with congested traffic is not worth it. Have an alternate route planned out in case it is needed.
  • Be able to navigate without the use of cellular devices in case networks are overloaded and you don’t have reliable cell service. Sometimes, as old-fashioned as it may sound, a paper map can save the day. At a minimum, you should have a working knowledge of the area you are in.
  • Have emergency contact information on hand, not just in your phone (see above regarding cell service). If you are traveling abroad, you should have a communication plan in place just in case of an emergency. If you are visiting a particular location and you have identified the need to leave for safety reasons, you should communicate that with friends or family and have a protocol in place for regular contact.
  • Be sure your everyday carry (EDC) is appropriate and adequate for your environment. At a minimum, you need to have a flashlight, adequate medical gear, bandana, knife, etc.

Early signs

  • Maintaining situational awareness is paramount. Situational awareness is the ability to pay attention to your environment. You are not just physically present, but cognitively present in a way that helps you analyze and decipher the events that are unfolding around you. In these type of events, look for gathering crowds and for folks shouting or expressing common interests or concerns. These indicators can give you a heads up to the unfolding events.
  • Don’t let curiosity draw you near the crowd to “see” what is going on. Our desire to be in the “know” should not trump common sense.
  • Keep an eye out and try to identify agitators, instigators, or violent and hostile actors in the crowd. These folks will typically be the catalyst for any type of escalation that will occur. Look for folks who are more vocal or more animated than the rest of the crowd. Once identified, be sure to avoid them if trying to navigate through the masses.
  • Be especially aware of folks hiding their identity. This seems like a no-brainer, but take note of folks who show up wearing masks or who are donning masks after being in the crowd for some time. It goes the same for large groups of people showing up wearing the same clothing. Think of groups like black block who wear all black clothing, including pants, shirts, jackets, hoodies, masks, etc. The idea is to hide their identity by being able to hide in the crowd if committing criminal acts. This is a tactic used in helping to avoid prosecution.

Go with the flow

  • If no other options are available and you are forced into the crowd, make sure you employ a gray man mentality. Don’t be a target by standing out. Fit the “look” as much as you can in terms of clothing, demeanor, etc. Don’t over-plan like trying to carry clothes that will fit into protests. All I’m saying is don’t be in stark contrast to the general group and expect to slip through unnoticed. As a bonus, be sure to wear proper footwear that will allow freedom of movement in case you need to make haste.
  • Stay together if with others and be sure to clearly communicate plans. If you are with other folks be sure to maintain the integrity of the group if possible. You should also be cognizant of communicating your plans to everyone. If you identify a direction of travel, don’t head off in that direction leaving half the group behind to be swallowed up by the crowd. Have a designated rally point in case of separation.
  • “Go along” with the crowd in terms of getting the active protest participants to think you are with them. This may help you navigate out of the situation more easily if you’re just seen as one of many. Move with the group while making your way to the edge of the crowd. Be sure to not participate in any activity seen as deviant by law enforcement or security personnel while blending in.

Make a break

burning trash can
  • Have an escape plan, don’t just randomly try to fight your way through the crowd. Fighting your way through the crowd will not work. Look for the path of least resistance when trying to get out. At times, there will be natural breaks or seams in the congestion of the crowd. When these are identified, be sure to take advantage of them.
  • If you are traveling with children, maintain physical contact. If possible, carry small children to avoid them getting trampled or becoming lost in the crowd. Have a plan as to how you are going to do this, especially if you have to cover a large distance.
  • Remove yourself from the middle of any crowd or group you find yourself in. Don’t get surrounded, and if you are, don’t stay that way. As soon as possible, make your way to a wall or other solid structure which will give you some breathing room in terms of being totally surrounded by the masses.
  • Be wary and stay away from groups that break off from the main crowd. This is a tactic sometimes used to commit acts of violence away from the largest police presence, which is typically focused on the main crowds.
  • Have a way to defend yourself (ie., pepper spray) if things go bad. There are a number of options and considerations here. With that in mind, take local laws into consideration, meaning you need to educate yourself on what you can and can’t do. Be mindful of the effects (think target, backstop, and beyond) of using the defensive tool of your choice.
  • Once you starting moving, keep moving until you are completely out of the area being affected by the protests.
  • If you need assistance and are able to make your way towards law enforcement, make it clear you are not part of the problem. Keep your hands visible and be sure to communicate you are in need of help.
  • If you can’t make it out of the crowd, you can try to seek shelter inside a structure. If you are forced to shelter in place make sure to stay away from open or exposed windows. However, if buildings are being torched, you should think otherwise about this tactic.
  • Once inside, maintain a secure premise by keeping everything locked up to prevent easy access by anyone with ill intent.
  • Make sure your vehicle is parked in a location that is the most accessible and least likely to be affected.

The most important thing is to listen to your gut feeling when it is telling you something isn’t right. If it feels like you should leave an area or avoid a certain gathering, do it. This instinct or intuition might just save your life.

Cody Martin

With over 18 years of federal law enforcement, training, and physical security experience, Cody focuses his time nowadays on both consulting and training. He regularly advises individuals, groups, multinational corporations, schools, houses of worship, and NGOs on security threats while conducting customized training as needed.

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