Civil Unrest Safety

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As a Free Speech advocate, I support the people’s right to protest and make their opinions heard. Unfortunately, demonstrations in the U.S. these days are becoming more frequent and violent. After a short break due to the pandemic, people are again out in the streets. Some have legitimate concerns; others, however, have bad intentions.

My daughter lives in Chicago in a high-rise apartment building. Last night, the pharmacy on the bottom floor was broken into and looted. Luckily, no fires were set. She has a golden retriever, however, and dogs need to be walked. Hence, I worry: How can she stay safe in such an environment?

I haven’t been to a protest since the Vietnam era. On the way to class, I happened to blunder into a wave of people that were escaping a cloud of tear gas. Back then, I was fit enough to hightail it out of there. Today, I can’t say the same.

There is so much civil unrest in the news these days that it’s a good idea to have a riot survival strategy, whether you’re an active participant or just a bystander.

It goes without saying that your objective should be to stay away from the where the violence is occurring. If you walk smack dab into a demonstration, things can get dicey pretty fast.

I’ve written a lot about situational awareness, and that mindset will serve you well. Here are some simple tips that will help you avoid injury at a protest:

1. Always be in a state of “Yellow Alert”. Yellow alert simply means being aware of your surroundings and the people around you. When people are behaving strangely, take note and avoid them.

2. Always mentally map out routes of escape as you walk along. Where’s the nearest side street? Is there a building or subway entrance that will get you off the street? If you don’t know the area, move away to where you know the lay of the land.

3. If you have to make your way through the crowd, stay on the fringes. Don’t get caught in the midst of masses of people surging away (or towards) the violence. If you do, they are deciding your movements, not you.

4. Avoid confrontation with protesters. Don’t engage in a political discussion of the latest controversies. It’s probably not a good idea to wear your political convictions on your T-shirt or had., wear it judiciously. In the wrong place and the wrong time, this has gotten women pepper-sprayed and men beaten.

5. Have a bandanna handy. This classic survival supply isn’t a gas mask, per se, but most people have a face covering in these pandemic times. It’s better than nothing at riots when tear gas is sprayed. Some advocate the soaking of the cloth with lemon juice or apple cider vinegar to counteract tear gas, but others consider this to be an urban myth.

6. Wear sneakers or other footwear that will allow you the most mobility. The only women wearing heals are (foolhardy) reporters. Make sure you’re well-clothed so that your skin is protected. You’ll need to wash clothes thoroughly that have been exposed to tear gas, or throw them away.

7. Be aware of the movement of law enforcement officers, but don’t approach them. Their job is tough enough, and they won’t be able to hear you above the roar of the crowd.

8. Don’t run if you can help it. Unless everyone else is running, you will attract unwanted attention. Walk fast and purposefully around a corner, to higher ground, or another safe spot.

9. Be inconspicuous. This may be difficult if you’re 6 foot 7 inches tall, but otherwise, do you best to be “the gray man”.


Don’t stand out in a crowd

10. If you’re with friends, stay together. If you can’t, agree on a meeting place beforehand in case you get separated moving through the crowd.

11. Avoid being caught against walls, fences, blockades, or other solid objects. People can get crushed by masses of protesters.

12. If you’re heading into an area of civil unrest, ask yourself “Is this trip necessary?”. Carry some water, milk, or diluted liquid antacid (like Maalox) in a container. If sprayed with tear gas, move quickly into an area of fresh air and pour the liquid on your face (especially your eyes). Drink it if sprayed in the mouth. Milk or liquid antacid are thought by some to work better than water, but there’s no hard data one way or another. The effects of the tear gas will resolve over a relatively short time in most cases.

13. If you’re traveling in or through any area experiencing violence, carry a basic medical kit that will help to treat injuries and stop bleeding.

I used to say that It’s likely you’ll never get caught in a civil unrest event, but I’m no longer so sure. Having a solid plan of action in these troubled times just makes common sense. We must be prepared for man-made disasters just as we should be prepared for hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes.

Check out Prepper Website’s interesting article on pepper spray and other tools for self-defense in times of trouble. Go to:

Joe Alton MD

Dr. Alton

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