Civil unrest can occur anywhere, and although your chances of encountering violence during a protest are low, your need to remain vigilant remains high. During your threat assessment, it’s always good to familiarize yourself with an area’s political situation before you leave home. Try to find out if there have been any recent violent demonstrations at your chosen destination, then research what the protests were about and how the authorities handled those situations.

Avoid Being a Target 

Suppose you ever inadvertently get caught up in a demonstration. In that case, your priority is to get out of there as quickly and safely as possible. You don’t want to attract any undue attention or become an attractive target, especially if things turn violent. Here are a few helpful tips that can keep you and your family safe should you ever find yourself in the middle of such a situation.

  • If you find yourself caught up in a protest or riot, keep to the edge of the crowd where it’s safest. A good way to avoid being identified as one of the demonstrators is to keep well away from the people actively participating.
  • At the first opportunity, break away and seek refuge in a nearby building or find a suitable doorway or alley and stay there until the crowd passes.
  • When leaving the fringe of the demonstration, just walk away— don’t run or draw attention to yourself.
  • If you are caught up in the crowd, stay clear of glass shop fronts, stay on your feet, and move with the flow.
  • If pushed to the ground, try to get against a wall, roll yourself into a tight ball, and cover your head with your hands until the crowd passes.
  • Remember to keep calm—the crowd should sweep past in a short space of time.
  • If there is gunfire, drop to the ground, cover your head, and neck, and lie as flat as possible.
  • If you are arrested by the police/military, do not resist. Go peace- fully and contact your embassy to help resolve your problem.

Best to De-Escalate the Situation

If escape is impossible and you do get caught up in the chaos, there’s a chance that you could be confronted or threatened. Your initial inclination might be to engage in an either physical or verbal confrontation. However, the safest choice is almost always to de-escalate the situation. Try to stay calm, respond clearly, obey police commands, and make every attempt to leave peacefully. If you’re inside your accommodations when a demonstration breaks out, adhere to the following protocols:

  • Do not leave your lodgings or go into the street.
  • Contact your embassy or consulate and advise them of the situation and your whereabouts.
  • If you are in a room with doors or windows opening onto the ground floor, ensure that all windows and external doors are closed and locked.
  • If you hear gunfire or explosions outside, stay away from the windows. Do not be tempted to watch the activity from what you consider a safe distance. Draw the curtains or blinds to prevent shards of broken glass from entering your room.
  • Move to an inside room, which will provide greater protection from gunfire, rocks, or grenades.
  • Stay in contact with hotel management to receive updates on the situation outside.

If you’re in a car and run into a crowd of protesters, the following actions are often your best bet for remaining safe:

  • Never drive through the crowd.
  • If you find yourself in the path of a crowd, turn down the nearest side road or turn around and drive away immediately.
  • If you cannot drive away, park the car, lock it, and leave it where it sits. Move immediately to shelter in a side street or open building away from the crowd.
  • If you don’t have time for this, stop and turn the engine off. Lock
  • the doors and remain calm. Be sure not to show hostility or anger. Get on the phone with local authorities immediately and notify them of your situation.

Being caught up in an unexpected demonstration can be frightening, especially in areas that you’re unfamiliar with. Remember that situational awareness and preparedness are what will give you the time and distance you need to identify and react to these types of incidents effectively, but even then, there will always be the potential for things to go wrong. That’s why it’s crucial to preplan your responses to as many unforeseen circumstances as possible. This process is known as contingency planning.

  • ACLED, “Demonstrations and Political Violence in America: New Data for Summer 2020,” September 3, 2020, https://acleddata. com/2020/09/03/ demonstrations-political-violence-in-america-new-data-for-summer-2020/.

The above is an excerpt from Spotting Danger for Travelers: Build Situational Awareness to Keep Safe While Traveling by Gary Quesenberry, Federal Air Marshal (Ret.), Publication Date April 1, 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594399305.