How to survive the first 5 minutes in a violent protest

Protest action is common across the globe. People use protest action to express their frustration, gain support for their cause or to force the relevant authorities to take their demands seriously. For the most part, protest action is peaceful. However, crowds are unpredictable. A peaceful protest can turn into a violent situation in a heartbeat. When violence erupts in a crowd, it has the potential to escalate at an alarming rate. Such violence can be directed against law enforcement, innocent bystanders, shop owners and basically anybody that is in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

The easiest way to survive a violent protest is to not be there....

In this article we will be discussing various strategies to survive when caught up in a violent protest.The best strategy to survive is to avoid being there in the first place. Unfortunately, avoidance is not always possible. It may happen that you are caught up in protest action by being in the wrong area at the wrong time. Or, you may be part of a peaceful and legal protest action which suddenly erupts into a violent protest or riot. It may not even be as a result of your own group. External groups or individuals with their own personal or political agendas may use a peaceful legal protest action as an opportunity to promote their own agendas. A peaceful action may result in violent chaos in a matter of minutes.

The more skilled you are at identifying the signs that the crowd behaviour is changing, the greater the chances are that you can get out of there before the situation escalates. Here are some common indicators that the mood of the crowd is changing and that you should start looking for ways to get to safety:

  • Instigators calling on people to take matters into their own hands
  • Barricading of roads and preventing people from leaving or entering
  • Brandishing of weapons or objects that can be used as weapons
  • Fights breaking out between protestors
  • Verbal  and physical abuse of Law Enforcement Officers
  • Throwing objects like bottles, stones, bricks, trash cans etc
  • Setting objects like vehicles, tyres and vegetation alight

Things just got what?

Obviously the best thing you can do is to be able to recognize trouble before it escalates and to remove yourself from the area.  But, people are curious beings. Many people will hang around to see what happens next or to take videos and pictures of the situation, hoping to go viral on social media. Let’s say your curiosity got hold of you and you stuck around too long or you were unable to get out of the situation due to circumstances beyond your control.

What do you do?  Stay as calm as possible. If you go into panic mode, it becomes difficult to see what is happening and which options are available to you. Do not start running around aimlessly or try to push people out of the way. Do not try to calm the crowd down or reason with anybody. Do not swear and make threats. Crying will not help either. An angry mob  will zoom in on a person looking panicked and who goes against the flow.

Staying calm in a potentially violent or full blown violent situation is really difficult for most people. When your safety is at stake, fear often overrules logic. That is when most people make fatal mistakes that get them seriously injured and even killed. 

Get out of a violent protest safely

A violent protest will generally move in a specific direction or be directed towards a specific focal point. Your objective should be to move with the flow of people and not against it. However, you do not want to end up at the focal point of the violent protest. So how do you do that? If you have family or friends with you, try to stay together but do not become fixated on that. Your own safety is of paramount importance. If you become hysterical or try to fight the mob while trying to stay with your family or friends, there is a very real risk that the mob’s anger may be directed towards you.

The idea is to move with the flow of people but to gradually move to the side of the crowd. If you manage to get to the fringe, it is easier to escape into a building or side alley. If you stay in the center of the crowd, there is a risk of falling and being trampled on. Whatever you do, do not fall! If you do fall, try to get to your feet as quickly as possible by standing up in the same direction as the crowd is moving. If you cannot get up, curl into a ball, cover your head with your hands and protect your ribs with your elbows and wait for the first opportunity to get to your feet.

If you are in a vehicle, do not attempt to drive through the crowd, not even in the same direction as the crowd movement. Mobs are notorious for targeting vehicles. Get out of your vehicle if you are surrounded by a mob and move to safety. If you do not get out of your vehicle when surrounded by an angry mob, there is a real chance that you may be injured by flying glass when car windows are smashed or when your car is overturned and set alight by the mob. Remember, Life Over Property. Always. 

When law enforcement reacts to a violent protest

Here is the bad news, when this happens, there is no time to argue with the Police or to try and convince them that you are not part of the mob. To the Police, you are now part of the mob because you are there. 

So here are your options:

  • If the Police use crowd dispersing options like teargas, pepper spray or stun grenades, run in the opposite direction- run away from the Police . Do not run towards them as they may assume that you are attacking them! Again, if you run away, try not to fall and move to the side to enable you to escape into a building or side alley.
  • When the Police start arresting people and you are manhandled, do not resist and try to explain your situation. To the Police, it will appear as if you are resisting arrest if you try to explain your situation. Rather use the Police as an opportunity to get out of the crowd!
  • There will always be video footage of Police action and you can explain your situation afterwards when everybody is calm and prepared to look at your side of things in the presence of your lawyer.

Learn More

C.O.B.R.A. Self-Defense specialize in training people from all walks of life how to protect themselves. C.O.B.R.A. comes from real experience in law enforcement and combines various combative systems with the psychology of criminal intent. With more than 100 locations worldwide, C.O.B.R.A. is the premier resource for reality self-defense training. Available training courses include:

  • 10 Week Self-Defense Academy for Adults
  • 5 Week Self-Defense Course For Adults
  • 1 Day Self-Defense Survival Camp for Adults
  • Active Shooter Response Plan
  • Real Estate Agent Safety Training
  • Child Abduction Prevention Course
  • Protection Specialist Self-Defense Course
  • Corporate Self-Defense Awareness Seminars & Practical Training 


C.O.B.R.A. Self-Defense South Africa

Cell: 082 299 9117