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. From what I saw happen at UC-Berkeley, I expect them to become more extreme as times goes on.
I haven’t been at a protest since the Vietnam era, and that was just on the way to class. Back then, I was fit enough to hightail it out of there when the pepper gas flew. However, 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 involved or just a bystander. It goes without saying that your objective should be to stay away from the where the violence is occurring.
Of course, 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 masses of people surging away (or towards) the violence. If you do, they are deciding your movements, not you.
4. Avoid confrontation with protesters. In other words, take off your “Make American Great Again” hat if it’s an anti-Trump demonstration. At Berkeley, things like this got women pepper-sprayed and men beaten.
5. Have a bandanna handy. This essential survival supply isn’t a gas mask, per se, but it works at riots when tear gas is sprayed. Some advocate the soaking of the cloth with lemon juice or apple cider vinegar. Avoid black bandannas, though; at Berkeley, organized masked “ninjas” in black caused most of the damage. You don’t want to be confused with one of these people.
6. Wear sneakers or other footwear that will allow you the most mobility. The only women wearing heals are 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 other 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”.
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. Carry some water, milk, or diluted liquid antacid (like Maalox) in a container if you know you’re heading into a protest area. 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 involved in a protest, carry a basic medical kit that will help to treat injuries and stop bleeding.
It’s likely you’ll never get caught in civil unrest, but 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.
Joe Alton, MD