The stalled-out cars, my dead phone, no lights, and a crashing plane...
In This Article
Illustrations by Ruben Juarez
“What’s this protest about?” my wife absentmindedly asked as she thumbed through Facebook on her phone. “More president hating or something about vegetable rights this time?” she mocked. The ride to our son Johnny’s game was taking longer than expected, and we were all getting frustrated with the slow pace. Earlier in the day, I had heard something on the radio about protests, and as the vehicles ground to a halt, the uncharacteristic evening traffic started to make sense.
People with poster board signs, many with covered faces, began to fill the spaces between the idling cars. Some of the more energetic protesters started to jump onto car hoods and hurl objects at the gridlocked motorists. Then I saw it, a few cars ahead of us. Several men crowded around a car, and the driver surged forward. Many voices cried out loudly as the vehicle sped away. The first of the cries sounded like pain, and the following ones had a tone of anger and surprise. Someone had just been injured.
The protesters then began to lash out at the remaining vehicles, smashing windows and even pulling a woman out of her car! This was getting ugly quick. My knuckles turned white as I gripped the steering wheel hard, and all I could think was how the hell I was going to protect my family from this.
For this episode of RECOIL OFFGRID’s “What If?” column, the editors have created a situation to place a family in the proverbial crosshairs of a group of protesters who turn violent and take out their aggression on passing motorists. Here we’ll discuss some possible methods to handle these circumstances, and walk you through preps, plans, and decisions to consider if you find yourself in a similar situation. While we won’t hijack a garbage truck to “scoop and compact” our way through these marching marauders — we’ll present some options that just might keep you out of harm’s way.
Traveling to a ball game
You, your wife, and son
Los Angeles, California
Clear; high 97 degrees F, low 79 degrees F
The Setup: There has been a recent string of protests in areas of downtown Los Angeles you often travel through, but you have no idea how long it’ll last or where exactly it’ll pop up next, making route planning to avoid the protests somewhat problematic. Over the last several days, the protests have been nothing more than verbal demonstrations with no violence reported.
You’re driving your pregnant wife and 10-year-old son to your son’s nighttime little league game in a small crossover SUV. While on a two-lane city street lined with buildings, traffic in front of you suddenly comes to a standstill. Protesters are unexpectedly advancing toward vehicles on both sides of the street. You assume this will only be a slight delay, the crowd will keep marching past you, and no one will become physically aggressive.
The Complication: In a seemingly unprovoked manner, the protesters start antagonizing passing motorists going in either direction, spilling into the street to block cars. Some motorists slowly make their way through the converging crowd, honking and pushing ahead. As a sedan that’s two cars in front of you makes a mad dash through the crowd, it appears that one of the protesters is injured by that driver’s decision to make a break for it.
This angers the protesters, who quickly seek revenge by converging on the remaining cars. They attempt to open doors, throw objects to hit windows in an attempt to break through, and rock your car back and forth making you think they intend to flip it over. You’re blocked on the driver side by opposing traffic, as well as cars in front of and behind you experiencing the same attack. You’re essentially boxed in unless you try to drive up on the sidewalk. What steps can you take to help protect your family and alert authorities? Should you attempt verbal persuasion or look for an opportunity to flee your car and escape on foot? Are you justified in using your car as a weapon, possibly injuring other protesters or disabling your vehicle in the enraged crowd?
I always have my SUV stocked with basic survival necessities. I break these into three categories: 1. People. Items people need to survive such as water, clothing, and self-defense items; 2. Vehicle. Goods to keep the vehicle functioning; 3. Mission-specific items. For example: things needed for my son’s baseball game.
While traveling with a pregnant wife, the matter is further complicated because of emergency issues related to the unborn child. I must have a bag specifically for the wife stocked with essentials like birth certificates, insurance information, cash and credit/debit cards, and preparation for a hospital stay.
People: While traveling anywhere you must have clothing to anticipate changes in temperature. Children have no concept of preparation, and extra care must be given to ensure each child has comfortable shoes and a warm jacket at a minimum. The wife, being pregnant, is susceptible to slight temperature variations. We always expect the cold to be the problem, but heat variations can be just as problematic. Each person has a durable water bottle, usually filled with water and ice. I also keep other large plastic water bottles to refill each individual bottle if needed. It’s prudent to include sufficient snack foods for children, if for no other reason than to reduce stress when the children begin complaining. Remember, food can be quite comforting in a stress situation.
For self-defense items, as a lawyer, I’m always mindful of local, state, and federal laws related to firearms and weaponry. Generally, knife blades less than 5 inches are universally accepted in almost all jurisdictions. Just remember, you must be very close — too close — to an attacker to use a knife. Knife wounds are often more dangerous than bullet wounds. Items like flashlights, headlamps, and light sticks are essential. Where permitted, I carry a pistol and AR-15 with a reliable, long-lasting red dot optic. But, given this scenario is in Los Angeles, I’d have to leave my AR-15 at home in Arizona.
Vehicle: I always prefer SUVs. A crossover SUV offers extended mileage on a single tank of gas. I always reinforce the bumpers with a midrange, affordable bumper system that’d survive pushing the vehicle in front of me, if necessary. My SUV never goes below three-quarters full for any potential and unexpected long drives. Each vehicle has a seatbelt cutter in the sunglasses compartment. Since most SUVs ride higher than other vehicles, that allows me to see further ahead to anticipate trouble or traffic.
Flashlights, multitools, and a basic toolkit (metric and standard sockets, screwdrivers, tow rope, ratchet straps, etc.) are also kept in the vehicle. Additionally, any SUV should be outfitted with all-terrain tires and a full-size spare (not that ridiculous donut). Duct tape, lighters, 550 cord (200 feet), and cash are hidden in the vehicle. I also keep laminated copies of all federal firearms licenses and maps of the area showing alternate routes to areas of refuge outside the city.
I also keep meds for everyone, like EpiPens, NSAIDs, aspirin, and basic first-aid supplies. Remembering when to replace these items can be a chore. I replace all batteries on the longest day of the year (6/21) and the shortest day of the year (12/21). Also, I keep an inverter that plugs into the cigarette lighter as well as two battery packs that’ll recharge cell phones five times each. Additionally, I carry a satellite phone, which I began doing when my wife became pregnant so I’d never have spotty cell coverage — yes there can be spotty satellite coverage, too (building obstructions).
Mission-Specific Items: I’m going to a baseball game and my wife is pregnant, so I keep those items for my person, vehicle, and what we need today (baseball equipment and emergency labor/hospital bag). When traveling outside the city, I also bring sleeping bags, more warm clothes, gloves, 5 extra gallons of water, 2 quarts of oil and transmission fluid, fix flat, etc.
I wouldn’t knowingly take my pregnant wife and kid through an area known for trouble. I know that I’m literally a “sitting duck” if my vehicle is surrounded by angry protesters. I’d give a wide berth to any trouble or even potential trouble. I know, as a lawyer, that trouble usually means serious injury or handcuffs — this isn’t an overstatement.
Remember, an angry mob has no collective intelligence. A mob is the sum of the individuals who’ll say they were doing nothing wrong when you struck them with your vehicle. All assailants will claim they were “merely present,” a legal term to suggest at the scene, but doing nothing wrong. Keep a watchful eye 10 to 20 car lengths ahead to scan for trouble; what constitutes trouble should be self-explanatory. Large groupings of angry people surrounding vehicles is trouble. Protesters are trouble. We might admire their First Amendment right, but we don’t want to be victimized by it. I’d also keep at least three car lengths behind the vehicle in front of me. This distance allows me to quickly maneuver my vehicle and turn around at even the slightest suggestion of danger.
Let’s assume I was doing everything reasonable. I was keeping a safe distance, scanning for threats, wearing seatbelts, had a cell phone charged and ready for use, and the mob suddenly appears seemingly out of nowhere. My friend is my accelerator. The vehicle is a target when stationary. Immediately, I’d utilize the distance I’ve kept between me and the vehicle ahead of me and conduct a three-point turn (learn this technique). I do this immediately. I move the vehicle quickly. I don’t assume any angry grouping of people will remain peaceful.
I had this example recently where a group of teachers were protesting. I don’t fear teachers; I love them. I know instinctively that troublemakers will embed themselves in large groups only to cause mayhem. So at first sign of trouble: I’m gone. If you’re stuck in between cars (a person unexpectedly changes lanes into your lane seeing the protesters), I use the push bumper I had installed on the SUV. It’s better to beg for forgiveness later than die. My insurance will pay damages to anyone’s vehicle. But as a lawyer, I know this will mean future trouble — so I don’t ram the vehicle in front of me when the Girl Scouts appear out of nowhere with cookies.
When I see the angry mob, I immediately call 911. I don’t say on the recorded 911 call: “Well, ah, there are some people, and they’re walking toward me.” I know to articulate fear in a verbal manner. “911, What is your emergency?” “Help! There’s an angry mob trying to hurt me, my pregnant wife, and 10-year-old son. I’m worried we’re going to die.”
In thousands of 911 calls I’ve heard and litigated, I’ve never thought a person expressing intense fear was lying. I’ve seen, many times, people appearing flat and unafraid. It’s hard to claim I was afraid at the time when I don’t sound afraid on the recorded call that will certainly be reviewed by someone else (insurance company and/or prosecutors). Protests are usually localized events. Whatever direction will take us away from trouble is the path I seek. I’d be doing this while on the phone asking for police assistance. While many people have differing views of law enforcement, I’ll say these men and women are here to help. But make no mistake, if they’re busy with other trouble, you’re on your own. So I wouldn’t pull over a block away and wait for the good guys.
I’m responsible for the safety of others. Let’s say I’ve caused damage to the vehicle in front of me by utilizing the push bumper to safely get my wife and son away from danger. I call 911 and report what I did. There’s such a thing as the necessity defense. It’s legally grounded in the “Reasonable Person Standard,” meaning: Would a reasonable person feel the need to push the vehicle in front of him to avoid any angry mob? It’s not whether I feel the danger, subjectively, but rather, would another reasonable person do the same. Wide latitude is given to people who are acting in self-defense. Some people would cause damage, leave, and not want the potential legal headache. I’d run to the law and safely travel that distance to communicate with authorities the fear for my life and my pregnant wife and son, describing damage I created to avoid a potential criminal charge for hit and run.
If the mob gets me, my wife, and son, I know my fate is in their collective hands. I must do everything to avoid that possibility because, at that point, I’m lucky if I or my family isn’t seriously injured or killed. I must utilize all available assets, but I must admit that I’ve done many things wrong if I find myself surrounded by this angry mob. I’ve failed to scan for threats far ahead of my vehicle. I’ve failed to keep a three-car distance from the vehicle ahead of me. I’ve failed to remove myself and family from the threat by using the accelerator. One of my last lines of defense is to plead for law enforcement to come get me. They’ll respond by priority … so maybe my pregnant wife speaks to the 911 operator and explains that while I try to maneuver the vehicle away from danger.
If I must drive on a sidewalk: Well, I say better to be judged by 12 rather than carried by six. I’ll apply all force and fury to protect my family. Remember, legally speaking, a mob is comprised of individuals, and I will be held responsible for any injuries or damage to innocent people who are merely present. I can’t drive blindly through the mob, running people over. You must maneuver away from danger, utilizing the bare minimum damage and injury to others. Let’s say a child is with his mother who’s a protester. The law doesn’t transmit mom’s venom to her innocent child. So, think way ahead, be prepared for all reasonable contingencies, and flee at the first sign of trouble. Discretion is the better part of valor. The first line of defense is to live by that proverb.
One of the most important things I can recommend before hitting the road is to study a street map long and hard. I don’t care if you’re looking at a map of your hometown, an area you work in, or a vacation destination. Get to know the connections and choke points of the streets, bypasses, and highways through the area. This helps you find alternate routes and avoid congested areas. Once the city streets are familiar, take time to study the map again periodically, and bring the paper map with you in the vehicle. I’m not suggesting that you ignore your phone’s navigation apps or throw your Garmin out the window. On the contrary, use those tools as much as you like. But understand that nothing beats map study to really know the “lay of the land.”
Once I know my routes and alternates, I’ll think about the items that should be stocked our car. All the usual suspects make sense. Carrying food, water, tools, jumper cables, flashlights, first-aid kit, and the personal defenses we train with regularly will leave us prepared for most roadside emergencies. But preparing for a possible encounter with attackers on the road — this is a much more complicated matter. What if we had to defend ourselves against a crowd? If these were Mad Max times, things would be different, but depending on the circumstances, some jurors may frown on the use of your vehicle as a weapon, even if those shouting buffoons became physically aggressive.
Now there are some enhancements you can add to your car to thwart attacks and attempted break-ins. For the average Joe, turning your grocery getter into a fully armored vehicle is cost-prohibitive, and adding certain offensive capabilities may get you in trouble (think anti-carjacking flamethrowers seen in South Africa). Don’t despair, there are a few things most of us can afford that would help to harden a vehicle. Buying puncture-resistant (run-flat) tires may allow you to keep rolling, even though you just got a flat tire in a scary neighborhood. Aftermarket oversized gas tanks can keep you idling in traffic long after the other cars are out of gas. Consider a cell phone booster that could improve your communication options in case cell phone reception is spotty or you’re separated from your family members. Finally, think about mounting a dashboard cam to record any incidents that happen so you have proof that can be shown in court.
We’d do our best to stay informed of protest activity, since information is one of our best defenses. It’s important to know why the protest is happening, as well as the location of the event. Listening to the radio may provide some current local news, but who knows if that information is correct or current. Keep in mind that violence and crowd size are sometimes downplayed by the authorities and the media for various reasons. Check various forms of social media. These can sometimes provide local information; however, it may also be inaccurate. Whatever forms of news you find, use them to assess where the unrest is happening and why. Have a discussion with the family, preparing them for the possibility of running into some angry protesters and explain that your best defense is to get out of their way.
As a general safety precaution, vehicle doors stay locked and windows stay up when traveling in our car as a family or alone. Many of the newer cars on the road have automatic door locks that engage after driving for a minute or so, but why wait? Lock them as soon as you enter the vehicle. And even when it’s hot, we like to keep the windows up and let the AC do its job. It’ll cool off soon enough.
Once we’re on the road, defensive driving is the name of the game. All drivers should watch the vehicle in front of them, but I go a step beyond and watch both the vehicle in front of me and the vehicle in front of them. This way, I have more time to react. But what about driving in tight streets with lots of company? Your driver’s ed teacher would be proud if you could maintain the “two-car length” spacing between your grille and the rear bumper of the vehicle in front of you, but let’s get real. In city driving, people will cut in front of you constantly when they see that much room. You won’t be going anywhere fast with that much space in front. Keep enough room to give yourself space to make a quick exit if needed.
Once I spot the protestors coming down the street, I’d check the door locks again and get the phone handy in case we had to make an emergency call. Scanning the crowd, I’d try to absorb as much detail as possible to try and predict their behavior. With faces covered, they’re not marching to save the whales. They’re trying to prevent their faces from being photographed. This strongly suggests that they’re planning (or at least hoping) to do plenty of things they shouldn’t.
Look at the stats, and you’ll find that most marches and protests are peaceful. But if they do turn violent, understand that riots are survivable events, assuming you know how to navigate the situation.
Pinned in place by gridlock, our vehicle isn’t going to get us out of the area. Our exodus is will have to be on foot. I know my wife and son will be frightened to exit the imagined safety of the vehicle, but with car windows being smashed — it’s well past the time to go. With multiple people on foot trying to break into or turn over our car, we’ll make a break to the nearest store or business that’ll let us in. It’s not our job to police this crowd, but it is my job as a spouse and parent to protect my loved ones. We’ll do that by getting away. Any provocation coming from my “group” could instigate an onslaught from the others. Just like bees, when one or more of those seen as threats are attacked — the rest may join in because they believe it’s necessary to defend themselves.
Of course, the safest place to be during unrest is far away, but if we were caught in a mob and can’t get to shelter — our best bet may be to blend in. Chant what they chant, and repeat the types of statements you’re hearing the crowd say. Don’t stick up for opposing views or groups. Pride won’t help you. Tell them what they want to hear until you can get the hell out of there.
When a crowd becomes angered, tribal mentality often sets in. Bottles and rocks are thrown, nearby businesses are looted, cars are flipped, and fires are set. Whether it’s after a sporting event with drunken fans pouring into the street or during a politically charged rally, sometimes it’s impossible to predict when a group will suddenly turn into a rioting horde. When it happens, innocent bystanders often perceived as outsiders are treated as potential threats and pulled into the fray. That simple protest may escalate into a full-blown riot. Often the bigger the crowd and more attention they think they’re getting, the lower their inhibitions and collective conscience becomes.
Individually, each protester has logic, beliefs, and reasoning, but as a group, their anger often leads to a criminal mindset. You can’t reason with insanity; the best thing you can do is get out of its way until the tantrum is over, subdued by law enforcement, or just plain exhausted. Whether or not you know if you’ll have to venture into the proximity of an unstable crowd, you should plan your vehicular belongings and alternate travel routes accordingly. The more options you have to escape, the better your chances of surviving the onslaught are.
Tim MacWelch has been a survival instructor for more than 20 years, training people from all walks of life, including members from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, the State Department, DOD, and DOJ personnel. He’s a frequent public speaker for preparedness groups and events. He’s also the author of three New York Times-bestselling survival books, and the new Ultimate Bushcraft Survival Manual. When he’s not teaching survival or writing about it, MacWelch lives a self-reliant lifestyle with his family in Virginia. Check out his wide range of hands-on training courses that are open to the public at www.advancedsurvivaltraining.com.
Jason Squires is a defense attorney in excellent standing with the Arizona State Bar. In nearly 20 years, he has litigated and defended a multitude of criminal and civil cases, representing law enforcement (use of force) and persons charged with firearms offenses. His law practice has an emphasis in self-defense laws, firearms laws, and Nation Firearms Act regulations. In his spare time, he’s an avid shooter, survival enthusiast, and competes in three-gun tournaments across the nation. squireslawaz.com