Civil Unrest: Demonstrations, protests, and rioting.

By |2022-06-02T22:57:02+00:00November 5th, 2020|0 Comments

Amid the anxiety and angst of the worst pandemic in 100 years, the elimination of social injustice has been the rallying cry of protesters following the George Floyd incident. Peaceful demonstrations erupting into violence under the cover of darkness have been national news. Cities of all sizes have seen demonstrations with some experiencing civil unrest night-after-night for months.

Acts of vandalism, malicious destruction of property, and arson have been perpetrated on government buildings, statues, vehicles, and other property. Public streets, highways, and public space have been blocked and barricaded to prevent the free movement of citizens and commerce. Assault, battery, and homicide have been perpetrated with bricks, stones, firearms, and other weapons. Police, protesters, counter-protesters, and innocent people have been injured. Businesses have been looted and destroyed by fire. Block after block of storefronts have been boarded up. Losses to businesses in at least 40 cities in 20 states may come close to the costliest civil disorder in US history. [Claims Journal, June 2, 2020]

Recent decades have witnessed protests and civil disorder surrounding issues of social injustice, world economic and trade forums, political conventions, major sporting events, and labor disputes. Riots have plagued the United States for more than half a century, and 50 countries have seen a surge in civil unrest since 2019 according to political risk consultants Verisk Maplecroft.

Concern about protests and demonstrations like those surrounding the 2016 Presidential election have law enforcement planning for the possibility of a repeat. Directors of security worry that volatile political divisions in our society may provoke conflicts between workers escalating into acts of workplace violence. Civil unrest is now a foreseeable threat requiring preparedness.

Recognizing the Potential for Civil Unrest

Crowds that gather are not always a single, cohesive unit with leadership that can control the group’s behavior. Individuals and groups with opposing views may assemble to counter and antagonize. Those with ulterior motives may infiltrate the group or take advantage of the situation to further their interests.

A peaceful protest can escalate into unrest when a small group initiates a disturbance. Others, not associated with the original demonstrators and alerted by social media and news reports, join—often to loot and cause damage. These individuals are not concerned or associated with the original demonstrators. When organized groups who have planned disruptive activities directed against targets of opportunity join the unrest, the disturbance escalates into a riot.

Demonstrations, protests, and civil unrest have the potential to quickly escalate. Protesters may engage with law enforcement to provoke the use of force. Counter-protesters may also be targeted. First responders and citizens in the area can quickly become victims as the mob surrounds them. Often during civil unrest, firefighters are targeted with projectiles while attempting to extinguish fires. When firefighters withdraw, fires spread uncontrolled.

Weapons & Tactics

Stones and bricks, tire irons, baseball bats, and other blunt instruments have been used during civil unrest to attack law enforcement, to vandalize buildings, and enter stores for looting.

Fireworks and incendiary devices, such as Molotov cocktails, have been used during recent civil unrest. Buildings, police and civilian motor vehicles, and available combustibles have been set on fire. Paints mixed with flammable liquids have been thrown or sprayed at law enforcement and should be considered a precursor to an incendiary attack.

Motor vehicle used as a weapon is a known terrorist method (Hudson River Park bike path, New York City, 2017). Civilians and police officers have been struck by motor vehicles in violent demonstrations. Drivers of motor vehicles attempting to travel on roadways blocked by protesters have been attacked.

Chemical spray and acid splash attacks have become a worldwide problem. Chemicals are readily available, can be purchased in large quantities without a permit, are easily deployed, and cause immediate injury with minimal product. Their use cannot be ruled out during civil unrest.

Preparedness for Planned Demonstrations

Advance notice of scheduled events and awareness of spontaneous gatherings, demonstrations, and protests that could lead to civil unrest is essential to allow time to implement reasonable preparedness measures. The information gathered and intelligence developed will enable decisions regarding facility operations, staffing, preparedness activities, and actions that should be taken if the situation escalates to threaten people or facilities.

Monitor the news media, social media, and establish lines of communication with public safety agencies especially law enforcement. News outlets, law enforcement, and other public safety agencies push out information via Twitter, Facebook, and their official websites. Find out which social media apps are available locally. For example, the Citizen app is available in major cities and provides raw, real-time information about what is happening in the community.

Anticipate travel needs and challenges during civil disturbances. The safety of public transportation and stations in proximity to the building should be monitored and instructions to avoid unsafe areas communicated to those potentially affected.

Plan for the arrival and departure of employees and visitors based on the risk assessment and instructions from authorities. Communicate the scope and timing of any curfew orders and any changes to public transportation schedules. Evaluate the availability of employees and their ability to report for work, especially during evening and night shifts when protests often escalate into violence. Plan for the possibility that essential employees may not be able to get to work or leave to return home on schedule.

Enhance security staffing levels commensurate with the risk assessment. All two-radio and mobile telephone communications equipment should be fully charged, and sufficient spare batteries should be available. Verify all fire protection, emergency power supplies and their fuel supply, communications, and warning systems are in reliable condition.

Verify that all security measures are in place commensurate with the threat level and instructions from public authorities. Remove anything outside that could be vandalized or used as a projectile. Motor vehicles should be relocated to a safe location. Fences, gates, and exterior doors should be locked and secure. Exterior lighting should be fully functional to illuminate all sides of the buildings. Where installed, window shutters should be closed and secured. Anything subject to vandalism should be moved, if possible, to a location that affords greater protection. Establish plans to close air intakes to prevent entry of smoke or riot control agents. Enable all security systems to detect and prevent unauthorized entry.

Utilize one employee entrance that is controlled by security. Only employees scheduled to work should be allowed access to the building. Ensure that staff remaining on property during a protest are safe and secure, have reliable and redundant means of communications, and can communicate with their families. Ensure protocols, procedures, and safe passageways have been identified in case a building must be evacuated. Plan for the emergency housing of employees in case staff cannot safely leave the building and sheltering is required.

Plan an alternate evacuation route or shelter-in-place strategy should the disturbance disrupt or block an orderly evacuation. Utilize mass notification, electronic mail, text messaging, or telephone call trees to inform employees about the current situation and how to receive official instructions. Inform staff about access to the building, evacuation from the building, travel paths to alternate exits from the building, accountability procedures, and any plans for building closure.

Response to Civil Unrest

Plans should prescribe that if protesters gather nearby or in multiple areas, unruly groups are on the move, acts of violence are threatened, or information regarding potential civil unrest is received from public safety agencies, the emergency operations plan will be activated. The building should be secured, the safety of occupants should be addressed, and persons not in the building should be warned to stay away.

Management, security, and incident management team(s) should be alerted. Upon alerting, leadership and team members should assemble, physically or virtually, to assess the situation. The situation analysis should evaluate the size, behavior, location, and movement of the crowd and the current state of security and preparedness.

  • What is the nature of the group (persons with a grievance against the company or outsiders with no direct affiliation to the company or any tenant)?
  • Is the crowd cooperative, celebratory, non-compliant, hostile, or combative?
  • Is the crowd growing larger?
  • Is the crowd threatening to, or committing violent acts against, people or property?
  • Has a weapon been displayed?
  • Are people or property at risk?

Alert law enforcement if they are not aware of the situation or to communicate that the crowd is growing, uncontrollable, threatening violence or vandalism, displaying weapons, or committing acts of violence or vandalism.

If the crowd remains outside and does not threaten the building, maintain the security of the building to prevent access. Communicate with occupants to warn them to stay away from the side of the building exposed to the crowd. Prepare them to take protective action—evacuation using an alternate path if available; continued sheltering inside if a safe path to exit is not available, trespassers haven’t entered the building and riot control agents, smoke, or fire don’t threaten building occupants; or lockdown if the mob enters the building and safe escape is not possible.

Results of the situation analysis should be compiled into a Situation Report (SitRep) and communicated to security, the incident management team, and management. Initial and periodic briefings of teams should share information, brief leaders, and inform decisions about protective actions, security, operational status, and communicating with employees and other stakeholders.

Unify command with law enforcement if possible and safe to do so. Communicate information about the crowd, identified crowd leadership, known grievance, and any unlawful acts. Provide information about the site or building as requested. Adjust strategies for protecting occupants and the property until the situation has stabilized.

Instructions for Employees and Building Occupants during Civil Unrest

Instruct employees, tenants, and others to avoid the area during civil unrest. If caught up in a crowd or civil unrest, instruct them to take the following action:

  • If a crowd is gathering in or near your path to the building, be cautious and move away from the crowd. Seek an alternate path to safety.
  • If confronted by a demonstrator, do not act aggressively.
  • If you get caught in the middle of the disturbance, keep your head and body protected and attempt to move to the edge of the crowd.
  • If you fall, curl into a ball, and protect your head and neck. Get back up as soon as you are able.
  • Do not confront rioters or looters to prevent property damage or looting of merchandise.
  • Do not disturb any evidence following criminal acts of vandalism, destruction of property, looting, or attempted arson.

Workplace Violence

Most acts of violence occur without warning, so the amount of time to react is minimal. Further challenging response, a perpetrator on the move prevents trained staff from directing movement to areas of refuge. Everyone needs to understand their options and quickly decide whether to run, hide, or fight.

Everyone should be familiar with the sound of the fire alarm system, emergency voice communication system, or mass notification system used for warning purposes. Everyone should know the primary and secondary paths to an exit and their primary and secondary assembly areas.

Employees should be familiar with their work areas so they will know where and how to take cover if a “lockdown” warning is broadcast and where to go if there is an order to “shelter in place.”

If running to escape an act of violence, employees should leave belongings behind, raise their hands, and follow instructions of arriving law enforcement officers who at that time would not know who the perpetrator is. The locations of shelters safely away from the building and the need to check in with a supervisor for accountability should be stressed.

Employees should be instructed how to discretely communicate information about the location, description, and weapons carried by perpetrators. The availability of wired telephones and any limitations on wireless communications should be addressed. Sharing of mobile telephone numbers to enable communicating information via text messages should be explored.


Events over the past year illustrate how quickly protests can arise and escalate leaving little time to react. Preparedness for civil unrest—demonstrations, protests, and rioting—and the potential for workplace conflict escalating into violence is more important than ever before.

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Donald L. Schmidt, ARM, CBCP, MCP, CBCLA, CEM® is the CEO of Preparedness, LLC a Massachusetts-based consulting firm that specializes in risk assessment, prevention/mitigation, emergency management, business continuity, and crisis management. He is the past chair of the NFPA 1600 Technical Committee overseeing the 2010, 2013, and 2016 editions. [email protected]

Download a copy of Preparedness, LLC’s Emergency Management, Business Continuity & Crisis Management Self-Assessment Checklist based on NFPA 1600, 2019 edition.

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