Friday, October 11, 2013

Getting Ready for Civil Unrest

Most of us have share a "normalcy bias" which tells us that things will pretty much keep on being the way they are now. We have a difficult time imagining looting and rioting on the streets of our city. But civil unrest is one of the scenarios for which I am getting ready.

In 1992 people took to the streets in Los Angeles, furious when a jury acquitted some policemen of assault and excessive force. The riots lasted for six days, during which time 53 people were killed, over 2,000 were injured, fires were started, shops were looted, and a billion dollars in property was damaged. Aside from the initial racially-motivated rioters, other groups--who may not even have known of the Rodney King incident--took advantage of the anarchy to loot. In some communities where the police response was overwhelmed, open gunfights between business owners and looters were televised. Thanks to extensive media coverage of the Los Angeles riots, smaller riots and anti-police actions took place in several other cities around the country. The riots did not stop until the National Guard and US Marines were called in.

In 1999 activist marchers demonstrated at the WTO meetings in Seattle. Others joined in and began smashing windows, starting fires in dumpsters, and vandalizing storefronts; fortunately, the violence was not turned to target people. The demonstrators ended up numbering over 40,000.

In 2011 disturbances organized by cell phones and social media began in London and spread to other towns after a police shooting. Thousands protested, looted, and started fires, while the police were deployed en mass. 5 were killed and 16 injured over five days. With the police overwhelmed, targeted communities defended themselves, but the defenders were also engaged by police at one point.


I've focused here on major riots in world-class cities, but a quick search of the Internet will yield riots in smaller cities and towns all over the world. Check out this list of riots for an idea of the prevalence of civil unrest around the world. Since 1990, note in North America alone there have been riots in Anaheim CA, Benton Harbor MI, Brooklyn (3x), Chicago, Cincinnati, College Park MD (2x), Columbus OH (3x), East Lansing, Edmonton (2x), Harrisonburg VA, Huntington Beach CA, Los Angeles (2x), Montreal (4x), New York City, Philadelphia, Pullman WA, Quebec, St. Louis, St. Petersburg FL, San Bernardino CA, San Francisco, Santa Cruz CA, Seattle (2x), State College PA, Toledo OH, Toronto, Vancouver (Canada, 3x), and Washington DC. Although I don't think my part of the world is most likely for rioting, I have to admit some of the cities on this list seem even less likely.

It is evident that ethnic and socioeconomic factors can be prevalent when riots erupt. Government actions--particularly police actions and court decisions--can ignite civil unrest. Events of high political or economic significance can attract demonstrators. Sporting events sometimes end up in riots, as do some rock concerts. Universities seem to be hotbeds of social disturbance, and students frequent protestors. So, consider how many of these may be found in your metropolitan area: distinct ethnic communities, large numbers of poor people, an urban center, a convention center, a university, a professional sporting arena, or a popular concert hall. There are at least three of these risk factors within 10 miles of my home.

In addition to riots, violence and crime can follow a natural disaster as people driven by hunger or greed loot homes and stores, as seen after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy.

So, given that I've convinced myself to include civil unrest in my disaster planning, what can I do to prepare?
  1. The smartest thing to do might be to move before any incident occurs to an area with few if any risk factors. Unfortunately, this is not a real option for us.
  2. We should prepare to evacuate the area if it safe to do so before trouble comes. The ability to fend off rioters notwithstanding, discretion is the better part of valor. It's not uncommon to have a day or three of warning before trouble comes knocking on one's door.
  3. I can arm myself and other adults in my home group, and make sure we know how to use our arms safely and effectively. In a disaster, local police may be stretched beyond their ability to protect our property or our lives. Communities with an armed presence have been able to mitigate or prevent attacks by looters in various disasters and riots. Just remember being armed is no guarantee you'll prevail in any clash with rioters or looters.
  4. We should harden our home against fire. Such things as fire extinguishers and some judicious trimming of shrubbery might help us prevent fires from arson or disaster from spreading into our property.
  5. We should be prepared to bug out when trouble comes. If it is clear that fire is about to take our home, or that a mob is marching in our direction against whom we cannot stand, we should be packed and ready to leave, our vehicles fueled and serviced if part of the plan, our destination chosen, our routes and backup routes mapped and practiced. Homeowner's or Renter's insurance will come in handy here. One's life is worth more than one's stuff.

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