Lizzy ran down the alley disappeared around the corner into the main square, Tom and Alicia followed after. They had been in town with their daughter for three days now and had fallen in love with (insert lovely overseas city) almost immediately. Like any city, it had its areas to avoid and economic issues, but so far had been fantastic. As they rounded the corner they saw Lizzy standing there, frozen in place staring out at the huge crowd that had gathered to protest the (corruption/plant closing/unemployment). Yesterday the square had been full of street performers, students and tourists, but apparently tensions had been growing for quite some time and today was the day the people were mobilizing.
Thailand, Ukraine, Venezuela, Turkey and Brazil all come to mind when we think of violent demonstrations recently. Brussels (as of Nov 2014), Spain, every Friday in Amman and many locations in the middle east could also be good spot to run into one. As with many things regarding travel safety, the idea is to prevent the situation. Doing a little homework before you go will save you a TON of trouble:
- Early stage travel planning: Remember that travel guide you bought? That’s a good 3,000’ view of what’s going on in the country. Remember that it’s a few years old by the time it goes to press and that things can change rapidly, so always do more digging.
- Know what the political climate is: CNN, BBC, can usually shed some light – but don’t always buy into the hype.
- Elections upcoming in your country? A quick google search can answer that question.
- Any major sporting events taking place? Hooligans and rowdy sports fans can turn a fun event into a riot quickly.
Once you’re on the ground:
Knowing when to expect a demonstration: Check your local State department’s embassy website.
- Local news (if you habla the language) or the hotel concierge should have some insight.
- Stay connected to people who know: @ProtestWatch or my twitter feed @Travel_Safer and pay attention in town for signs or banners announcing a protest.
What to do if you come across one:
Turn the other way muy pronto. Sure, get that pic – you’ll totally be famous for it (sarcasm). Or, you could get sucked up into the crown separated from your group or the local police could put the hurt on ya.
- Even peaceful demonstrations can quickly turn violent; certain parties will send out what’s called “an agitator” who sparks the simmering tension and turns the crowd aggressive, which usually results in the crowd control (who may or may not be specifically trained to handle this sort of event) reacting with force. It’s at this point when the powder keg ignites.
So how do I get out of a demonstration turned riot?
- Stay Calm, don’t run – move with or parallel to the crowd, not against them. Link arms or hold hands with your group and stay together.
- In a car? Most likely it’s a rental, so you have to decide to ride it out or bail on the car.
- If you’re stuck, it’s time to find cover and or concealment. Lock yourself in a bathroom or get completely out of sight.
- Be prepared to defend yourself. I usually carry a locking knife and a bottle of pepper spray when I travel. *Be sure to check local laws before bringing anything into the country* If the police see a weapon in your hands, be prepared to get the snot beat out of you, arrested or worse.
Check out more tips on surviving a riot.
The best policy when it comes to rallies or demonstrations is to know ahead of time if one is possible/scheduled and then staying the heck away from it. Obviously some are spontaneous, and even the most peaceful of sit-ins can get violent. In many cases; however, the effects of a demonstration will only be felt a few blocks from the event itself, leaving you to peacefully enjoy all the culture the city has to offer. News stations will often describe the situation as a maelstrom of violence and rage and that Rome is burning – most often it’s just hype and you can continue on your merry way. I’ll caveat that statement with this: Use common sense and good judgment.