Street protests are all too common these days and blocking traffic has become one of the favorite methods of public protest. If you, as a motorist, round a corner and find yourself in the middle of a protest march, or if protestors suddenly surround your car, you need to take action quickly.
Dave Young, founder and director of Arma Training, stresses that immediate action is important, but such action requires forethought and a thorough understanding of the laws of self-defense in your state.
“Most state’s self-defense laws allow you to use reasonable force to defend yourself and your family, but you may not use deadly force unless you are facing an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm,” Young said. “Some prosecutors could see using your car to drive away from a protest as using force, even deadly force. So the first thing you must do is assess the threat level.”
If the protestors are merely blocking your way, you may be able to use a reasonable level of force to get out of the situation, but you must remember that someone who was not at the scene will evaluate your decisions.
In Wisconsin, the use of force is outlined in state statute 939.48, which reads:
(1) A person is privileged to threaten or intentionally use force against another for the purpose of preventing or terminating what the person reasonably believes to be an unlawful interference with his or her person by such other person. The actor may intentionally use only such force or threat thereof as the actor reasonably believes is necessary to prevent or terminate the interference. The actor may not intentionally use force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm unless the actor reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself.
Local law enforcement may already be aware of the protest and may even have people on the scene. If you make them aware that you are trapped in a large angry crowd, they may take action to attempt to disperse the crowd and facilitate a rescue, but don’t count on it. Officers at the scene may not be prepared for a riot situation, and it may take several minutes or more before police feel they have the resources to take on a large crowd. You could be injured or killed waiting for help.
Capture the Images
One of the best ways to show what you were facing and begin the basis for an effective legal defense of your actions is to record video of the incident. Most cell phones have video recorders these days. If you are with a companion, have the companion record as much of the incident as possible. Try to remain quiet while recording so as to caption the words as well as the actions of the protestors.
Do not attempt to record video and drive if you are alone. In that case, start the recorder, capture as much of the action as you can, then leave the recorder on, put it down, and focus on your escape.
Keep Moving If You Can
Turing around and immediately leaving the area, if possible, is your best option. If you cannot turn around or go around the group, driving your car slowly through a group of protestors may be seen as a reasonable use of force. But unless you can articulate a reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm, you can’t use your car as a deadly weapon by driving over people or accelerating through the crowd.
“If you can drive away, do so. That might mean driving on the sidewalk or on the shoulder of the road or through the median,” said Young. “Escape is your first option.”
If Things Turn Violent
If the protest turns violent and people begin throwing objects, striking your vehicle, or attempting to overturn your vehicle, you have to act quickly. If you reasonably believe the protestors are going to attempt to enter your vehicle, drag you out, and injure you, the time to use force—perhaps even deadly force—has come. Young suggests the following:
- Immediately get your family to lay down in the car while shielding their eyes and covering their skin to protect them from breaking glass or hard objects thrown at or into the car. If possible, pull the back seat down and take cover in the trunk area.
- Get your car out of the danger area. Drive where you need to in order to escape. Avoid areas where your car might get stuck or hung up. If you can’t see effectively, driving “blind” is dangerous—but you have to weigh that danger against the danger of remaining where you are. If you have to use your car to push people out of the way or drive over people trying to stop you, then you must do it. Remember that you will be held accountable for your actions, so make sure you can prove that you believed you were in immediate danger.
- Get out of sight of the protestors. If you are in contact with the police, tell them where you are going. If not, call them immediately after you get out of the dangerous situation and be prepared to make a full report.
If Your Car Is Stopped, Stalled, or Disabled
If you can’t move and the crowd does not appear to be dangerous, you might just be better off sitting tight and waiting for things to disperse. But if the crowd appears to be dangerous, you are now in a very serious, life-threatening emergency. And this requires a plan (and likely some very intense actions on your part). You will have to determine if you can safely and effectively leave your car and move to a protected area.
Again, if protestors are not attempting to make entry into your vehicle, it may be better to just sit tight until things subside. But Young suggests immediately leaving the vehicle if any of the follow things happen:
- The vehicle is not operational, has stalled, or will not move.
- There is fire inside or directly outside your vehicle.
- Protestors are smashing your windows or attempting to make entry into your immobile vehicle.
This is where an effective plan is all but required. If you are planning to leave your vehicle, remember that you will likely be fighting your way out of your vehicle and fighting your way to safety. Do not leave in a panic. Think things through. First and foremost, Young suggests looking for an area that could provide relative safety and determining a direction of travel to that area.
If you are responsible for family members or others who are with you, explain the importance of trying to stay together. This may limit your movement and defensive options, especially if you have young children, but is it paramount that you keep everyone accounted for.
Access your defensive situation, taking a quick inventory of all the items you may be able to use as weapons when fighting your way to safety. In addition to your personal firearm, do you have knives, impact weapons, or anything else you can use in your defense?
Do not leave your car without ensuring you take important items with you. This includes your identification, house keys, cell phone, and any weapons.
Young suggests you consider the following as you prepare to fight your way out of the situation:
- Can you operate your firearm effectively from inside your vehicle?
- Have you ever fired through glass? (Flying glass could cut you or damage your eyes.)
- Are you and your companions prepared for the discharge of a firearm in a confined space? (This is extremely loud.)
- Is everyone prepared to move when the time comes?
“Fighting through a large, violent crowd is one of the most dangerous situations in the world. Often the sheer number of attackers can overwhelm even heavily armed and well-trained individuals. Exiting your vehicle is the last resort in a very dangerous situation,” said Young. “The first and best option is to avoid such situations. If you happen upon such a protest, do your best to get away immediately because there is no telling when the crowd can turn violent.”
Related: Surrounded by “Protestors” — What Do You Do?