On the evening of February 12th, 2018, police responded to a crowd disturbance at a hotel near St. Louis Lambert International Airport. A crowd of approximately 300 people had just returned from Memphis, Tennessee, where they had been taking part in a protest in support of higher wages for fast food employees and were using the hotel as a debriefing location before heading back to their homes in the St. Louis area. Nothing escalated, there were apparently no arrests, and protesters and police eventually went their separate ways.
The point of the above paragraph is not to illustrate what happened in St. Louis, but instead to illustrate what happened in Memphis, a city almost 300 miles away yet still considered worth the trip for those 300 St. Louisans who wanted to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to peaceful expression.
The population of your jurisdiction cannot be the sole consideration in your planning for civil unrest. Depending on the event that precipitates the unrest, a town with a population of a few hundred could conceivably see an influx of thousands of people from all point of the compass, and the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri that followed the shooting of a young African-American man by one of that city’s police officers is the case study. On one night of protests, only one of the 51 people arrested that night was actually from the city of Ferguson. Several were from cities nearby (as part of the St. Louis Metropolitan Area, the city of Ferguson adjoins other cities and boundaries between them can be crossed simply by crossing the street), but others were from as far away as Iowa, Ohio, California, Texas, Alabama, and New York. Eventually, people from around the world came to Ferguson. Protestors rented hotel rooms, found other lodging, and were in it for the long haul.
I’m not trying to draw a correlation between “locals” and “out-of-towners” when it comes to arrests. I am not attempting to delegitimize or downplay any of the causes mentioned here. I am trying to emphasize the fact that, if you are faced with civil unrest, many of the people walking your streets may not be familiar to you – or to anyone. Thanks to the internet and social media, protests can be organized as never before. Nationwide movements have websites that allow a person to find the next (or nearest) action, notify others of an action, and donate funds or other resources. Protests or acts of civil disobedience, scheduled a few weeks or even a few days in advance, can draw thousands of people from all walks of life thanks to social media. If someone, or some organization, was planning a protest in your jurisdiction in the coming weeks, would you know about it? Would you even know where to start looking for the information? Who within your organization has that responsibility?
And once an action begins, what now? How will your jurisdiction simultaneously allow people their freedom of expression, protect lives and property (on both sides of the issue), and continue to provide routine services at their expected levels? The Ferguson protests went on for months, which opens up the whole issue of continuity and sustainability.
Let’s say your jurisdiction is a rural county with an interstate highway or other major thoroughfare running through it. A common enough description, as is one or more fast food restaurants right off the exit ramp. One Sunday afternoon, what appears to be a chartered tour bus pulls into the parking lot of one of these restaurants. The on-duty manager starts wondering how they’ll manage to serve the forty or so people on the bus, but as the people on the bus begin to debark, none of them head toward the restaurant. They stay congregated in the parking lot, and the manager now sees that a few of them are carrying large signs. Then a second bus pulls in, then a third, and within the space of a very few minutes there is a group of almost 200 people in the parking lot protesting the need for higher wages for fast food workers. No laws are being broken: no entrances are being blocked, traffic is not being impeded, no one is being threatened or assaulted, not even any profanity being heard. But the manager calls 9-1-1 anyway and describes the scene, and suddenly every officer on the road (all three of them) is en route.
A second hypothetical scenario would entail what we (and the world) saw unfold in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 and 2015: buildings burning, police officers being attacked, and even fire department units having to abandon their efforts after coming under fire.
In either scenario, and of course there is a wide range of possible scenarios, unified command will be critically important. Law enforcement, fire, and EMS must be able to work together, if for no other reason that to help assure first responder safety. If you get a fire or EMS call from the area of the disturbance, do you send in the fire/EMS units and let them assess the scene? Do you send fire or EMS with a law enforcement escort? Do you send law enforcement first, let them assess scene safety, and then allow fire or EMS to respond?
Training will also be crucial – training for your people on the street who will have to respond, and the incident command training that we all know is important but many of us just “can’t find the time” to conduct.
If you’re looking for answers, or at least recommendations regarding how to respond to a riot or act of civil unrest, my recommendation would be to not wait until a response becomes necessary. Plan now. Get on line and visit websites like those mentioned in this article. Experiment with different means of social media monitoring to see what works best for you, and by the way, if you’re not familiar with gab.ai or “Twitter Shoah’d” you should be. Conduct a tabletop exercise, generate an Incident Action Plan. Civil unrest is a foreseeable hazard just like severe weather, an earthquake, or a hazardous materials release, and deserves the same amount of attention.
About the Author
A highly-sought trainer, presenter, and author, Jim Sharp is a veteran Emergency Manager and one of fewer than 500 FEMA-certified Master Professional Continuity Practitioners nationwide. Prior to starting his own firm in 2010, he spent the immediately previous 10 years with an Illinois jurisdiction as their Emergency Management Agency's Field Training Officer, Public Information Officer, and Assistant Coordinator. Jim has trained literally thousands of people – civilians and first responders - on topics that include continuity of operations, CERT, cybersecurity, pandemic preparedness, incident command, the National Incident Management System, and many more. He currently chairs both the COAD and Long-term Recovery Committees for Warren County, Missouri and voluntarily serves as Deputy Emergency Operations Center Director for the Warren County Emergency Management Agency.