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How to Survive an Angry Crowd

Shell casings used as path borders.
Guard house at the round fort overlooking Kabul, 2005

When I worked in Afghanistan, I went through days of security training. One (thankfully memorable) training involved how to escape an angry crowd.

I only used it once. I faced crowds twice.

The first time—in Kabul—was a riot that lasted the afternoon. Rioters surrounded my car. The driver froze. I was stuck, helpless, in the back seat while furious men beat on the windows of our SUV.

One finally broke out a passenger-side window with a brick. I’d seen the slow-motion wind-up, so I flung myself to the other side of the car and only got pelted with glass.

The shattering window snapped the driver out of his fugue state, and he slowly drove through the parting crowd. I spent the rest of the day fleeing from spot to spot, evading rioters, picking glass out of my hair, and listening to weapons fire, until I reached a safehouse that didn’t feel all that safe.

The next time, in Ramallah on the West Bank, I was returning with two Palestinian colleagues to the office from a work meeting. The street was crowded, since it was the anniversary of Yassir Arafat’s death—a detail I didn’t fully appreciate or comprehend until too late. My colleagues figured walking would be quicker than a taxi.

They walked me right through one of those demonstrations you’ve see on CNN. Men in fatigues and balaclavas goosestepped with automatic weapons on their shoulders and shouted death to America. And an idiot American—me—strolled right into the middle of it.

Here are the three rules for getting out of an angry crowd.

1. Look people in the eyes. This means removing any sunglasses. Eyes are the windows to the soul, and it’s harder to attack someone once you’ve looked them in the eyes.

2. Make your way to the edge of the demonstration.

3. Get the hell out of there.

I did all of the above while my clueless colleagues chatted amiably, ignoring the situation. And maybe there wasn’t a situation. Because after we got out of the crowd, my colleagues were baffled about why I was so irate. (Americans!). Maybe it wasn’t that big of a deal, and I’d never been in any danger.

But I was still pissed.

What rules do you have to get you out of sticky situations?


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