Two years ago we saw and unprecedented upswing in protest-related activity. The potential for a return of instability remains at a high level due to increasing political division. When the protesters swarm our streets, we see an alarming number of attacks on motorists. These incidents are a threat to your safety and that of your family. Dangers to motorists aren't new; many vividly remember the attack on Reginald Denny during the early hours of rioting in Los Angeles during 1992 (see photo below). He was dragged from his truck and nearly beaten to death. Recent mobs are now bigger and more aggressive. Rioters have even begun to use firearms against those who try to escape the crowd (Link).
When dealing with violent altercations, avoidance is always the best option. The first is to be aware of protest activity in your area. Besides local news, social media platforms are an excellent source of information about these gatherings. Obviously, avoid areas where protests are occurring; however, some protest organizers do not announce their routes in order to thwart law enforcement. This can result in a mob moving quickly into areas you thought were safe. One common tactic is to flood onto freeways to disrupt traffic (Link). This catches motorists off-guard and can become dangerous for both drivers and the protestors. Tempers flare on both sides and there is a high probability for violence.
Despite your preparation to avoid an altercation, you may inadvertently drive into an active protest. Here are some critical steps to protect yourself if a mob surrounds your vehicle:
Roll up your windows - By keeping the windows up, you create a barrier between you and the attackers. This will prevent hands and/or weapons from reaching in and making contact with you. The front windshield offers you significant protection from hands, feet, and many impact weapons. Windshields are comprised of laminated glass. The plastic coating inserted between two panes of glass makes the windshield much stronger and, when broken, it remains intact. However, most vehicles have tempered glass for the side windows rather than laminated glass. The good news is that tempered glass can withstand a fair amount of blunt force, but it is very vulnerable to spring-loaded or hammer window punches (link). When shattered, the broken glass can be pushed out of the way. Recently, vehicle manufacturers have begun to install the stronger laminated glass for front passenger side windows rather than the tempered glass. However, the side windows of the rear passenger compartment and the rear window are likely still tempered glass. Check the label in the bottom corner of the window to determine whether you have tempered or laminated glass.
Lock your doors - Keep your vehicle doors locked to prevent the mob from gaining access to you. Be aware that they may break one of your side windows and reach in to unlock the door from the inside. This is difficult to defend against, especially if the try to access the rear passenger doors through the rear passenger windows.
Wear your seatbelt- The seatbelt is your last line of defense if the windows or doors are breached in the vehicle. It's nearly impossible to drag you out of your seat with the seatbelt on. DO NOT LET YOURSELF BE PULLED FROM THE VEHICLE. Once you are on the ground and surrounded by the mob, you are at their mercy. Click here for a video of a protester discussing how to break windows, cut seatbelts, and pull drivers from their vehicles.
Secure your weapons on your body - If you are carrying any weapon, keep it securely on your body. A firearm belongs in its holster and a knife belongs in its sheath. Do not place your weapon on the seat beside you, on your lap, or in an "off-body" holster mounted on your vehicle. If you suddenly decelerate, the weapon may fly off your lap or the adjacent seat and onto the floor and you may not be able to reach it. If you do reach down to retrieve it, you take your eyes off of the potential threat. Additionally, if your vehicle is breached, the attackers may reach in to steal your unsecured weapon and use it against you. Finally, if you are pulled from the vehicle, your weapon will be left behind.
SELF-DEFENSE AND THE LAW
Before discussing what actions to take, we must have a firm understanding of self-defense law. In this age, the media and many politicians will likely side with the protestors regardless of the facts surrounding the incident. To stay out of prison and survive a civil lawsuit, you must be able to justify your actions. You should be fully informed of the laws of your jurisdiction and how they apply to the situations discussed below.
In the State of California, one can legally use force if the following three conditions are met (See CalCrim #505, Justifiable Homicide: Self-Defense or Defense of Another):
1. You had a reasonable belief that you were in imminent danger of suffering harm or death, AND
2. You had a reasonable belief that using force was necessary to prevent such harm, AND
3. You only used an amount of force that was necessary to stop the threat.
In analyzing your claim to self-defense, the prosecutors, judge and jury will ask: Would a reasonable person with ordinary knowledge and intelligence, knowing what you knew, and being in the same circumstances, have acted in the same way? However, you must understand that many self-defense situations are not black-and-white; there are no bright lines. Everything is fact-specific for each situation.
You must be able to demonstrate that you were in imminent danger before you applying force. Imminent danger is defined as something happening right now and must be instantly dealt with. It's not imminent if its a prospective or a feared future harm.
Your knowledge of past events can also affect your decision on the level of danger. We have historical evidence that mob attacks can cause death or serious bodily injury. As mentioned, we know that Reginald Denny almost beaten to death on the streets of Los Angeles in 1992. In the summer of 2020, we observed many instances where mobs surrounded and attacked citizens who were perceived by the mob as adversaries. Understanding past violence against motorists can help your articulate why you thought a threat was imminent.
DON'T START THE FIGHT If you are the initial aggressor, you may not be able to use self-defense as justification for your actions. Be careful in words and action when you are engaging with the crowd. Attempt to de-escalate if time allows. Showing anger and hurling insults will not help the situation; focus on removing yourself from the threat without force, if possible.
In Virginia, an man was sentenced to three years in prison after prosecutors found that he antagonized and threatend the crowd before they attempted to stop his departure in his truck (link). In another case, prosecutors also contended that a driver who was attacked in a protest had instigated the incident. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg stated, “Although Mr. Fernandez claims to have acted in self-defense, our laws distinguish a person protecting himself from an attack from a person who provoked the attack in the first place...Given the evidence uncovered in the past three days, there is probable cause to believe Mr. Fernandez falls in the latter category” (link).
EVALUATING THE THREAT
Below, I go over five cases which represent different levels or types of threat that a motorist may face when in the presence of aggressive crowds. Each one is analyzed with respect to whether the threat justifies force, and if so, what are options to employ to remove yourself from danger.
Case 1: Movement not impeded; No breach; Threats
As you drive down a city street, you notice a crowd has gathered on the sidewalk and it's spilling out onto the roadway. As you pass by, they don't impede your movement, but they shout verbal threats at you.
The key here is that the crowd is not impeding your movement. Move away from the group as soon as feasible. Drive in a manner a reasonable person would under these conditions. In other words, travel at a speed in which you could avoid someone who stepped out in front of you. Try to stay in your lane, but if necessary, use whatever avenue will work to avoid making contact with pedestrians.
The protestors may also hit your vehicle with their hands and toss objects at your car as you pass by. Do not overreact. Even if the objects are making contact with your vehicle, don't stop and get out of the vehicle to confront the crowd; your insurance will cover the damage. Exiting the vehicle will likely escalate the situation and you may then need to use force to extract yourself. Clink here for a case where a man, bearing "wolverine claws," confronts a crowd after his vehicle was hit with and object.
Case 2: Movement impeded; Not surrounding the vehicle; No breach
In some cases, protestors will simply blockade a road by forming a line across it. Protests like this are usually planned and the organizers keep their people disciplined to avoid physical interaction with the drivers. Nevertheless, these situations can cause tempers to flare, especially for drivers who are on a schedule, like this mother who needed to get her child to school on time (Link).
In these cases, the protesters are not an imminent threat; therefore, you aren't justified in using force to remove them. The police will respond to either remove them or re-route the traffic to avoid them. In some cases, drivers have used force to move the protestors, but this is not recommended. In many locales, police and prosecutors will see you as the aggressor and will prosecute. Here are a few videos of drivers taking matters into their own hands (Link) (Link)(Link).
Case 3: Movement impeded; Surrounding the vehicle; Threats; No breach
Consider the case where you are driving from work to home on a lawful thorough-fare when you inadvertently turn onto a street with an active protest. Soon, one or more people intentionally place themselves in front of your vehicle and it's clear that their intention is to unlawfully restrict your movement. There is room for the protestors to move aside and allow your vehicle to pass, but they choose to block your movement. Their associates surround you, strike your vehicle with the intent to damage it, and threaten physical violence upon you, but they are not yet attempting to breach your vehicle.
In these circumstances, it's imperative that you do not come off as an aggressive party. Any verbal threats you make will be used by a prosecutor to claim that you initiated the violence, impacting your chances to make a self-defense claim. After watching footage from the 2020 riots, many of the protestors were interviewed after incidents with motorists. Consistently, protestors viewed any vehicle not associated with their group as an immediate threat and, therefore, they had the right and obligation to protect their group by attacking the vehicle and occupants. In some cases, this was unwarranted; the victims had unknowingly found themselves in the midst of a protest and wanted to extract themselves. However, the crowd aggressively closed on the victims, causing them to panic and flee at a high speed, and people were hurt as a result. The protestors could have simply allowed passage and no injuries would have occurred.
Given the above, the crowd will wrongly claim to the media and police that attacking you was act of self-defense on their part. The news headline will claim, "Driver runs through protesters." The media may also portray you as a political extremist (Link).
So what are our options? One option is to stop your vehicle immediately and hope the crowd moves on or the police intervene. Based on the review of video footage, in some cases the crowd becomes even more aggressive once the car stops. The mob then attempts to breach the vehicle and your available options narrow and you must escalate (see Case 4).
One can make the case that by restricting your movement the protestors are violating California Penal Code section 236. False imprisonment is defined as “the unlawful violation of the personal liberty of another.” This means unlawfully restraining, detaining, or confining a person against his or her will. It can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony. Whether its charged as a misdemeanor or a felony is whether the assailant(s) intentionally and unlawfully restrained, confined, or detained someone by violence or menace. “Violence” means using physical force that is greater than the force reasonably necessary to restrain someone. "Menace" means a verbal or physical threat of harm, including the use of a deadly weapon. One should be cautious about using a false imprisonment as a justification to use force, unless it reaches to felony level.
Therefore, in this case above, the crowd is working in concert to surround your vehicle to intentionally imprison you in a menacing manner (felony). A reasonable person could conclude that you are in imminent danger.
With a motor vehicle, you have a way to regulate the degree of force applied. It is not an "all or nothing choice," i.e. the choices aren't to stay in place or "floor it" with the accelerator. One option is to move forward SLOWLY and STEADILY while honking your horn to indicate that you wish to move away from the area. By going slowly, you allow time for people in front of your vehicle to safely move out of the way. If they refuse to do so, this indicates additional resolve to imprison you. The goal of this action is to convince the perpetrators to disengage from you. You have given individuals an opportunity to remove themselves from potential injury. Again, use a measured movement to allow time for individuals to move out of the way. In an incident in Detroit, a police vehicle accelerated and decelerated rapidly rather than a slow and steady escape (Link). This is course of action has a higher potential for causing injuries.
However, in some cases the attacker may attempt to stop your car by pushing into it in an attempt to stop the forward movement, laying under the wheels, or climbing upon the hood. A reasonable person should conclude that any injury an aggressor sustains as a result these actions during your lawful movement is due to his actions. Click the link to see a protester sit on the hood of a CHP vehicle attempting to leave the scene.
In addition, keeping your vehicle in motion, even in slow motion, makes it significantly more difficult for the mob to breach a window and attempt to pull you out from the vehicle.
It's important to note that even moving slowly with your vehicle, providing ample time for people to move out the way, a judge or jury may still find that this is the use of deadly force, regardless of your speed. Therefore, you should be able to articulate why you felt deadly force was justified if you use your vehicle to make a way through a violent crowd.
Case 4: Movement impeded; Breach
When a mob impedes your movement, surrounds your vehicle, and then attempts to gain access to the interior of the vehicle, then the stakes are much higher. A broken window or an open door opened provides unfettered access to your body. Upon a breach of the vehicle, the time-line is now compressed; a significant injury can occur to you in seconds. If the protestors are carrying sticks, rocks, or other instruments, you are vulnerable to blunt force trauma and penetrating wounds which can quickly incapacitate you. A Molotov cocktail or fireworks can also be thrown through a broken window. Both of these can inflict serious bodily injury. You must remove yourself expeditiously from the area before you sustain an injury.
In this scenario it's reasonable to believe that bodily harm or death is imminent. Application of force will likely be necessary to put distance between you and the assailants. The urgency is higher once the vehicle is breached, so it would follow that your speed of departure could be higher than the situation in Case 3 outlined above. If possible, make every effort to avoid hitting anyone in your direction of travel as you depart.
Another option is to use a firearm to defend yourself from harm. You can brandish the weapon and demand that the crowd move away from your vehicle. If you have time, that may be a first step. Unfortunately, when people operate in mobs, they become more courageous and less likely to become intimated, even with a weapon pointed at them. Do not expect the introduction of a firearm to cause them to stop their attack. If you decide to fire the weapon at someone threatening you with harm, it may cause some to flee; however, this may enrage the mob even further and can increase the level of violence. The crowd may draw their own firearms and begin to shoot at you. The key is to put distance between you and the attacker so driving away might be a better option than drawing a firearm. Here is a video of a group attacking a woman in her vehicle.
Case 5: Threatened by a weapon
In the cases above, we saw that measured force could be applied where there was an imminent threat of bodily harm or death; the mob surrounded your vehicle, issued threats, and/or breached the windows. The next level in aggression by the mob is use of weapons. Examples may be an aggressor throwing a brick, attempting to stab you with a stick, or pointing a firearm at you. In these situations, we must quickly incapacitate the threat, move away from the threat rapidly, or both. You will need to evaluate several factors to decide which course of action to take in this situation. In our VCAT 3 class, we discuss and demonstrate some methods to address these scenarios. Even if armed, it may be faster to drive away than to draw and fire your weapon. In Utah, a protestor fired two rounds at a driver who was able to avoid injury by accelerating away from the crowd (Link).
Based on current California self-defense law, someone drawing a weapon on you should be clearly justified as self-defense. However, you can't guarantee how the police, prosecutors, and jury will judge your particular set of circumstances in this politically-charged environment. In 2020, in Texas, Daniel Perry shot Garrett Foster in a protest after the mob surrounded his vehicle. Foster was armed with an AK-47 (legally under Texas law) and stood in front of Perry's vehicle. Perry claimed that after stopping his vehicle, Foster raised the rifle in his direction which prompted him to shoot Foster. However, fellow protestors counter Perry's story and declared that Foster didn't raise his weapon. In 2020, a Texas Grand Jury Indicted Perry for murder and the case is currently being adjudicated (Link).
DEALING WITH THE POLICE AFTER AN INCIDENT
The guidelines below should be used before speaking to the police after any violent encounter, whether at a protest or otherwise. You must protect yourself from activists in the media and government who wish to use your case for political expediency. Never give a statement to the press and speak cautiously to law enforcement.
After a violent incident, you should immediately contact the authorities as soon as it is safe to do so. You want to identify yourself as a victim of a crime before the aggressors report you and claim victimhood. In the initial 911 call, provide a five-part statement :
My name is ______ and I live at _______.
I was attacked (describe the individuals and overall nature of attack).
Where the incident occurred and where evidence may be located.
Identify persons who were witnesses.
"I will speak with my attorney and I’m going to wait until he/she arrives to give a statement and/or sign a complaint."
If you are contacted by an officer before speaking with an attorney, state the following:
I WANT MY LAWYER PRESENT BEFORE I ANSWER ANY QUESTIONS AND UNTIL THEN, I INVOKE MY RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT
I DO NOT CONSENT TO A SEARCH OF MY PERSON OR MY PROPERTY
As of writing this in the Summer of 2022, protests have been relatively calm in the United States, but don't become complacent because riots can be instigated by political groups in short order. Upcoming mid-term/presidential elections or any other politically charged event can serve as a flashpoint for more volatility. Prepare yourself now by seeking out self-defense training.