What is a working (i.e., preppable) definition of “civil unrest” or disorder?

One discussion I find less satisfying in these forums is the occasional reference to civil unrest. Obviously these events happen with some frequency, but I don’t see any clear definitions of what this is, what kinds of specific threat it presents, and so on. Of course one of the problems with protests is that they can inspire fear and anger in observers, so one implied definition seems to be “political protests I don’t agree with.” In keeping with the rationalist approach of this site I’d like to have a discussion that’s more specific about the issue. This is especially important given rising social tensions and uncertainties.

Wikipedia has a reference list of events in the US. There’s other info about other western countries on line too. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_incidents_of_civil_unrest_in_the_United_States

If you read through a few of the entries within the last 20 years, there are some common characteristics:

– They don’t emerge out of nowhere, meaning they’re usually preceded by a call to protest or other action by the actors, with dates and locations given.

– Spontaneous riots are relatively rare, and even then are often anticipated by police (sports events, controversial criminal cases, etc.).

– They very rarely spread outside a small area (a few city blocks, an industrial site, a politically charged memorial).

– They burn out within a days or weeks.

– Most of the time, they appear larger and worse in media/social media than they do up close.

So, in our recent experience with unrest in the West, there has never been an incident where every region of a city erupted into chaos, where a government collapsed, where vital infrastructure was destroyed, or where large numbers of bystanders were injured. But property damage, especially to non-involved parties has been significant and reprehensible at times.

I’ve taken part in protests myself (environmental) and have never wanted anything to get out of hand. I’ve also observed protests or large disturbances (sports events) that threatened to get out of hand, and just stayed away. I was safe after moving about two blocks away.

I am absolutely not deriding anyone who fears this kind of disorder, but I do think we should have some way of understanding how real the threat is, and how extensive it can be (number of people, geographic scope, amount of damage if any, etc.).


  • Comments (16)

    • 3

      I think of the continuum like this: protest ->civil unrest -> violence.

      Movement from protest to violence is not automatic or guaranteed and the vast majority of protests in the West are peaceful.

      Most people would associate ‘civil unrest’ with some sort of illegal activity, i.e, refusal to disperse after a marching permit’s terms expired, blocking roadways with vehicles or tires, intimidating passerby up to burning cars (French protestors love to do this for some reason), looting and burning businesses and assaulting disfavored people (minorities, foreigners, Jews, Christians and members of political parties).

      Peaceful protest can lead to civil unrest 3 ways: a small subgroup within the protestors changes the focus of the protest away from ideas and towards specific people, the speaker or leader directs action towards the ’cause of our trouble’ and last, an unrelated event among the protest area like a car accident, is blamed on ‘them’. Confusion leads to inflamed emotions – and then someone throws a punch. All of this can be spontaneous or directed by someone.

      I have personal experience with violent group dynamics from my youth and have stayed away from almost every large protest since then. Undisciplined young men (among others) can become feral in groups very fast.

      To ovoid this, I keep up with the news and plan my travel around protests or situations that may lead to civil unrest. For example, if there will be a protest in the nearby town I shop in on weekends I will go at 5am and get out or wait a week. I NEVER ‘wanna see’ what’s going on with that large loud group over there… Don’t be that person that says ‘I never read the news’.

      If my wife and I are seemingly caught up in something going on and the vibe feels bad we move perpendicular to the flow and get out of Dodge.

      You have to listen to your spidey sense or gut and act accordingly. One of the best books to read to understand this is The Gift of Fear by Gavin DeBecker. The true stories in the book make it difficult to read but it will teach you how good your gut really is at alerting you to possible or impending violence.

    • 5

      Good question that merits more attention as people play toy soldier and storm places of worship, federal and national buildings, etc. – armed and dangerous.

      Wikipedia reflects crowd-sourced data that is not checked by experts or academics, although a small handful of editors have either of those backgrounds, so Wiki is not a strong source of information. It’s an ok starting point. Check Academia.edu for open source articles and Google Scholar for more on the issue if that’s your thing. 

      I’m trained as an academic and have survived “civil unrest” under communist regimes that our family fled and civil unrest in Los Angeles. Civil unrest is not necessarily tied to protests, peaceful or otherwise, but to the growing collapse of perceived democracy and civil rights. Without getting into a political discussion about the various perceptions of unrest, typically civil unrest occurs as a response to failing democratic institutions. For example, the IRA rose in North Ireland only after the Catholics, the majority of whom were centrist, welcomed the British thinking they would come rescue the Catholics from the Protestants, who were opening fire on Catholics. Instead, the British beat up the Catholics, which radicalized them and forced the center to move to one extreme, so the Catholics supported the IRA, even though they didn’t like it. In the 1960s to the 1980s, the “years of lead” in Italy saw rising violence and bombings in response to rising far-right politics that took hold in Italy as a back lash to 25 years of unresolved political scars after 20 years of fascism. “Unrest” looked like car bombings, street on street random violence, pulling people out of their homes, not like window smashing and chaos agents after protests. Similarly, in the U.S. during the 1890s, some white nationalists felt displaced by rising black wealth, so they dragged black people out of their homes, as well as their allies, and “took over” the town and people’s homes. America has a particular history of civil unrest that is not usually taught in school – and very dangerous. 

      Barbara F. Walters, an academic from UCSD, who wrote “How Civil Wars Start,” outlines the the various factors that lead to “civil unrest” which is related to civil war. Civil war is harder to define as a term. But, at least in North America, civil unrest could look like people bombing a school board meeting, dragging people out of their houses based on their voter’s registration (something far-right groups like the Oath Keepers and Patriots have proposed on the internet), storming state houses, book bans, unqualified parents checking teacher’s teaching plans (Florida), etc. Things like collapsing bodily autonomy can lead to wider unrest. When women couldn’t secure bread for their families during the late 1700s in France, women stormed the Bastille – largely considered the trigger shot that began the complex mechanisms leading to the French Revolution. As previously reasonable people grow more afraid, they may grow more extreme in their response by adopting extremists views. 

      Another academic whose work you might find interesting on this topic is Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert in fascism and authoritarianism. 

      While both academics offer more leftists solutions to issues inherent within questions of civil unrest and war, both outline what leads to unrest and what to look for. I can tell you I see a lot of the same mistakes being made all over again at both the federal and state levels in the U.S. Canada isn’t far behind, and there is a possibility that as climate change gets worse, the U.S. could invade our northern neighbor on false grounds as a way to steal resources. 

      I say all this and prepping for civil unrest is not a major prep for our family beyond measures that make sense anywhere: basic home security, fence, beam lights, bags in multiple locations, etc. If it’s coming, you’ll see it coming a few days or hours in advance. When we lived in Los Angeles, I remember riots shutting down the main street near our home a block away, but never entering residential areas like everyone assumed. We bugged in and were fine. A bunch of chaos agents descending into the city from surrounding areas breaking and stealing from stores. It will look differently in more rural areas, although civil unrest in a lot of histories are preceded by purity tests, political extremism, and unchecked branches of gov’t growing too powerful and overwhelming centrists’ ability or willingness to address them in realtime.

      Expect more unrest as climate change, which is beyond debate here, will overwhelm society’s ability to adapt. 

      • 2

        “dragging people out of their houses based on their voter’s registration …”

        Ah Jeez, Renata, that is exactly the kind of thing I think about. Not mere political protest and a few molotovs on symbolic targets, but localized ethnic cleansing and political purge. 

        I don’t see that imminent but have long since concluded that it could indeed happen here. Not to put too fine a point on it but although I’ve voted in most every election since I was 18, I don’t in Missouri.

      • 2

        Yeah, I think about this as a I tuck my toddler in and think some more whenever I watch people slow down in their cars passing in our neighborhood. 

        In the U.S., at least, I’m concerned about political purges at every level imaginable and neighbor-on-neighbor violence. 

        I’ve considered changing party affiliation to independent if only to scrub traces of our beliefs so we don’t get targeted. In Florida, voter registration is public information, which undermines privacy, IMO.

        Not to scare the hell out of you, but this is what happened to our family necessitating asylum in the U.S. – my mother was dragged out of our home when I was 3 years old and disappeared for a month as political retribution. She’s ok, but when people think it can’t happen in North America, I have to disagree and send academic info on similar events here. 

      • 1

        I’m not sure there is a clear cut definition of “civil unrest” that would translate across all international borders. The last major civil unrest in the UK would probably be the London riots of 2011 which started after the shooting of Mark Duggan. Much of the rioting was manufactured and inflamed by virtue signalling on social media. Because of encouragement on social media and the perception that looting would go unpunished the rioting spread to several other cities as people who didn’t give a tinker’s damn about the original reason for the protest took advantage of the situation to steal, vandalise, loot and burn.

        I live in quite an isolated part of Wales but watched with horror, shame and incredulity at the way otherwise civilised people acted when they thought they were beyond the rule of law. Make no mistake, on TV I saw shop keepers banding together to defend their shops (often with their homes above them) Bigger stores and franchises where looted and burned if left undefended.
        This proves to me that when the chips are down it is up to you to defend you and yours, if you can organise and defend your community then all the better but don’t count on any outside help from police or national guard until the pressure is off. They will be busy elsewhere defending the interests of big money.

      • 3

        Renata, your comment regarding Ireland was not completely factual. Missing out the entire cause and effect around the time of the Easter uprising gives a very squewed perspective. Bad blood on both sides has caused decades of pain, loss of life, stolen childhoods but at least now they’re mainly fighting with words and not bombs or bullets. Ireland is still healing.
        I have a very mixed background with family over Wales, Northern Ireland and France (all with opposing and quite extreme religious beliefs) and I know that you can’t throw comments like “the British beat up the Catholics” without stirring extreme emotions on both sides. In actual fact the Black and Tans where mainly Irishmen not English soldiers, more like constables or militia…not that it makes what happened any better but facts matter.

      • 2

        You’re absolutely right, Joker. Things are far more nuanced than I listed them. The same with the other examples I gave. Unfortunately, there’s not enough time in the day with said tiny human running around, so I gave the very clipped version of events. Thank you for pointing out the nuances. 

        Our family is healing from civil unrest in our former country. Our family is also mixed: Romanian/Hungarian/Russian. Those kind of experiences haunt you always, so I hear you. 

      • 3

        You hit on some of the points I wanted to make on this, Renata, particularly that I suspect that when preppers talk about “civil unrest,” they’re likely talking about different things. For some, I suspect it is a euphemism for “political protests I don’t agree with that freak me out” (as Frozen22 suggests), and based on an overblown sense of the danger or portent of… being in the same town as people who protest against things you happen to like.

        I suspect for others (particularly in the U.S.) it is more about plummeting trust in democratic institutions (or really, existing public institutions, period) and the prospect that we’re on the road to something more like civil war. I suspect that for some, talking about “prepping for civil unrest” is a way of gingerly stepping toward that ledge and trying to peek over to see if the drop appears survivable.

        And yeah, @Renata and @Pops, “dragging people out of their houses based on their voter registration” is also something I genuinely fear in the U.S. :/

      • 2

        There is a news article that I have saved that I probably shouldn’t post here because it clearly shows some members of one particular political party doing something wrong and I don’t know if that would be against the rules of this site, but it is a clear reminder to me of what could happen.

        So there is a group of supporters for a political candidate, who took public voting records and if they felt like a particular person had voted against their candidate, went to that person’s house and questioned the home owners about who they voted for and took pictures of their home. Some of these members were armed and used government-like badges while doing this. 

        Definitely a small minority but it has happened and was scary for me to read about.

    • 5

      This is one of my greatest concerns but it is very much political so I rarely go there, here.

      There is a difference in my mind between protest, even when it becomes violent and the directed, intentional violence of an insurgency. Terrorism is by definition directed violence as political tool.

      I grew up in the 60’s & 70s, there was a lot of violence from the left, lots of  terrorism. Kids, mostly, were unhappy about the war, Jim Crow, the environment, a repressive, paternalistic government, etc. The ’68 Democratic convention was a melé, not least because the Democratic party itself was in turmoil over the war and as a result of Southerners defecting to Nixon’s strategy. But the protests and terrorism (at least 2,000 bombings) led to the government actually taking the cue and implementing change.

      Yet, those kids and almost 80% of Americans had confidence in our elections. Today that percentage has been flipped on its head—only 20% trust our process. Only 9% of Republicans. And 10% of the country, 30 million people, believe violence is called for Right Now.

      Much of the decline in confidence began with Vietnam and Johnson, then Watergate, and on and on. But recently the difference is an entire ecosystem built on misinformation, starting perhaps on Jump-The-Shark talk radio then one-upping with the “birther” conspiracy propaganda, all funded funded to a large extent by corporations and individuals in search of lower taxes and less regulation.

      Until now, The Big Lie has done untold damage to our most fundamental strength, the voluntary and peaceful concession of power.

      Everything else we can either deal over or deal with but we can’t function as we have for 250 years (with notable exception) if we can’t accept that our neighbors get a say even if it is different from our own

      I don’t worry about young or poor or minority people protesting—they have no power— that is why they’re out there. It is the older and richer people who have political power but just don’t want to share it that I worry about.

      • 2

        Everything else we can either deal over or deal with but we can’t function as we have for 250 years (with notable exception) if we can’t accept that our neighbors get a say even if it is different from our own.

        Endorse!! Viewing one’s political opponents as subhuman and disposable doesn’t make for a healthy society or a functioning democracy.

        Annnd I think that is all I can say without breaking the politics rule or drawing false equivalencies (except perhaps that something being more prevalent or worse in one faction doesn’t make it innocuous in the other).

    • 4


      There are some things posted here that I disagree with AND THAT’S OK. No one has to be cancelled, fired from any employment for the rest of their natural life or chased out of Walmart, Burger King or anywhere else.

      But if we want to be prepared to react appropriately to civil unrest, we need to have a broad view of our political, economic and social fabric. I am not talking about Fox News vs CNN/MSNBC; that’s just a start.

      If I am concerned about food inflation and shortages because that is a well known reason for people to fight, loot and riot, I need to know more about why they are occurring than simply ‘Putin’s Inflation’. All sources say this inflation in our country is due to international events. So I need to listen to broader opinions than ABC/CBS/NBC/MSNBC/FOX. Thinkers like Justin Ramondo (RIP)/Antiwar-dot-com, Pepe Escobar/thecradle-dot-co, Marwan Bishara/aljazeera-dot-com and other serious writers from outside the USA.

      It doesn’t matter if I disagree with their opinions or not, they will have facts (real facts) and primary sources I may need to keep tabs on to develop my understanding of the big picture. My understanding of more sides to the questions of today give me a better foundation to gauge if oil and food prices are really coming down or are likely to stay high.

      If this leads me to think food inflation and shortages will continue and worsen (I am leaning this way) I may want to start shopping at 5am when possible. I should also walk every aisle to see what’s on the shelves or not. If something is in short supply, like baby formula, I should ask a manger how that’s going and lead the conversation to see how the shortages are going in general. It doesn’t matter if I don’t need baby formula, I want to know what they think.

      I need to really, really know how to get home from each major shopping area and store from every parking lot exit – North, South, East and West.

      I need to be sure I slip my Anker 10000 mAh cell battery and cable in my pocket when I am shopping. Buy gas in my small town and never in the small city I go to shop. Continue to shop online even though I like shopping in the stores again. Asking my kids what’s going on locally on Facebook. Be confident I can protect myself while shopping.

      Being prepared for civil unrest is about building a better intelligence network and lowering my attack surface.

      • 3

        This: “Being prepared for civil unrest is about building a better intelligence network and lowering my attack surface.”

        Came to agree on this point. We’re still newish to our area and without having built up some social capital locally, I would have no idea half of what happens since local news is so underfunded. 

        Our family reads global papers from all over if only to compare and contrast how things are framed within and without the U.S. Foreign press always has interesting takes, though I am less inclined to follow individual journalists. 

        My greatest concern of all is how to bring people back to the center from all walks of life rather than horse shoe extremism on either end. 

      • 1

        Another reason to expect unrest and war, in the past fractured nations have been united by a common enemy. For example the UK is still fractured over Brexit but we all despise what Putin is doing in Ukraine. I can see NATO getting dragged further into tactical conflict. Outwardly to satisfy the narrative that Putin’s war is evil, but also to consolidate political stability. 

        I’m sorry if this sounds too political but it is meant to illustrate a more historical view. History tends to repeat itself.

    • 1
    • 3

      I watch a lot of webinars, so I end up on a lot of email lists, and any time some kind of “civil unrest” is mentioned, it’s the George Floyd/BLM protests from 2020, not any actual “terrorist” threats that might come from say, racist and or nationalist militias, and the like, which often target individuals or groups for harassment or violence. These types of emails or comments under Youtube videos made me question whether it’s actually safer in rural areas or small towns, vs the cities. And I think for women, as opposed to men, maybe neither cities nor smaller localities, are actually “safe” in the real sense, since women are often attacked by their own partners, or end up being stalked, or other issues, that men rarely have to deal with on that level. Look at what happened with Gabby Petito, living the Nomad Van Life and online, where she wound up being choked to death by her boyfriend/fiance, in a national park. There are different kinds of safe out there.

      As for protests, 2020 is the first time I’ve been aware of “evening” protests. I always thought they were done in the morning or afternoon, even if they blocked traffic or some other kind of ‘annoying’ action. Though I guess I did a short protest in the evening once, but it was intended to be short and then break up, which it did. These long, extended protests are new to me in terms of awareness. Even without bad actors instigating incidence or violence or damage, the “family friendly” flavor of a protest is naturally going to change and just get weirder the later it gets, probably. 

      Civil unrests related to lack of water, food, or fuel could crop up here and there. I’m not sure it would happen on a mass scale, but you never know. It’s also possible we’ll end up with people spending all their time in bread lines if they have to in order to feed themselves/their families. And speaking of bread lines, that one protest involving trucks in Canada (many of which were not actual Canadian truckers, 95% of which did their normal jobs), had people using the street as their bathroom and they high-jacked food pantries meant for homeless Vets and the like. And this is under relatively stable conditions, stable for a few years into a global pandemic, that is.

      My parents lived in one of the cities that had protests and property destruction break out in the evening. They were far enough away from the action to be safe where they were. But they did not like either the violent turn of businesses getting burned down or the suddenly big police/national guard presence in town. Protests and reactions to protests have their down sides. It’s probably better if they remain more local than have people floating in from both sides of the aisle or anarchists coming in all for their own purposes and actions. People who sign up for protests might be told the rules for behavior during the protest ahead of time, and act accordingly (BLM protests were mostly peaceful). Outside high-jackers aren’t necessarily going to come in following the established rules or marching locations, etc. 

      Mob behavior and mob violence isn’t the same as protest ‘violence’ but might be more dangerous. A crowd that turns into a mob has become a different beast. 

      One other thing about large numbers of people to watch out for is just how long it may take to travel anywhere, or find parking yourself, or watch out for pedestrians. We had an air show here recently, and I did not take that into account going into the bigger city (I guess I’m in a surrounding smaller city). Once you got near the beach and park areas, traffic slowed to a crawl, and it was in areas I usually regarded as easy parking, too, ha ha. You may think you know an area, but once it’s stuffed with people and cars, it’s slower and more difficult to travel through, and this was on a nice day where people were happy to be there.