Riots and Civil Unrest in America, by B.B. in California

I am writing this article not to glorify what I have seen, but perhaps to make some of you think about some unknowns.  I am a U.S. Army veteran who served in the 1980s, and when I honorably discharged I was recruited into law enforcement at a termination of service briefing at Fort Irwin, California.  From there I went into law enforcement in Los Angeles for over 20 years and never looked back.  I am writing this article because many people are writing about living through and how to survive civil unrest (I am sorry, a riot is a riot no matter what you call it), but I don’t think many of the readers can comprehend what it is like.

The Los Angeles riots in 1992 were some of the craziest times I have ever lived through, and even my military background didn’t prepare me for what we saw.  I am not here to talk politics or why the riots kicked off; I am only here to write about what I witnessed and give the readers of a glimpse of what happened from the eyes of a young man.

Mob Mentality.  When dealing with people during the riots in Los Angeles, many of the people we were dealing with had no idea why they were rioting.  They were merely opportunists who were taking advantage of free stuff that was being looted from any store that was not guarded.  And when I say guarded, I mean seriously guarded (more on this later).  The mob mentality meant that if someone was looting a store, everyone with the mentality had to loot the same store before the shelves were empty and they didn’t get their share.  It was almost like a shark feeding frenzy with no real purpose.  But, in the middle of this, there were people pointing to different buildings saying, “Burn that one” or other orders.  Those people had a purpose, and loot wasn’t it.

I mention this because whenever if and when civil unrest hits again for whatever purpose, you can bet that this will probably be the case again.  During civil unrest, if you try to analyze the event with rational thought, you will not be able to figure out the smallest detail let alone the big picture.  There is no order or sense of order, and for most Americans that is a place that no one really thinks about.  Crime was happening all around us, but there really wasn’t a crime trend or purpose for it other than violence itself.  If you are reading this and are saying to yourself, “This idiot doesn’t know how to write and he is not making sense!”, then you are grasping what I am saying.  The most dangerous people in the riots were the opportunists.  They saw an opportunity and went for it.  Whether that opportunity was revenge on an enemy that could be blamed on some random act of violence, or that big screen TV that he had been wanting for a while down at the local electronics store. 

The opportunists seized the initiative for whatever their purpose was, and then blamed everything that followed suit on the violence of the day.  The thugs knew how to survive and knew what they wanted and how to get it through violence and crime.  The unfortunate good people really suffered from this as they turned out to be victims in many cases.  This is very short sighted thinking by the thugs, because over the next few weeks, there was nowhere to shop for necessities after the neighborhood was burned to the ground.  And yes, there were food lines shortly thereafter.  In a total collapse, this means these same thugs are coming to a neighborhood near you.

Looting.  When the looting began in 1992, there were several places and things that went first.  Booze, cigarettes, and diapers (yes diapers).  All three items are not available for purchase with food stamps, and other than the diapers, were for partying and having a good time.  As the violence spread pharmacies were raided and burned, not for diabetic or asthma medication, but for pain killers and other drugs that could be used for pharmaceutical recreation.  In the aftermath of the initial looting, if someone was caught in a pharmacy getting the necessary meds for asthma or diabetes, they were probably left alone since they were just trying to survive (I am not saying I witnessed this, but I heard rumors of such).    

I mention this because food stayed on the shelves for a fairly long time all things considered.  Eventually food began to get looted, but that was really only after the new pair of “hip shoes” or big screen televisions were already off the shelves.  Its like when a hurricane is coming and people are rushing out of their homes carrying the television.  The television has no real purpose for survival, but people cling to those possessions, and in the riots were the first things looted.  I have read many articles here on that continues to tell people to stock up on meds, and I cannot agree more.  It was my experience though that the initial meds that were looted from the pharmacies were for recreation, not health.  If that holds true again, the meds you need might still be there after the initial looting begins.   I am not advocating looting, hopefully there will be a worker that braved rioting to come and be a cashier at a store so you can buy what you failed to stock up on, but I doubt it.

Communications and 9-1-1.  During the riots, my squad of 12 people was issued only two radios because it soon became apparent that there was not enough equipment to go around.  Only the squad leader and assistant squad leader had any forms of communications with dispatch.  These problems have been addressed since then, but they were major concerns at the time.  As they continued to spilt us up on foot at first in order to “show a command presence” with two officers at a street corner. It was then that I made a stupid call against better judgment and called out 50+ looters in a moment of anger.  They accepted and the next thing I knew I was being chased down the street by a large crowd.  Just before we began to run, since neither me nor my partner had a police radio, we called 9-1-1 on a pay phone on the corner for help as we started running.  There was no help to be had for us, and we were on our own.  In hindsight, I was a stupid 24-year-old kid opening his big mouth in anger and getting his mouth’s debt called in. 

Luckily for me some lieutenant who’s name I never knew, was gathering a strike force to handle the looting in the strip mall I had been watching, was coming down the street with enough manpower that we were able to clear the mall after it was only half looted.  The point is, during civil unrest, 9-1-1 couldn’t even help us officers, let alone someone else on the street.  Communications and 9-1-1 were up and running, but they were paralyzed due to the sheer scope of the violence that was raging in the city.  If mass civil unrest happens in a total collapse, even the safeguards that have been thought of and put in place since those riots will not work as manpower dwindles.  Do not make your plans with any sort of help regarding 9-1-1.  If some comes, consider it a bonus.  I have small hand held radios that have a very short range and a CB radio or two to handle my comms in the event of civil unrest here.  Everyone in the group has one, and we will deal with whatever we need too if the unfortunate time comes. 

Defensible Positions.  If your plan is to stand and fight or go to a retreat and stand and fight, there are things I saw in the riots that worked short term but might not make it long term.  As we patrolled different neighborhoods on foot, we came across several non-burned out buildings in the midst of charred ruins that were once their neighbor’s businesses.  Most of these buildings were built in the slums that had barbed wire and bars on the buildings.  Now, let me continue by saying that I watched as crowds ripped security doors off the tracks and bent bars with sheer strength in numbers to get into a business that had what they wanted, so these security features alone did not stop the crowds.  On the surviving buildings, there had been [armed] men on top of them and I observed several fired shell casings around the buildings.  We chatted with those brave men and women inside their little fortresses and they were determined to keep their businesses and property from being looted and burned.  As the violence spread, we were pulled from two man teams standing on street corners to full squads and strike forces being sent in to stop the violence and looting.

When the fire departments (and I say departments plural because mutual aid was called in and we had fire departments from everywhere trying to help us) were putting the fires out around the city some of the rioters, I will be kind in my language here, began shooting at the fire trucks and injuring the firemen as they tried to prevent the city from burning.  This was a further drain on our resources as we now had to provide escorts for fire brigades in the city as the fire departments drove from fire to fire.  An interesting note is that on several locations the fire captain would pull up to a strip mall and make an on spot decision whether or not the buildings could be saved with the manpower that he had available right then–a sort of fire department triage if you will.  If he didn’t think he could save the building with what he had, they let the building burn and moved on.  Welcome to the realities of civil unrest.

Now I bring this all together for a reason.  If you remember the news clips of Korean business owners guarding the fire trucks and fire fighters as they risked their lives in the fires and rioters shooting at them, then you are probably as old as me.  Those brave business owners came out to help us as we tried to save their businesses and livelihoods, and restored my faith in humanity at the same time.  What the news reels didn’t show was that probably half of those former Republic of Korea soldiers were guarding the firemen with toy guns that they had pulled off the shelves and took the orange tips out of the barrels.  The other half were using real weapons. And with the amount of fired brass and blood that I saw around some of those buildings, they meant business.  Like I said earlier, for a short term solution where we were able to restore order in a few days this bluff worked great.  For a long term solution, this is suicide.  But if there is a softer nut to crack down the street, and they are not as determined to defend (as the brave Korean business men had been), then the looters will probably go elsewhere as long as order is restored quickly.  For a total collapse, if you are going to stand and defend, good luck and make sure you are well-stocked and don’t bluff.

Weapons and Ammo.  There are plenty of articles on this sight about weapons, so I will make this one fairly brief.  As I was shipped off to the hot zones in a transit bus (we had run out of police cars and yes, I went to combat as the passenger in a transit bus), I loaded a spare box of 9mm and some 12 gauge rounds wrapped in a rubber band in my radio holder since I wasn’t issued a radio.  My squad mates laughed at me until people who were already running around in the middle of the riot were begging for spare ammo.  I didn’t even have a shotgun when I went down there, but I knew there would be plenty lying around with no ammo if things went south, which it did. 

Now, I am not going to get into what round is better or which firearm you need to buy for your retreat.  That is a personal choice and one that you have to make for yourself.  I personally have a .45 for myself and 9mms for the rest of my family.  I have two small girls and my wife is only five feet tall on a good day and they cannot handle the .45 with any great accuracy, but there is another reason for the 9mms.  That is the round that the local Sheriff’s Dept uses where we live.  This means that they should, and I stress should, have extra rounds stockpiled in case of emergency.  Unless you want to wait out everything in a hole or retreat, and by the way that is not a bad idea, if you come out and support the local law enforcement officers be sure that you have weapons that are compatible with what they are carrying.  The best .45 in the world is nothing but an expensive club if you have nothing to run through it.  If order can be restored and you helped, you will have made friends for life (any vet will tell you that friends made in combat are friends for life, no matter what their political, religious or personal backgrounds are).  If things go to total feces storm, then that may be one last chance to resupply before heading to the hills, retreat or hole that you are planning to defend.  I know weapons and ammo are nothing new to the readers on this site, but maybe the last statement could be the deciding factor for a new reader on which weapon to buy.  Always keep your options open.  

Another interesting note on weapons and ammo was that when the National Guard was first called out the responded with empty weapons.  That’s right, no ammo!  We were giving guardsmen what we could spare from our own dwindling supplies, but we couldn’t believe the State sent them in with no cartridges (in hindsight and much more experience under my belt in dealing with the many idiots in government, I totally believe it now), but once again not many people would choose to charge a National Guard position to see if their rifles are empty.

First Aid Supplies.  Most small car first aid kits were gone in a day due to minor injuries from rocks, bottles and other small projectiles and fights.  Since then, every officer is issued a trauma kit to keep in his/her war bag (a police bug out bag that we carry in the trunk of the car).  Again, I am only talking civil unrest, not long term survival, but whatever first aid supplies that you think you will need, triple it.  Band-Aids and supplies for small cuts have to be changed frequently to prevent infection, and let me tell you, you will run out quickly. 

Hospitals.  Hospitals were not really affected other than the number of people that had to be treated due to the violence in the riot.  I figured the looters were try and storm hospitals for pain meds and other supplies, but that was not the case.  But like I said, this was a short term riot, and for long term riots or total collapse, I fear these places will be looted quickly. 

We learned many lessons in the riots in 1992, but the best lesson that was learned was humility.  We were humbled into facing that we could not handle any and everything that was thrown at us.  In civil unrest, you will have to rely on everything that you have and I am telling you now that it is not enough.  You will have to come together with people, and not just your close friends, but maybe that neighbor you hate just to survive.  Once the fires start, it will quickly get out of control.  In Los Angeles, we have one of the best if not the best fire dept in the world, and they were simply overwhelmed by the sheer number of fires that were set.  The whole city was burning and I can only imagine the hell that the people of Dresden and Tokyo went through in WWII.  If you are in an area with brush or fire hazards, just know that there probably won’t be much help coming your way. 

Have a plan, make sure everyone in your house has a bug-out bag, be sure you are supplied, have a weapon and be prepared to defend yourself and your family.  You need understand that when the mob mentality kicks in, the person who was singing in church last week may not be the same person in front of you this week.  I saw the worst brought out in good people, and while the Los Angeles riots were huge, they are nothing in contrast to a total collapse.  Look at what happened in Haiti when they were hit with a major earthquake or New Orleans when Katrina hit.  In combat, you know your enemy.  In civil unrest, everyone could be your enemy.  And not just for simple profit, but for survival unless order is restored.

Hopefully some of your readers will gain from this article a glimpse of what will hopefully never come again, but I fear is brewing.  Nothing is set in stone. Be prepared to be fluid with anything that is thrown your way.