Safety During Rallies/Marches/Protests/Etc...

Hello all! I looked for a previous post along these lines but was unsuccessful, so if I am repeating, please forgive me!! Recently there was another "outbreak" of protests in major European cities regarding the government, economy and the like. I think this episode was tame in comparison to some in the past, but there is always the threat of things going from mild to wild in a short period of time. My question is, what do you do when these protests/marches/etc... occur? I mean, obviously running toward or lingering in that area is not a good idea, but outside of the obvious, what is your usual plan? Are these things announced in advanced so one can stay clear of that area that day? Do you cancel your plans and just stay in? Have you been in a situation where the civil environment around you changed suddenly or were you in a situation where going to the Embassy/Consulate seemed like a good idea? My sister and I leave in about 26 days to spend 2 months in Europe, one in Florence and one in Madrid. Based on recent history, I am more concerned with the "civil unrest" (and I use the term loosely) in Madrid. So I am trying to think and plan ahead a little (without being paranoid) so that I can be somewhat prepared and ensure the safety of me and the Little Sis. This probably isn't a question I would have asked a few years ago, but things have changed, and I believe that while it shouldn't prevent one from traveling, a little forethought goes a long way.
Any feedback would be much appreciated!

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
24193 posts

Monique, I never really worry about local demonstrations too much. I try to gauge the "risk factor" if I encounter one, and that determines whether I'll leave the area or stay nearby. I've encountered large demonstrations in Rome, Greece and other countries, and those didn't seem especially "risky" so I stayed in the area. I typically find a nice restaurant in the vicinity and have a fine hot meal. By the time I'm having my after dinner coffee, the crowd has usually moved to another part of the city. If I happened to be in an area where a serious demonstration was taking place to the point where tear gas was being deployed and riot Police were cracking heads, I'd simply leave the area and tour somewhere else. These things are often somewhat "localized". Did the "recent protests" you were referring to take place this week? Those might have been May Day demonstrations, which happen every year. Seattle seemed to have a somewhat severe problem with those yesterday in the downtown core. Happy travels!

Posted by pat
victoria, Canada
9476 posts

Monique, I have been in Paris when there was a protest, not even sure what it was about , lol I just kind of stood back and watched the march and then walked away. I think that would be my plan in most cases, just walk the other way.
I don't think that you are going to encounter anything that would send me to the consulate, that's a bit extreme for Europe don't you think, lol its not like a foreign power is going to stage a coup.

Posted by Monique
Pittsburgh, PA, USA
605 posts

@Pat: yes, on thinking about it, running to the Consulate does sound like overkill! - I would even do it in slow motion just to add to the melodrama haha! Yes, I was referring to May Day - I didn't realize it was an annual thing, which actually makes me feel somewhat better. When we were in Madrid a couple years ago, there was a huge protest near the Gran Via, but it was related to the school system and although it was late evening, people had their young children with them, so I didn't feel threatened. I mean, how intense can it get with a bunch of 7 year olds? In Lisbon we passed a demonstration where apparently it was lunch time??? - I dunno, but everyone was sitting around reading books...
I think my fear is that something localized will turn city-wide and next thing you know, people are overturning cars and setting garbage cans on fire everywhere you look. But we do have an extra bonus in that we have local friends so that helps a great deal to ease my anxiety.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
24193 posts

Monique, You'll probably have more to worry about with pickpockets and scammers, especially in Madrid (although you'll need to be vigilant in Florence as well). Be sure that you're both wearing Money Belts! The Unemployment rate in Spain in the 19-25 year old group is 52%+, so there's a lot of desperate people out there! You may find it helpful to have a look at this website: Cheers!

Posted by Andre L.
Tilburg, Netherlands
2396 posts

Most protests in Europe are not much different than what happens in US. You can easily avoid areas where it happens. If it is a march, stay indoors in a store or restaurant until it passes. If it is a concentration of people in a plaza or park, walk on the opposite direction. If you are on a street, escape taking some street away from the protesters and you will avoid both the hassle and the annoyance. The only situation that might entice some sort of risk is if you see things like two groups yelling at each other, or police barricades, or things like that. If so, then really make an effort to get out of the way and avoid by any means to be caught between two antagonizing groups. These are tips that work for virtually any non-firearm based confrontation. Be more afraid if you see riot police, dogs or protesters wearing masks or face covers (no peaceful protester go out there concealing identity). Should be obvious, but in any case, as a tourist you should avoid taking pictures over angry demonstrations, as if they were a parade. You might tick off somebody who thinks your are registering participants or who doesn't want to be identified. Then one might try to get your camera or go confronting you. It is very unlikely you'll face some major protest activity and, if so, your hotel will likely know and let its guests informed.

Posted by Zoe
Toledo, Ohio, US
7354 posts

Monique, I don't think you have much to worry about. Yes, organized protests are announced in advance in Italy, your hotel should know if you ask. I've been on-site at many protests and demonstrations in Italy, they are usually rather festive with music, balloons, in addition to the chanted slogans and speeches. I usually watch from the perimeter but I've also taken photos with no problem. There was always a police presence, but I never saw any violence. Take the previous advice to get out of the way and go have a nice drink or meal, you can probably just take a different street to get to your desired destination without walking through the protestors/demonstrators. The word for demonstration in Italian is "Manifestazione" in case you hear it or read it somewhere.

Posted by Douglas
Oak Park, Illinois
3584 posts

Like in the US, most European protests and rallies are quite peaceful and people bring kids and such. The area for concern is usually the troublemakers like anarchists and radicals that are hellbent on causing a riot. Though they can turn an otherwise peaceful march into a small riot, they are usually pretty confined and easy to spot. Or there might be riots in poorer neighborhoods after a shooting or incident, just like in the US. Those are likely to be in places tourists don't venture. A good hotel keeper should be warning you of major protests or areas to avoid if they happen since they are usually planned in advance. You flee to the embassy when there is a coup by an anti-American or anti-Western regime and the entire country dissolves into chaos and violence.

Posted by Beatrix
2205 posts

When I was living in Nancy I actually took the opportunity to hitch a ride on the bus with a group of nurses going to a labour demonstration in Paris. As soon as we arrived in Paris, the nurses went to their demonstration and I went to meet up with friends for lunch in a restaurant. I never got to see any of the demonstration!!! Paris is big and so are the other European capitals. It is very easy to stay away from any demonstration without having to hole up in your hotel room.

Posted by Brad
Gainesville, VA
8186 posts

I generally either try to give them a wide berth or get past them quickly - both because of the chance that they might get out of hand and because I try to avoid crowds in general when I can.

Posted by Fred
San Francisco
5072 posts

Hi, I would agree with having to be more concerned with pickpockets and scammers, as posted above, as something personally affecting you than with local demonstrations, where you happened to be around. You can either keep your distance, watch or leave in another direction. Two of such dmeonstrations I've seen, the more recent one was the reactions to the rigged election in Iran a couple of years ago, the result of which generated protest demonstrations. One took place in Hamburg. Noisy, peaceful but not really that large as I saw them passing by Hamburg Hbf. Another one was a much larger, much noisier night demonstration in Stuttgart that I saw in 1999. I thought at the time they were Kurds. (?) I was on foot, only stuck around a few mins. to watch, since I wasn't interested anyway.

Posted by Monique
Pittsburgh, PA, USA
605 posts

I won't be staying at a hotel. We have rented flats for each city, but we will have WiFi, access to newspapers and such so I will keep my eyes open for "Manifestazione" or, I am guessing in Spanish may be "manifestación"(?). But thanks so much to all of you for your practical replies. They may seem like such simple solutions, but they have REALLY helped me feel much better.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
24193 posts

@Douglas, "You flee to the embassy when there is a coup by an anti-American or anti-Western regime and the entire country dissolves into chaos and violence." Unfortunately, that would have been the WORST place to flee to during the Iran Hostage crisis in 1979.

Posted by Nancy
Bloomington, IL, USA
8735 posts

I landed in Madrid a year ago today. Walking around the next day, I came across a small demonstration in the street in front of the Plaza de Cibeles (city hall). It was a small group of people, maybe 100 all together, chanting and blowing whistles. They blocked traffic for a few minutes, then moved on down the street toward the Prado, keeping to one side in order not to block the cars from driving through. There were a number of Madrid and National policemen on the scene, but they just watched from the sidelines, and seemed to be there as much to protect the demonstration as to control it. The whole thing lasted maybe 30 minutes and then they were gone. Very civilized and very safe for all concerned.

Posted by Sherry
San Jose, CA
1994 posts

All the points folks are making are well taken... civil disruptions are typically localized, you can walk away, there will be lots of police to let you know. Your life is probably in more danger on the freeway at rush hour. If you are truly worried, just develop a contingency plan for what you'll do if you feel unsafe (eg, take the train to Barcelona, or Santiago de Compostella, or...). The one time I was really concerned... a trip to Egypt during the 2nd gulf war... a brought enough cash to buy my way out of the country quickly in case I needed to, and I made sure I had contact info for embassy offices. I figured if things turned ugly, I'd focus on getting a plane/train/bus anywhere else, and that I had enough US dollars for tickets, bribes, etc. And it was the most enjoyable trip I've taken to Egypt... markedly less crowded and people were really glad to see tourists.

Posted by Monique
Pittsburgh, PA, USA
605 posts

@Sherry: I know you are being completely serious, but I chuckled to myself at the thought of telling a newbie traveller that in addition to accommodations, food, and ground transportation, they need to add "bribes" to their budget :) I never thought to plan ahead and look up dates/places that might be triggers. It's a good idea. Lol yes, and very true about the crowds in Florence. I can see myself running away from a "violent demonstration" when in actuality it was merely a tour group from Texas...

Posted by Jim
Bern, Switzerland
520 posts

Hi Monique, Street protests in Europe are nothing new, it's part of our culture. It is how we express our displeasure with the politicians between elections. In Europe, the politicians fear the people and with good reason sometimes. We do not consider it to be 'civil unrest' as you call it - it is normal to us and while it may get a bit out of hand at times, it never really goes that far. It is also not as random as you think, there are traditional routes that the marches follow and if you ask your hotelier, they will be able to tell you when a march is announced and how to avoid it. Just for example, in Dublin marches begin at the Garden of Remembrance, go down O'Connell Street, over O'Connell Bridge, into College Green and finish up at the Dail (house of parliament). The 1st of May is traditionally a marching day and also the one day of the year that the anarchists let loose. Even peaceful Zurich becomes a hot spot with the march down Bahnhofstrasse and yes it often ends with the police firing batton rounds, teargas and water cannon in response to burning cars, smashed windows and so on. But it is easily avoided, simply stay out of the Bahnhofstrasse area on that day. So relax and enjoy your holiday, there is not going to be a revolution while you are over here. Jim (Switzerland).

Posted by Monique
Pittsburgh, PA, USA
605 posts

No offense to Texans!!! That is why in my initial post I put that I was use the term "civil unrest" loosely. I understand that some things are cultural, but if you are not familiar with it or the area, or you aren't even sure what the topic is because of the langauge barrier, even the most friendly of demonstrations can be intimidating until you get your bearings and realize what's really going on.

Posted by Tom
Lewiston, NY
11072 posts

Not sure if it was mentioned already, but just note that protests in Europe don't tend to erupt suddenly like flashmobs. They're usually announced well in advanced along a pre-defined route. If you see one coming your way, just turn around and walk in the opposite direction.