An emerging tactic in use by protesters to garner attention is the use of devices colloquially known as sleeping dragons. These devices give protesters a force multiplier by allowing them to use fewer people to effectively block access to targeted areas and tie up public safety resources. As such, the use of sleeping dragons poses challenges for law enforcement when the situation dictates the removal of non-compliant protesters from an area.

The inside of a sleeping dragon.

Sleeping dragons come in many forms. The most basic is a 4 to 6 inch diameter PVC pipe into which a protester inserts their arm. Inside the pipe is a bolt that the protester uses to attach themselves using a carabiner locked to their wrist with a chain or rope. Once attached to the bolt, the protester is effectively locked into the tube, but does have the ability to self-release. In most cases, they will not self-release until their goal has been met. By using multiple devices, a human chain can be created to cover a larger area, such as a road, gate or other entrance way.

Variations of sleeping dragons include using steel or cast iron tubes, or building them into objects such as buckets or 55 gallon barrels filled with concrete. Regardless of the variation, the tube into which the protester inserts their arm is the heart of the device.

The use of sleeping dragons presents an unusual problem for public safety officials. Removing the protester(s) in a timely manner, without causing injury and without abrogating their constitutional right to free speech is a tricky and time consuming endeavor. Specialized training and tools are necessary to accomplish the task. Training for this operation is available at the Center for Domestic Preparedness, a facility operated by FEMA in Anniston, Alabama.

Equipment required to safely remove protesters from sleeping dragons includes various hand and power tools, including angle grinders, impact hammers, concrete cutting saws and small rotary cutting devices. Safety is of paramount concern for protesters and public safety officials during these operations. It is incumbent upon officials to insure proper procedures are followed to prevent injury to anyone present.

Other tactics are often used by protesters in combination with sleeping dragons. One is to claim a false injury in order to further tie up assets. This may be followed by law suits against public safety officials in order to finance ongoing protests, and intimidate them during future actions. Often, observers are present to provide food and water to the participants, or record events in order to craft messages over social media favorable to the protesters.

The effectiveness of using sleeping dragons in causing disruption is proven. In January of 2014, protesters blocked Interstate 93 leading into Boston, Massachusetts during the morning commuter rush. One group blocked the northbound side of the highway using sleeping dragons embedded in barrels full of concrete. Others blocked the southbound portion of the highway using devices crafted from PVC pipe, wrapped in chicken wire and duct tape to thwart cutting efforts. Responders from the Massachusetts State Police, Boston Fire Department, Boston Emergency Medical Services, Milton Fire Department and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation responded. It took more than an hour to fully remove the protesters. Traffic was significantly impacted for hours, and there were confirmed reports of ambulances being stuck while in route to local trauma centers.

The use of sleeping dragons is not a new tactic, but it is one that is gaining in popularity. Public safety responders must be prepared through proper training and acquisition of necessary equipment in order to minimize disruptions, provide public safety, and ensure the rights of those who wish to protest peacefully are protected.

Robert Leverone is a contributor to the Homeland Security (HS) Vortex which is a platform where insiders from the policy, law enforcement, fire service and emergency management fields converge to discuss issues related to Homeland Security.

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