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‘Sleeping dragons’: An introduction to protester lockdown devices

Unraveling the strategy and impact of protesters using “sleeping dragons,” and the nuanced law enforcement approaches to safely manage these challenges

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Massachusetts state troopers training to defeat sleeping dragons during a field force extrication exercise.

Photo/Robert Leverone

By Robert Leverone

Throughout the history of protests in America, people seeking redress of grievances have employed tactics that have surprised and confounded those responsible for restoring order.

From the tar-and-feather tactics used in the Whiskey Rebellion in the late eighteenth century [1] to more sophisticated use of modern technology, protesters have only been limited by their imagination. Now, one particularly imaginative tactic is becoming prevalent in our nation — sleeping dragons.

The term sleeping dragon may evoke images of a scaley, winged beast slumbering in a dark cave, but the law enforcement reality is markedly different. Sleeping dragons refer to a variety of homemade devices used by protesters to lock themselves together or to other objects. By doing so, the protesters can effectively block access to roads, storefronts, gates, entrances and exits, and other targets. These devices are constructed in such a way as to confound responders and thwart efforts at removing protesters from an area.

How sleeping dragons are constructed

While some lockdown devices may consist of no more than a bicycle lock, or a padlock and chains, sleeping dragons run from simple to complex in their construction.

In its basic form, a sleeping dragon is a PVC or metal tube just wide enough to accommodate a person’s arm, with a carriage bolt threaded on both ends and inserted halfway down and perpendicular to the tube. The bolt is held in place by hexagon nuts on both threaded ends of the bolt inside the tube. The ends of the bolt protruding through the tube are sawed off flush with the tube. With the tube complete, a protester now attaches a carabiner or similar device to a chain or rope, which is attached to their wrist. Their arm is inserted into the tube, usually up past the elbow, and the carabiner is attached to the bolt where it cannot be accessed by police.

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A look inside a sleeping dragon reveals the carriage bolt, carabiner and wrist rope. Note the duct tape covering the device.

Photo/Robert Leverone

Despite being able to release themselves, protesters most often refuse to do so and are often prepared to remain there for long periods, sometimes wearing adult diapers [2] and relying on support personnel for food and water.

Some sleeping dragons are more sophisticated in their construction than the simple tube-and-bolt configuration. Sometimes tubes are encased in items to prevent extrication efforts. Some tubes have been covered in duct tape to conceal chicken wire, roofing tar and other substances meant to further complicate removal. Sleeping dragons have been encountered encased in reinforced concrete poured into 55-gallon drums or buried in the ground to stymie law enforcement.

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Seized from a protest involving sleeping dragons, these carabiners were attached to ropes that were then looped around protesters’ wrists.

Photo/Robert Leverone

How sleeping dragons are used

Sleeping dragons represent a force multiplier for protesters. They present an unusual visual attraction to garner attention from the media and public while requiring fewer protesters to accomplish a greater impact.

As a physical extension of the arm, two protesters can fill the space of three. Protesters can use sleeping dragons and other, simpler locking devices, to daisy-chain themselves together to block access to an area. They may also lock themselves to other objects, such as doors, gates, guardrails, or as some have done, to vehicles. [3] Some sophisticated, purpose-built devices have even been used to lock protesters to railroad tracks.

The use of sleeping dragons and other lockdown devices often requires the presence of support personnel who provide moral support, food, water and other necessities to those locked into the devices. Also likely to be present are legal observers and others to document the event in writing or on camera for posterity or evidentiary purposes against police.

What police should do when encountering lockdown devices

When encountering sleeping dragons or other lockdown devices, police have options.

While efforts to physically remove protesters may be the first inclination of responders, it should not be the first option unless exigent circumstances exist. Establishing a dialogue with protesters to get them to self-release is the preferred option. This prevents the need for physical efforts at removal which may cause injury to protesters or responding personnel.

Dragging locked-down protesters away or using pain compliance techniques to effect release may be unsuccessful while also being recorded on video. Sympathetic bystanders or a jury may look upon such tactics on otherwise harmless protesters with dread, thereby putting police in a bad light. If dialogue is unsuccessful, law enforcement can turn to other options.

Another option for law enforcement is to reroute traffic, if feasible. Rerouting traffic of any sort, be it vehicle, foot, marine, rail, or air traffic, should be considered upon notice of an event involving lockdown devices to reduce the on-scene decision-making and traffic burdens. This may also allow for less traffic in the immediately affected area for responding personnel to contend with.

Rerouting traffic also lessens the impact of protesters’ efforts to inconvenience the public and ensures emergency responders can continue unhindered. When used in conjunction with dialogue, rerouting traffic may be the first priority where establishing dialogue may take time. Rerouting traffic can also be used in conjunction with the final option that should be undertaken only when other means of removal have failed.

The final option is the use of tools to extricate protesters from lockdown devices. Before turning to this option, protesters should be advised they are under arrest if warranted because extrication efforts may be viewed as a use of force in some jurisdictions. The use of various tools, especially powered cutting tools, presents a hazard to protesters, and their safety is a top priority. This operation must be performed by personnel specially trained in the safe employment of such tools and related techniques. Attempts by untrained personnel to defeat lockdown devices with tools can lead to serious injuries to protesters and devastating liability consequences for responding personnel and their agencies. It should be remembered that the actions of responding personnel will likely be recorded, and missteps by untrained personnel can be used as evidence in potential subsequent legal proceedings.


A heavy duty saw with a metal cutting blade being used to cut open a metal sleeping dragon and access the carriage bolt.

Photo/Robert Leverone

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Bolt cutter being used to cut the carriage bolt inside a sleeping dragon.

Photo/Robert Leverone

Considerations for on-scene personnel

When an incident involving lockdown devices occurs, it is more than just a police matter. At the very least, emergency medical personnel should be present to treat potential injuries, especially when extrication efforts involving cutting tools are undertaken. Other personnel as needed should be considered.

Take for instance a 2015 incident on Interstate 93 near Boston, where protesters using multiple sleeping dragons encased in cement-filled, 55-gallon metal drums blocked traffic during the morning rush hour. [4] This created a major traffic incident requiring a multi-jurisdictional response. Responders included specially trained state police and fire personnel for extrication operations, emergency medical personnel for potential injuries, highway department personnel to aid in rerouting traffic and subsequent cleanup of debris, and state emergency management personnel to assist in coordinating efforts. This list does not include other agencies not directly involved yet impacted by severe traffic congestion.


Sleeping dragons and other lockdown devices are a force multiplier for protesters that can confound law enforcement and hinder their ability to restore normalcy. The design and construction of these devices range from simple to complex and they can be purpose-built for specific targets. Without the presence of exigent circumstances, moving protesters locked down in such devices risks injury to them, and potential liability issues for responders. The options of dialogue and rerouting of traffic are preferred over the use of tools to mitigate the situation. However, when extrication methods are required, specially trained and equipped personnel with a safety mindset are required.

For those wishing to train in defeating protester devices, FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Alabama provides its Field Force Extrication training to first responders on a year-round basis. [5] This three-day course provides in-depth training on the design, construction, use and defeating of protester devices.

This article does not intend to convey legal advice. The tactics described herein should be discussed with agency legal counsel prior to their use to ensure they comply with jurisdictional legal statutes and agency policies.


1. Whiskey Rebellion: Definition, Causes & Flag | HISTORY.

2. 29 Arraigned After Protesters Shut Down 2 Parts of I-93 in Massachusetts – NECN

3. Many chain themselves to bus to protest Operation Streamline (

4. Commuters angered by Expressway shutdown (

5. FEMA’s Premier All-Hazards Training Center - Center for Domestic Preparedness (

About the author

Robert Leverone, M.A., retired as a lieutenant from the Massachusetts State Police after 31 years of service. Robert is the owner and president of Crowd Operations Dynamix specializing in training and consulting for law enforcement and private industry in crowd management and control issues.