Now, most of us don't have direct experience of riots. It's interesting, but we're at one step removed from it. But I think everybody has had the experience of being shown how X is supposed to work, then having a go ourselves and discovering it's one thing when the instructor does it, quite another when we do it.
So, although the exact situation was different, we'd all been through the same general emotions. We could identify with the character, and wanted him to succeed - as we ourselves had wanted succeed when we were in the equivalent situation. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the riot, we were rooting for the character and his very human emotions, which were so like ours.
Put your characters in situations where they experience emotions we can identify with, and we'll engage with them.