Saturday, June 06, 2020

Understanding the Difference between Protesting, Rioting, and Looting: A Primer in Civil Disobedience

Apparently there seems to be some confusion between protesting and rioting for social change and looting for the sake of destroying property and stealing other people's stuff. So, I thought it would be a good idea to write a short primer about the difference between the three.

Protesting is the act of civil rebellion. By the word "civil", I mean respectful. Civil protesting is as old as civilization itself. In fact, it was probably the first act people undertook to bring about change (coupled with the sacrifice of some unfortunate sheep, chicken, or pig).

The act of protest is to force change on the ruling establishment. It's usually brought about when some event or issue is seen as "unjust" by a segment of the population.

In recent years its usually been about rationing of food or gas, cutting of government assistance, voting rights, housing, increases in taxes, or influencing foreign policy such as ending a war (Vietnam comes to mind) or perhaps starting one (like the Spanish American War following the destruction of the USS Maine) and the unwillingness of the political leaders to satisfy the demands of the public.

Protesting is usually seen as a good thing. The ability of the populace to take to the streets and express their voices without fear of repercussions by the authorities is seen as a sign of a healthy society. Governments which repress the right of the people to gather and speak their collective mind freely is typically viewed as a indication of a repressive or authoritarian society (worse yet, dictatorial should the government fail to act on or consider the people's demands without the benefit of open dialogue).

That's not to say that all demands by the protestors should be enacted. Hardly. Many times the demands are based on emotion or missing facts which could make the situation worse. However, with the government's tendency to withhold pertinent information either due to national security concerns or simply as a form of cover-up, the public begins to get more agitated, which then can lead to an increase in protests and possibly violence in the form of riots.

If that should happen, the government has to choice to put down the violence, which almost always makes the situation that much more violable. It's at this stage that more radical elements of the public become more openly engaged. It's their sole desire to see the situation become more violent and manipulate public opinion by making it appear that the government is solely at fault.This is typically accomplished by provoking the police or military and getting them to respond in a hostile manner such as seen to shoot, beat, or manhandle the protestors who are always portrayed as being innocent of any wrongdoing.

Simply put, in a confrontation between protestors and the authority, the victor is the one who one controls the appearance of having the moral high ground. In the case of the government, it must prove justification for what might otherwise be seen as "heavy handedness" or infringing on the people's rights. In the case of the protestors, it can be viewed as justification for their calls of resistance or even assaults on the establishment as a form of "self-defense". One great example us the shooting of Crispus Attucks, a free man of color (he was part black and part Native American; a longshoreman by trade) who is thought to be first person killed in the cause of the American Revolution.

The place was Boston Massachusetts on March 5th of 1770 when colonists faced off against British soldiers following a failed attempt by the British Government to impose a stamp tax on the colonists two years earlier. This resulted in the Townshed Acts (named after Charles Townshed, the Chancellor of the Exchequer) which were enacted by the British Parliament between 1767 and 1768.

The purpose of the Acts were multifold---to raise revenue for the Crown in order to pay the salaries of judges and governors, enforcing compliance of trade agreements with England, to punish New York for failing to comply with "Quartering Act" requiring citizens to house and feed British troops in their homes, and most important of all, establishing a precedent that the Crown could and would impose taxes on the colonies at its discretion. Of course, the colonists rejected the acts out of hand, which led to the confrontation in Boston Commons amid two years of mounting tensions.

Initially, young children threw snowballs at the soldiers and called them names. This was followed by a group of colonists complaining to a soldier than an officer had previously refused to pay a barber's bill. The situation quickly escalated. Soon snowballs became rocks and pieces of wood. At some point the sound of a shot rang out. No one knew if it was an actual gunshot or something else, but it didn't matter. The British troops opened fire on the citizens. When the smoke cleared, five colonists were dead and six were wounded. The first to die was Crispus Attucks, who had been twice hit in the chest.

The early Founding Fathers, particularly Sam Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock and Henry Pelham, made quick use of the media available to paint a vivid picture of abuse at the hands of British troops, thus fanning the flames of a simmering revolt. Nevertheless, the "Boston Massacre" as it became known included every aspect of a successful protest, including provoking the government into violence which was exploited to the hilt as any propagandist worth their salt would do (downplaying some points while highlighting and even exaggerating others) and commanding public opinion.

In short, protests are the means whereby the people can make their desires known when the ballot box either fails or is simply not available or suitable given the immediacy of the situation in a peaceful and nonviolent way. It can be exploited into providing the groundwork for a greater expression and be a catalyst for more severe reforms or even platform for revolution.

As for riots and looting, they are a separate but related expression of protests by the people. As a general rule, riots are not planned or organized as protests typically are. They tend to be formed when a small group of people are outraged by some event and choose to express their anger in the form of violence, be it attacks on people or property. However, the chief object of their anger is almost always some symbol of authority or the cause of their anger such as a particular building (police, city hall, etc). A classic example is the storming of the Bastille in Paris at the outset of the French Revolution.

What started out as protest quickly degenerated into a riot led (as most are) by a small but determined angry mob. In this case, the peasants were tired of the abuses by the French monarchy and the elites (which, together, made up just 2% of population) over their "privileges", ever rising taxes and a judicial system known for its horrific treatment of prisoners; many of whom were imprisoned over their inability to pay the ever increasing taxes and fees which had gone on for decades.

Finally, on July 14, 1786, the French lower classes---the peasants, farmers, and merchants (aka the "commoners") had enough. Protests turned into riots and then into armed insurrection. The Hotel des Invalides, a government complex which included government offices and monuments, was stormed first. By the time the Bastille was stormed there were only seven prisoners being held. Nevertheless, it was seen as a symbol of the abuse. It ultimately led to the start of the French Revolution and eventual overthrow of the French monarchy and the elite status quo.

Riots are not uncommon. They typically occur when the crowd is overtaken by anger, usually at the behest of a small but focused group. The crowd, following group mentality, tend to simply join in the chaos (i.e.: "getting caught up in the moment"), often finding themselves just as shocked by the carnage as everyone else once it's over like a drunk after a "lost weekend".

The best thing to counter a riot is for the majority of the protestors to physically dissociate themselves the rioters as much as possible. If that's not possible, they should attempt to identify the rioters to the authorities or, if it can be done safely, attempt to either redirect the crowd or stop prevent the violence from spreading. However, it should be pointed out that riots and rioters are dangerous.

Lastly, looters. They are typically opportunists hiding in the crowd. While they may or may not have a beef with authorities, their primary goal is not change as with the protesters or even the rioters. Instead, they are using the occasion for the sake of destruction and for theft. Period. These individuals usually show up alongside the rioters in order to use the mayhem to try and hide their crime.

Looters as much as the rioters are responsible for the destruction of property. Most looting happens within the community of the looters since they're familiar with the businesses. Some see it as a means to settle old scores for one reason or another. Others see it as means to level the economic playing field at the expense of their neighbors. The end result is almost always the loss of local businesses, and with them, local jobs, not to mention homes. Thus they only succeed in making their community worse off than before the riots. The best way to think of looters is as social pariahs.

The ability to protest is fundamental in a free and open society, albeit even a moderately one. The Constitution and Bill of Rights establish for the citizens of this country not just the right to express our grievances with the government, but an obligation to do so. We have a duty as citizens to freely speak our minds to the government. To peacefully assemble. To petition and seek redress of injuries inflected upon us by the government, whether intentional or accidental. We also have the right to take matters into our own hands, but only as a last resort.

We do not have the right to destroy property. We do not have the right to steal. We do not have the right to harm another individual except in self-defense. We can disagree with them. We can scream at them. We can even call them names, but we can't physically touch or cause harm them in any way. As jurist Zechariah Chafee Jr is credited with saying in 1919, "Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man's nose begins".

So, if you're going to protest, have at it. No real change has ever happened without it. Try to have a specific message which includes not just a complaint or accusation, but a solution as well. A complaint without a workable fix is just bitching. Research the problem thoroughly. Get a buy in from other groups if you can, but be careful. Making sure they share similar objectives. Try resolving the matter through the system if possible. If not, protest. Organize it. Get the word out every way you can. Make sure everyone understands the rules---be polite and keep it peaceful. Alert the media.

If you encounter troublemakers, identify and report them (it doesn't hurt to have names and contact information of the media and/or key law enforcement officers handy). Get their names, film them, get pictures, or whatever. Distance yourself and your group as much as you can. If possible, try to discourage others from joining in with rioters and especially looters. If worse comes to worse, disperse your group until another time. Try to follow police instructions. Don't block traffic. That's dangerous and dumb. Lastly, your reputation as a leader and as a group has as much to do with your eventual success as your message or any action you take. Want to know more? Check out our links below.

Crispus Attucks

Storming of the Bastille

Constitutional Rights Foundation: Social Protests

Albert Einstein Institution: 198 Methods of Non-Violent Action (pdf)

ACLU: Know Your Rights: Demonstrations and Protests (pdf)

The Power of Protests: 15 Methods to Make Yourself Heard

No comments: