Protesting Versus Rioting: What’s the Big Deal Anyway?

Protesting Versus Rioting: Whats the Big Deal Anyway?

Salome Beyer, Editor in Chief

As of February 10th, 2021, 25 ongoing protests are happening worldwide, some having started as early as October 2019.  Thus, it’s no surprise that throughout 2020, the terms “protesting” and “rioting” became part of the popular lexicon after massive protests surged worldwide, triggered by police brutality, corruption, election fraud, lack of civil liberties, and disrespect for human rights. However, it has become hard to distinguish between both of these terms. In the globalized modern world, textbook definitions don’t consider intersectionality as an essential aspect of labeling demonstrations as one or the other. 


The concept of intersectionality was coined in 1989 “to describe how race, class, gender and other individual characteristics intersect with one another to overlap.” In the context of civil demonstrations, intersectionality considers the background of the people partaking in such assemblies and how peaceful protests alone are an indicator of privilege. “I think you can excuse someone for being violent when they have been faced with violence from the country and the institution,” says Alliyah Logan, co-organizer of the Take Back protest in New York City, and recipient of the 2020 Girl Hero Award. Hence, comparing violence emanating from predominantly white civil demonstrations to that carried out by marginalized communities is outright dangerous. The intersectional perspective is lost when such comparisons occur, as it happened with the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and the Capitol rallies. And although demonstrations organized by Black Lives Matter, Women’s March, and other organizations could be considered riots because of the violence that has occurred, they starkly contrast other demonstrations like the Capitol rallies and the Proud Boys demonstrations through the difference in how transcendent and timeless they are. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, for instance, protested systematic racism perpetrated since the Jim Crow era, while the storming of the Capitol protested a president going out of office. Thus, the black and white, right and wrong definitions of protesting and rioting don’t fit into the modern narrative of civil demonstrations.


The dictionary difference between protests and riots is simple; the latter causes disruptions to peace, while the former doesn’t. However, when considering the previously discussed intersectional lens and the historical precedent of peaceful demonstrations, this clear theoretical line begins to blur. It’s essential to consider the many different ways through which such disruptions to peace can occur. The Colombian Paro Nacional in November 2019, for instance, was criticized by mostly right-leaning political parties. The protests were deemed savage after several deaths were reported, and the government called for the ESMAD to control the assemblies. However, when Alvaro Uribe was arrested due to a possible “risk of justice obstruction” in 2020, his supporters protested the Supreme Court’s ruling by summoning demonstrations in Medellin, Bogota and Barranquilla. These protests caused traffic and, in Medellin, provoked the blocking of hospital entrances during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although circumstances were different, violence was perpetrated in both situations. The Merriam-Webster dictionary recognizes four different definitions of “violence,” and in this case, both instances fall into one of the four options. The sole variety in definitions, once again points out the need for an intersectional lens; violence is as diverse as the protests and their participants. While the most easily identifiable and possibly condemned form of violence is physical violence, it is clearly not the most prominent. Violence to democratic institutions, which uphold the right to assemble, occurs with threats, when the government censors and prevents assemblies from happening, when others’ lives are put at peril, or when force is used to stop a demonstration. Regrettably, movements that condemn others for violent tendencies are, more often than not, inherently violent themselves. While the situations in which human integrity is put under stress should be examined and analyzed, the threats to States’ integrity and democratic principles need to be taken into consideration, especially in a world witnessing more protests by the day. 


The prevalence of protests has only increased, even in a global pandemic, thus highlighting the need for the guaranteed safety of demonstrators in all levels. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “one new significant anti-government protest (happened) every four days,” beginning in April 2020, and this proliferation continued to expand all year long. “We really took a stand. I think it was over 350,000 people there, and we went from Harlem to Washington Square Park, and filled the entire park out,” Logan stated after organizing one of the biggest protests in the United States in 2020. Hence, the importance of protester safety should be one of governments’ top priorities in light of this surge in civil demonstrations. On July 29th, 2020, the United Nations proclaimed that in addition to respecting demonstrations as part of international law, States must not collect demonstrators’ data, intimidate them, or prohibit protests by making “generalized references to public order or public safety, or an unspecified risk of potential violence.” In addition to this, the Organization of American States also claimed that States have the responsibility to protect all protesters from violence. It has become evident that the police response to all of last year’s protests was not adequate and did not uphold democratic values and international agreement. The violence was often perpetrated by law enforcement officers, which then resulted in more violence. Still, the democratic principle highlights the non-violent aspect of the right to assemble, regardless of the various considerations outlined above peacefully. And so the question remains… how can protests remain that, even when people have been conditioned to act violently? How can the socialization of violence being effective be backtracked?


All successful modern non-violent protests have factors in common in both the way that the community organizes, and in the law enforcement’s response. “Confrontations are particularly likely when there are structural inequalities (between the police officers and the members of a community),” says Helier Cheung of the BBC. Logan also stresses the importance of police involvement when protesting. “We told the police department ‘We’re going to be here. You can come in support or come against, but we’re still going to be here either way’,” she states, and highlights how she didn’t experience violence at the protest she organized. In New Jersey, police officers went to the protests as allies to the cause, thus highlighting the importance of police engagement in communities. Once more, intersectionality, and the consideration of communities’ histories and individual members’ diverse lineages are proven to induce peace in tense situations. And while some might say that police-community engagement isn’t professional, it becomes professional when part of their job- or their profession- is to de-escalate instances in which marginalized communities might express their frustration over decades of injustice. The resolution is clear and can be quickly accomplished if the correct funds and time are invested. By what the numbers are showing, it can be assumed that protests and civil unconformity will not be over any time soon, and so the least governments can do is ensure that everyone can safely voice their concerns at all times.  


All in all, with the rapid rate at which protest frequency is growing, it has never been more imperative to understand why protests turn to riots and how this can be prevented. This, however, cannot happen without an intersectional perspective that considers everyone’s backgrounds and diversities. However, elected officials must be pushed to invest the resources needed to accomplish such goals, because if they can’t turn to protest, what else can citizens do?