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When do protests become aggression? When do protests become riots? Is this good or bad?

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Summer is here. We are already full swing into construction season. And Minneapolis just demonstrated that protest season is here too, and in many cities, just around the corner. Looks like a hot one again this year, in both ways.

One of the ways in which society can collapse, at least temporarily and locally, is when protests and/or riots shut down normal activities. Whether it impacts only a small part of an urban area or an extensive zone, these things can be highly disruptive. Let’s look at them in a bit of detail.

Last month, I had to be in the Front Range of Colorado multiple times, (Your sympathy is appreciated.)

One place was Aurora, Colorado, a nasty big suburb of Denver. I actually had to drive on that infamous “main street” of Aurora, Interstate Highway 225, part of the inner ring of freeways around Denver. Not just drive it, but drive it during a traffic jam on it – even at noon on a Saturday!

Why infamous? Other than the homeless encampments under its bridges and overpasses and in its culverts and drainage ditches? It was an eight-lane freeway closed off for hours by “protestors” during the George Floyd terror last year. Protesters who attacked vehicles who were stopped. Protesters who threatened to cause gridlock in a sizeable chunk of the 2-million population Metro Denver area.

I pondered that as I inched up the highway to freedom – escaping from Metro Denver after finishing up a project. And Denver is far from the only urban area to suffer such impacts: the George Floyd protests in Memphis last year shut down the major bridge (I-40) crossing the Mississippi in more than 200 miles of river – the same bridge which was closed on 12 May 2021 due to a structural defect. These things can have significant impacts on transcontinental trade and travel. Which leads to our title subject today.

What is a protest? What happens when a protest becomes aggressive? Does that make a protest into a riot? Is a riot always agressive?

Let us understand the situation and the circumstances. And remember that when it comes to political and military events, the “truth” is in the eyes of the beholder!

What is a protest?

When do people protest? Almost always, it is done when people organize it. Sometimes, there are “spontaneous protests.” But usually some group, formal or ad hoc, sponsors and schedules and provides some sort of assistance. It is generally in response to some public event or activity: a proposed law, a publicized incident (such as police killing or injuring someone), or an attempt to delay or prevent something from happening.

Protests can be calm – and peaceful. But they can also sometimes be raucous. Still, I believe we can draw a clear line between protest and riot. One not done in 2020 or even now in 2021.

A protest is by its nature a matter of self-defense to some degree: the protesters believe that the action or circumstances that they are protesting is a danger to them – a danger they must defend themselves (and others) from. But protests, even peaceful ones, CAN become acts of aggression.

The tactics of protesting can be and often are aggressive: offensive in nature. When a protest disturbs and disrupts the activities of people who are NOT a direct threat to the protesters or their cause, they’ve crossed the line. I think the protesters in Aurora and Memphis did just that last year.

What is a riot?

There are lots of definitions for riot. The simplest one pops up on a Bing search: a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd. Here is another one that makes sense (from Merriam-Webster): a violent public disorder; specifically : a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent. That appears to be a common legal definition (the three or more part) so lets use that. (And keep in mind the definition really is in the eye of the beholder: for instance, can you have something that is tumultuous but not violent? Or vice versa? That is beyond this commentary, but I think we see that when protests are “tumultuous” – out of control with or without physical violence against people and things – they have become a riot.

But riots do NOT have to be aggressive. A “tolerable” riot is one in which the protesters riot by responding in a reasonable way to defend themselves against either direct attack (by police or counter-protesters, for instance) or overt actions which are aggressive in nature. That can include a governing body which is passing laws which threaten their lives, living, freedom, and property.

On the other hand, riots often ARE aggressive. The protesters start attacking third-party people and their property – even the property of other government agencies – which are not attacking or threatening to attack them. The rioters are not defending themselves or their cause: they are striking out to disrupt third-party activities – activities which are not aggressive in nature and usually not related at all to what is being protested. And all too often, to destroy property that has nothing to do with what they are supposedly defending.

When protesters – even a small part of them – resort to violence, vandalism, arson, and disruption against third parties, they are both aggressive and rioting. And should not be supported by lovers of liberty, peace, and prosperity. That seems to be what happened in Aurora, Memphis, and Minneapolis.

When protesters are violent in response to violence and threats of violence, and destroy the property used by those attacking them, it is still a riot, but it is generally defensive in nature and should not be condemned by lovers of liberty.

I don’t think we saw much of that in 2020, or so far in 2021. Be prepared for more of the same.


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