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  • Norman Young

Non-violent Riots Are Bad

Ask any American and they will tell you that they support protests, but that they condemn riots. I'm here to tell you that these Americans are wrong. They love a good riot. What they dislike—or, at least, what they will always say they dislike—is violence.

"But riots ARE violent!" I hear you object.

Legally speaking, that's true. According to the Anti-Riot Act of 1968, a "riot" must include "an act or acts of violence by one or more persons." But, hold on. The federal government doesn't get to define words for us, does it? Aren't legal definitions (see: "female," "insanity," "marriage," etc.) often at odds with clear, precise, and descriptive speech?

The purpose of the law is to circumscribe government action, not facilitate civilian communication. It's certainly a good thing that the Anti-Riot Act limits federal action to riots that are violent. After all, riots that have not yet become violent, or are cut short before violence occurs, do not need a forceful federal response. But, just like when we’re testing for cases of COVID-19, we should allow ourselves to recognize when a disease is present even if it fails to manifest deadly symptoms.

Once a mob of people has taken to the streets to vent emotional frustration, a riot has already begun. The disease is present, regardless of whether the symptoms have progressed to the point of violence.

“But I thought that, so long as a mob of people remains peaceful, they are merely protesting!”

You thought wrong.

There is a world of difference between a protest and a riot. It’s the difference between martyrdom and terrorism. It’s the difference between Martin Luther nailing 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral and Theban maenads ripping Pentheus limb from limb. It’s the difference between Logos and Pathos.

The Greensboro sit-in was a protest. Like Martin Luther with his theses, the four men who orchestrated the sit-in had pinpointed the cause of their grievances (unjust segregation laws) and targeted their words and actions against the true source of the offense. There they sat. They could do no other. God help them.

Black Lives Matter riots, by contrast, have no such logic. What unites the participants is pathos, a shared feeling of indignance. The indignation can be directed at police officers, at local businesses, or even at random bystanders on the street who refuse to properly indicate that they share BLM’s sentiments. The target of the ire can be as vague as "the system," which is guilty of “white supremacy” (the now-preferred term for a general feeling of unfairness).

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “a riot is the language of the unheard,” but that is manifestly untrue. A riot has no language at all. It is a tantrum—a way humans vent nebulous frustration even before they have the language to define it.

The Trump-supporting rioters at the Capitol on Wednesday were throwing a tantrum. All of the slogans and catch-phrases were little more than primitive grunts and groans stemming from a vague feeling of powerlessness after the recent elections. The moment this emotion-driven mob took to the streets, they were a riot. Lawlessness was merely a symptom.

The riotous commotion distracted from the real protesters: Sens. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, Tommy Tuberville, Roger Marshall, John Kennedy, and Cindy Hyde-Smith who nailed their objections against an unprecedented mail-in election into the Congressional record.

If Americans truly want less political violence, going forward, we must stop conflating riots and protests simply because some riots happen to be peaceful. There is nothing noble or praiseworthy about achieving catharsis by publicly venting emotion. And, while it should remain entirely legal to assemble peacefully (however terrible the reason might be), riotous, emotion-driven mobs should be frowned upon by civilized Americans on both sides.


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