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OnWords: Protest vs. Riot


  Recent events in Baltimore, Maryland and Ferguson, Missouri have brought us face to face with how we decide what’s a protest and what’s a riot.

The short memory of mainstream broadcasters gives the impression that protest should never coincide with violence or hard feelings. But the Civil Rights movement wasn’t just MLK and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; it was also Black Power, the Nation of Islam, and riots from Watts to New York City.

The contemporary gay rights movement does not trace its origins to pride marches in the ‘70s and ‘80s but to the Stonewall riots of 1969.

In attempting to separate protest from riot, and with a desire to appear objective, coverage of Baltimore and Ferguson often misses the content of the messages being sent.

Neither protests nor riots are ever about nothing: people don’t take to the streets for no reason—even if they’re frat boys “celebrating” a football victory. A riot may appear to be about violence, but there’s always a triggering event that begins the chain that leads to violence; otherwise, they’d happen every day.

I’m getting dangerously close here to saying that riot is a form of protest—a seemingly radical notion these days. But if so, then any solution must come from carefully listening for the story behind the rage, no matter how offensive its terms.