Protests and Riots: Do Ferguson Police Confuse Them?

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Protesting can be angry work sometimes. It can be pained and painful; it can be hot and explosive. It can also — and often does — lead to inappropriate backlash from law enforcement without provocation, which sometimes leads to an almost defensive response from individuals. In the heat of the moment, with someone bearing down on you or hurting you while they arrest you, things become complicated at times. But sometimes beyond simply that, protesting and rioting become blurred categories, especially in the news, and especially for the police. That gray area where no one is certain where the line is and whether or not it has been crossed is a major problem.

Protesting needs to be distinct from rioting; being unclear as to what civilian behavior consists of invites police to use force when it’s inappropriate. If one segment of “protestors” is violent, another segment may be denied its right using the former as an excuse — i.e. violent rioters make all protestors look bad. Of course, half the definition of a riot is that it’s out of control, violent, and ruled by more emotion than principle. So arguing that rioters make it easier for police to justify silencing everyone indiscriminately won’t necessarily dampen angry youths throwing Molotov cocktails out of frustration with racism and an unfair power hierarchy.

Why Ferguson Is Especially Important

This is a particularly important topic given events in Ferguson, Missouri. Both riots and protests have seen a strong reaction from law enforcement there. Ferguson is especially at risk; the public’s relationship with police has already been strained by the initial shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, which witnesses say Officer Darren Wilson did without reasonable provocation.

Ferguson is an especially difficult situation as these protests are about subject matter that inherently instills distrust of enforcement in civilians and a defensiveness in police. When protestors are screaming outside the White House, outside a big business, police are on scene to control and monitor, but they aren’t the subject of the protests and anger.