Riot or Rebellion: Why Peaceful Protests Can Become Violent

As Chicago experienced this weekend, the line between peaceful political protest and chaotic violence can be become blurred in an instant.

During the day, organized marches and car caravans proceeded with little conflict, but as night fell, property damage, looting and confrontations between citizens and police ran rampant, spreading past the downtown area and into neighborhoods.

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Throughout the weekend, rumors of “outside agitators” igniting violence began to surface in media reports, leading many to question what the nature of the protests truly was.

Jahmal Cole, founder and CEO of the social impact organization My Block, My Hood, My City, and author of “It’s Not Regular: How to Recognize Injustice Hidden in Plain Sight,” was visibly agitated during Sunday’s press conference with the mayor when calling out both the people looting and damaging property and the police for their actions. 

On Monday, Cole expanded on his thoughts about the events of the weekend. “I’m for protesting, I am not for senseless looting of communities that have been divested for so long,” he said. “There’s a right way to show resistance, constructive way to show resistance … I want to educate people that there’s a difference between force and violence. Peaceful protesting is forceful, you can actually push policies and make a difference and get people to change by being forceful.”

Reuben Jonathan Miller, associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and author of the forthcoming book “Halfway Home: Race, Punishment and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration,” said that when it comes to evaluating protests, it’s human nature to draw bright lines between good and bad actors, but doing so misses the point.  

A chaotic scene in downtown Chicago on the evening of Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Hugo Balta / WTTW News)A chaotic scene in downtown Chicago on the evening of Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Hugo Balta / WTTW News)

“I think we have to think about this as a spectrum because it’s all a rebellion against the order that we’re desperately trying to restore,” Miller said. “The order we’re trying to restore is a social situation in which kids have run-ins with the police that end with an escalation toward violence quite regularly without ever being reported. So whether you’re stealing snacks out of a gas station or bread from a grocery store or iPhones out of downtown, people are responding to an opportunity that’s created by social unrest which was itself created by the violence of the order against these people. I think that’s important to remember that the order that we’re talking about has a 17% clearance rate. The order that we’re trying to restore is nothing that’s been responsive to anything in these people’s lives.”

Cole and Miller both say the police can shift the tone and tenor of a peaceful protest through their behavior and presentation.

Cole recalled his experience in the weekend’s protests. 

“I saw some scary things in police officers’ eyes that night … a lot of officers showed great restraint, but there were some that, I saw it in their eyes, scary,” Cole said. “There has to be better relationships between the police in the city … we need to start talking seriously about what’s going on with some police officers.”

Miller inadvertently joined a protest in his neighborhood on Friday while he was on his way to pick up a pizza. 

“It was the most organized, well-oiled machine filled with passion and rage and it was beautiful,” said Miller. “And then there was the police line that walked alongside that came somewhat later … two or three of the officers had their batons out already though … the engagement can’t start antagonistic and we begin de-escalation from there.”

Miller points out the difference between police behavior at recent protests against Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order and police behavior at protests in reaction to the killing of George Floyd, saying that the police response is rooted in factors beyond the race of the protesters. 

“One set of protests would change the social order – another doesn’t threaten it. The social order is not to wear a mask, it’s an aberration of the social order. So it’s just influencing a right – it stands alongside an existing social order. But to challenge how we police and who we police is to challenge the social order,” Miller said.

Miller also considers the news media’s coverage of protests and subsequent looting central to how the events are perceived. 

“Almost all the media discussion is on questions of looting, questions of violence … what we’ve lost are the conditions in which people live, we’ve lost what it means to be black in the city of Chicago … the framing matters in that it shapes not only how we understand it but how we respond to it. We should cover the violence, but we should make sure we center the conditions that produce the violence that begin with,” he said.

Cole is calling upon Chicagoans to help in cleanup efforts via donations or volunteering in the South Side neighborhoods where small businesses have been affected by property damage and looting through My Block, My Hood, My City.

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