If only someone had added “too” to the phrases “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter,” we might not be facing this false choice. It’s false because we can be for both simultaneously. And while it’s in our best interest to reconcile, some, like our president, find it best to stoke fear and division. It’s like the difference between a protest and a riot.
Most want fairness and justice for all, especially when it is us. Even the most scurrilous want fairness, at least for themselves. So, except for extremists, we can agree.
We can also agree that we don’t want to be injured or killed or our family harmed. Neither do we want our stuff stolen or damaged. And we can agree there are bad people who would do that to us.
That’s why we’re thankful for the 686,665 full-time police officers in the U.S. (as of 2018) as we are primarily reliant upon them to keep the peace. Some additionally and legally arm themselves for more security under rights granted by our Second Amendment, but still, they’re primarily reliant upon police enforcing laws.
But there are times when even the best have had enough. GIs returning to Athens, Georgia, from World War II overturned their corrupt local government by force in 1946.
Historically, that’s what happens. One group unfairly dominates, a triggering event occurs, and that results in a violent backlash. The British Tea Act resulted in the Boston Tea Party, for instance.
Our right to protest is guaranteed in the First Amendment (free speech, peaceful assembly and right to petition government), which has been a pressure relief valve keeping society from exploding. Our police even protect such protests.
These are not unfettered rights, however. We have freedom of speech, but we can’t slander. We have the right to assemble, but we must do so peacefully. And we may protest, but not riot.
This is nothing new. Three months before the American Revolution ended, we had our first riot (the Philadelphia Mutiny in June 1783) and we’ve been at it ever since. Since 1900, we’ve averaged three significant civil disruptions per year.
In many countries, this topples governments. We’re unique, however, largely because of our peaceful protest safety valve.
However, riots occur, and some are more complex because police are the triggering event.
A 2013 candlelight vigil for a 16-year-old turned into a riot in New York City’s Flatbush when officials didn’t show up to pay respects to the youth who was shot and killed by police after he allegedly pointed a pistol at officers.
One may reflexively respond. That is hasty. A better stance is to calm the situation and wait on facts, not feelings.
George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis while in police custody. We can see it because it was recorded. Over 2,000 protests erupted in 60 countries in the aftermath, some of which turned into riots. Police officers have been charged with crimes.
Last week in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Jacob Blake, 29, was shot seven times in the back by a police officer. We’ve seen the recording. Protests and rioting ensued.
A 17-year-old White teenager traveled to Kenosha from nearby Illinois with an assault-style rifle purportedly to protect property. He’s accused of killing two people who tried to subdue him. We also saw that recorded.
Let the process work. In New York City, where that candlelight vigil turned into a riot, eventually neither the fingerprints nor DNA from the weapon matched the accused youth. And a witness refuted the police’s version.
We have a right to protest, but not riot. Police enforce society’s laws but aren’t above them. Triggering events aren’t always what they seem, even if recorded. A thin line exists between a constitutionally-guaranteed peaceful protest and a violent riot.
We’ve walked this tightrope since our founding and will continue to walk it long into the future. To be president thus requires nuance and thoughtfulness, now more than ever. Donald Trump has never demonstrated that ability.