Peaceful Protests – Not Riots – Bring About Meaningful Change

By T. Andrew Brown

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Shortly after the coronavirus struck, we all thought this was going to be the year of the virus. And so far it has. But the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 has made it equally the year of the protest.

Ever since that day, protests have been taking place around the country on a daily basis. Cities big and small have had their protests. Cities around the globe quickly joined in the protests. The Black Lives Matter movement quickly became global.

Those protesting at gatherings and marches cannot be easily categorized. They are diverse in race, gender, age, educational background, wealth status and every other way we can think to categorize people. It’s everyone. That’s what makes the current movement so different, so powerful and so promising.

Most protests have a similar look. The faces of protesters reveal a similar look of passion and commitment to the cause. Even the signs they carry look similar, conveying the message of Black Lives Matter, calling for an end to racism, police brutality and unequal treatment. Systemic injustice is the target.

Protests often take place over short periods of time and then the protesters go about their ways, returning to the comforts of life. The current protests and protesters are proving much more resilient. There are no signs of the protests lightening up. The continued media attention and early successes of the movement continue to fuel what looks like a non-ending readiness of protesters.

Immediately following the George Floyd killing, people began to take to the streets. Some look at this with worry and concern. Protests were watched closely, having been wrongly associated with violence, destruction and looting that took place alongside some of the early protests. The well-meaning and devoted protesters were quick to distinguish themselves from those engaged in such riotous and criminal activity.

The violence and destruction taking place during and after some of the protests appeared to some to be part of the protests. This immediately caused some police departments and government officials to label the protests as riots, harmful to the order of society. This was a failing on their parts to distinguish the protests, and protesters, from criminals causing disorder.

Protesters are engaged in the lawful practice of publicly challenging societal conditions. This right to speech and assembly is found squarely in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, signaling the importance from the earliest days of our country.

Protests have been a part of the American fabric throughout history, and protests played a significant role in our country’s independence. One of the most famous protests that we all learned about in school was the Boston Tea Party. Colonists organized in opposition to the British government’s imposition of taxes. And one of the aspects of the protests we remember most is the destruction of property – the dumping of tea into the Boston Harbor. A riot?

Some form of protest has played a role in the shaping of every major change throughout American history, resulting in a more equitable and just society. Equality has never been provided out of a pure sense of benevolence and good will. It always followed an organized and collective movement for change.

Lawful and civil protests should be valued as a peaceful and productive questioning of our values and ways. They should be encouraged, not thought of as counter to the soundness of society.

Protests are a calling out. A chance to be both seen and heard. A ground-level movement for change. And the only qualification to be a protester is commitment of time and to the cause at hand.

We should not confuse a protest with a riot. They are two different things. Unlike a protest, a riot is civil disorder. A modern-day image of riots may include visions of cars and buildings being destroyed and burned, physical violence and looting of stores. While a riot may garner immediate attention, and that may be the idea, riots alone will never bring about lasting and meaningful change.

Riots have historically grown out of oppressive conditions, similar to many protests, including poverty, unequal access to employment, education, housing, health care and injustice to name a few. But unlike the civil disorder of rioting and looting, civil protests can lead to lasting change. They can bring about changes in laws, policies and governance, as we’ve already seen in New York and other states across the country in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing. And perhaps even more important, civil protests can bring about changes in the minds and hearts of citizens in ways that criminal conduct, destruction and looting never will.

So, we should not fear or feel threatened by the protests we are witnessing. We should embrace them. Protesters are doing the work of civic engagement to question and challenge the unsound laws and ways of our society.

The issues being championed by the BLM movement are not radical. Putting an end to racial injustice, police brutality and unequal treatment are causes we should all be prepared to advocate for. Thinking otherwise makes you part of the problem. Anyone who would challenge these ideals is likely misguided by self-interest.

The success of the BLM movement will be the success of us all.

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