Two editorial announcements today:

First, please welcome Comfort Sampong, who is taking over as a regular contributor for Caitlin Gent. Comfort is a 2018 graduate currently living in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. See her bio below for more details.

Second, our theme for the month of March is “Ask the post calvin.” We’re taking on questions submitted by readers and offering our best advice.

Dear the post calvin,

Is it ever okay to riot?

Oppressed and Persecuted

Dear Oppressed and Persecuted,

When I was seven years old, I took a disturbing sense of satisfaction from the fact that my birthday was on the same day as the 1773 Boston Tea Party. I didn’t understand that invading a ship and tossing its merchandise overboard would be frowned upon today or how wrong it was that the rioters dressed up as Native Americans. I was just fascinated by my thin connection to this defiant moment.

Maybe you’re also fascinated by the power of rioting. Or maybe you watch the evening news and are skeptical of the cry, “No justice, no peace!” Either way, I’m not certain how you define “okay,” but I’m going to assume you’re asking about riots related to dissatisfaction over equality, not dissatisfaction over the score of a game.

To answer your question, it’s helpful to first ask, “does the law ever protect riot-like behavior?” The U.S. federal government defines rioting as:

“a public disturbance involving (1) an act or acts of violence by one or more persons part of an assemblage of three or more persons, which act or acts shall constitute a clear and present danger of, or shall result in, damage or injury to the property of any other person or to the person of any other individual…”

There’s more legalese, but you get the idea. Any vision you may have of reenacting the Boston Tea Party is not legal. But your alternatives are not so clear. Some states also define rioting as the “obstruction of the performance of any government function.” Even protesting peacefully can get you arrested in states where it’s a misdemeanor to block a public passageway. Now I’m no legal scholar, but this tells me that the law’s protection of civil disobedience is not as clear as we would like to think. Maybe the deeper question behind your submission is, “what type of civil disobedience should we leave room for as a society?”

When you ask if riots are okay, I also hear the question “ultimately, are riots effective?” The answer depends on whether you interpret riots as raging, irrational actions, or rational strategies that are part of a larger struggle, say, a type of collective bargaining with the powers that be.

If your goal is to bring attention to your case, a riot will effectively attract flocks of news cameras, drawn like moths to smoke and the tinge of flames. Still, there’s the risk you’ll lose control of the narrative. Hence why some people are more outraged by riots over injustice than by riots initiated by drunk sports fans (can you tell I’m not a fan of sport riots?).

If your goal is to bring about change, the verdict on riots is not yet out. Some riots flounder and backfire, drawing more repression and fear and scaring away economic investment. Others catalyze nationwide reflection and a more humane future, like Stonewall in 1969 or Kent State in 1970 (dare I mention Jesus overturning tables at a city market?).

Regardless of what you or I think, rioting is a centuries-old social phenomena and a heavy tool in the toolbox of civic action, like writing a letter to a congressperson or picketing. Dr. King taught us that some communities choose heavier tools because their voices have gone unheard too long. The simple reality that you and I have time to dissect that choice suggests that we are not under the same clear and present danger of injustice these communities face. Let’s use the time we have to dive deeper in the social realities that spark rioting. For as Dr. King reflected, “If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”

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