Lessons from Charlotte: When a protest is just a riot

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In Charlotte, NC, violent riots in protest of the police killing of a black man spiraled out of control for the second night in a row. On Wednesday night, an non-permitted demonstration in Downtown Charlotte was interrupted by gunfire from a protester that gravely wounded a civilian man in the crowd. In response, Charlotte Police deployed tear gas, riot squads and pepper spray to try and restore order.

In response to the widespread property damage, eight civilians and four police officers were injured and 44 arrests made; North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency, giving him the authority to deploy the National Guard and Highway Patrol to assist the Charlotte Police in enforcing a curfew.

{mosads}The riots in Charlotte are in response to the death of Keith Lamont Scott, 43, who was shot dead by a black police officer in the parking lot of an apartment complex on Tuesday afternoon, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said. At a news conference on Wednesday, Chief Putney said officers had recovered the gun at the scene that the police said Scott held upon getting out of his vehicle. Video evidence confirmed Scott emerged from his vehicle holding a gun, but according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Kerr Putney, the slain North Carolina man did not point the gun at the officer who killed him.

Friends and family members of Mr. Scott, however, tell a different story. They say that he was unarmed and was holding only a book, not a gun; even though many of them were not on scene with Scott when he was shot. Chief Putney refuted that statement on Wednesday morning by stating in no uncertain terms that “We did not find a book.”

Nonetheless, stories spread to the Black Lives Matter movement, who circulated on social media and the television news networks about Scott being unarmed and reading a book at the time of his being shot, which drove protesters into the streets on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. These protests quickly became riots as motorists were accosted, video emerged of a reporter and a homeless man being physically assaulted while racial epithets were hurled at them, as well as the previously mentioned “civilian on civilian” confrontation resulting in one rioter shooting the other in the head.

In the headlines of the RSS feeds about Charlotte, nowhere in the mainstream media will you see the word “riot.” Currently, the most common label associated with what has been happening in Charlotte over the last two nights, last week in Columbus, OH, last month in Milwaukee or last year in Baltimore and Ferguson, MO was “violent protest”. So what exactly is a violent protest?

A protest can occur in many ways, such as a sit-in, march, rally, boycott, hunger strike, etc.  However, if you look in legal dictionaries, you will find no definition for “violent protest.” This is because lawful protests are not supposed to be violent. However, when you look up the word “riot” in the Wex legal dictionary at the Cornell University Law School, you get the following:

“A concerted action: (1) made in furtherance of an express common purpose; (2) through the use or threat of violence, disorder, or terror to the public; and (3) resulting in a disturbance of the peace. Under common law, the crime of riot requires the assemblage of three or more actors. The concerted acts may be unlawful in themselves, or they may be lawful acts that are done in a violent or turbulent manner. Among the different forms that riots may take include escalated labor disputes or political demonstrations. While most riots occur in public places, they may also take place within prisons”

The actual definition of what is happening in Charlotte and what’s happened in almost every other place where a dispute over the police shooting of an African-American man has spilled into the street resulting in property damage or injury is a riot. So why does the media continue to label these incidents “violent protests” and those involved in them “protesters” instead of what they’re legally defined as; which are riots and rioters? In doing so, the media is irresponsibly legitimizing this criminal behavior.

More disturbingly, law enforcement executives are being pressured to not arrest those responsible for the inciting of these riots nor those caught on video committing crimes during these riots. Title 18 of the United States Criminal Code, section 2102 defines riots as:

“(a) the term “riot” means 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 or (2) a threat or threats of the commission of an act or acts of violence by one or more persons part of an assemblage of three or more persons having, individually or collectively, the ability of immediate execution of such threat or threats, where the performance of the threatened act or acts of violence would constitute a clear and present danger of, or would result in, damage or injury to the property of any other person or to the person of any other individual.

(b) As used in this chapter, the term “to incite a riot”, or “to organize, promote, encourage, participate in, or carry on a riot”, includes, but is not limited to, urging or instigating other persons to riot, but shall not be deemed to mean the mere oral or written (1) advocacy of ideas or (2) expression of belief, not involving advocacy of any act or acts of violence or assertion of the rightness of, or the right to commit, any such act or acts.”

So, imagine you manage a restaurant in Downtown Charlotte, convenience store in Ferguson, MO, or corner liquor store in Baltimore. Your life’s savings are tied into your business and your family’s well-being is reliant on the money you bring home from that business to survive. A group of rioters come and tear your business up, looting your inventory and creating thousands of dollars in property damage for reasons that had nothing to do with you, and for what later turned out to be lies. You, like any good citizen turn to your local law enforcement agency to report the crime. You hand over surveillance footage of the crimes, accompanied with clear videos of these crimes recorded by numerous cable news networks as well. Who gets arrested, indicted and convicted?

Historically, areas like Newark, Watts, and Detroit had major problems rebounding from riots occurring there in the 1960s. A primary reason they never or took a long time coming back from their riots is because merchants who were victimized by rioters never saw justice, and didn’t want to return to a community in where they would have to do business with those who victimized them on a daily basis again. Only time will tell what lasting legacy exists from a town like Ferguson, but that doesn’t change the fact that those truly responsible for the unrest there remain unpunished for their crimes.

So in falsely labeling these riots, are we giving a pass to those who should be legally accountable for the crimes occurring during these riots? If video exists of suspects looting, committing vandalism or arson, and physical violence; shouldn’t they be prosecuted? More importantly, in the case of Ferguson, the “Hands up, don’t shoot” narrative that led to the weeks of unrest there was proven to be a lie on the part of Dorian Johnson, who was Brown’s accomplice in the strong-arm robbery of a convenience store for cigarillos that had occurred minutes before the fatal confrontation with Officer Darren Wilson. Furthermore, Brown’s stepfather, Louis Head, had stated “burn this bitch down” in reaction to the grand jury’s decision not to prosecute Wilson. To date, neither Johnson nor Head have been indicted nor even questioned for inciting a riot.

By applying ill-defined, politically correct labels on violent criminals, the media is doing the public a disservice. By doing so, an environment is created in where elected mayors and prosecutors instruct appointed law enforcement executives to give a ‘pass’ to those committing crimes during periods of civil unrest. Riots were once rare and shameful events resulting in mass arrests, permanent records, and unrepairable damage to the communities where they occur. Now, they’re becoming a popular social statement excused by a political class that’s afraid to tell the truth and risk the loss of voting blocks.

One thing is clear, if we don’t start applying honesty in journalism that values criminal justice over social justice, a dangerous environment will continue to grow and people will continue to be hurt and even killed. 

Is being politically correct worth more than a human life? 

Mannes is a national subject matter expert in public safety and regular contributor to The Hill. He serves as a member of the Pierce College Criminal Justice Studies Advisory Board in Philadelphia and is a Governor on the Executive Board of InfraGard, the FBI-coordinated public-private partnership for critical infrastructure protection. Follow him on Twitter@PublicSafetySME


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.






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