Freedom of Assembly. Essay on Riots

Angry mobs of people flood the streets; fires erupt in buildings and vehicles, law enforcement scramble wildly to control the scene, utter chaos breaks out everywhere. How did it all start? For generations, peaceful protests have turned into riots, as the scene previously described. Even though these riots are illegal, they have become a familiar scene in many countries. These violent actions most likely originated from a protest that went unnoticed or when no change was made. The more common form of assembly, a protest, however, is guaranteed to citizens through the United States Constitution. The Freedom of Assembly ensured through the United States Constitution may be better understood by examining the differences between non-violent direct action and riots, as well as the perspectives of the Catholic Church.

To fully understand the issues with non-violent direct action and riots, one must first learn what they are, and the differences that separate them from each other. To begin with, non-violent direct action, also known as a peaceful protest, can be defined as an expression or declaration of objection, disapproval, or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent. When a peaceful protest occurs, people are trying to make a statement in a non-violent manner (Patterson). Some protests can last for weeks, or even months at a time. Protests can be anything from a crowd of people gathering to convey their disapproval with work issues, to professional athletes kneeling for the National Anthem. Although successful in many cases, sometimes protests do not gain the attention they need to help resolve an issue. In these rare cases, protesters may turn to violence to try and bring about more attention.

Every demonstration is lawful until it is not. When protests are no longer constitutional, they become riots (Alicea). Defined as a noisy, violent public disorder caused by a group or crowd of persons, riots are an uncivilized way of revolting against a particular problem. As alluded to in the definition, riots are a significant disturbance of the peace. Participants generally break laws and cause chaos throughout the city. They may shoot or throw objects at police officers, loot stores and vandalize buildings, or even burn a whole building to the ground (Patterson). Riots are often caused by racial injustice or incidents involving the police (“Refusing to . . . Cons”). 

The differences between the two are immense. If at anytime a protest becomes violent, it has evolved into a riot. Rioters also break a handful of laws, while protests are entirely legal. Rioting completely crosses the line from being considered a protest (Patterson). Because of the violence involved, rioters have a much higher risk of being arrested, while protesters are more likely to be left alone. 

Police will not interfere with a peaceful demonstration is because of the rights afforded to citizens by the First Amendment. Under the First Amendment, citizens have the right to express their opinions, even if those opinions are unpopular among the general public. While protesting, one can criticize the President, Congress, or any other political figure without backlash (“Know your . . . Demonstrations”). This amendment also prohibits Congress from creating or passing a law that would take away the right to assemble or speak freely. The Supreme Court has also stated that the Amendment protects the right to conduct a peaceful assembly. The First Amendment, however, does not provide people with the power to freely assemble if a riot or violent actions are inevitable. Also, statutes under the First Amendment prohibit citizens from using force or other violent acts when they gather (Winston). Although the First Amendment gives citizens the right to protest, people still see these demonstrations in very different ways. 

To begin with, those that see protests in a positive light may argue that they create awareness regarding challenges faced by different groups of people. Some may say that these protests bring much-needed attention and a possible solution to these issues. Those who debate the negative side of protests may say that they can result in riots that harmful to communities and can cause serious injury. They may also see it from the perspective that protests are not even the best way to bring about awareness and that somethings will heal themselves over time (“Pros and Cons of Protesting”). Although interpreted in different ways, protests always try and bring awareness to an issue while not disturbing the peace. 

A common word to look for to find out more about protests is the word, “peaceful.” Something that is peaceful is defined as, “free from disturbance.” By definition, something that is peaceful should not disturb the peace of a city, town, or community in any way. All protests are considered peaceful until the moment one law is broken, and the peace is disturbed, then it becomes a riot. People use the words “peaceful protest” quite often when in reality, that is the only type of protest. The term “violent protest” is onomatopoeia. With the two words separated, they mean opposite things but together can be substituted for the word “riot.” Once a protest does turn to violence is no longer considered a protest but may be classified as a riot. 

Riots are rarely ever the first way that citizens choose to demonstrate their beliefs. Complaints to the media, lawsuits, and protests are more common responses to these issues.  Riots are often the culmination of many long-standing problems and may be ignited by one event that finally lights the match. In some cases, riots give voices to the voiceless who feel as though their opinion has gone unheard. Once a riot picks up momentum, looting and violence become unstoppable to a point (“What Causes Riots?”).

The looting of stores and chaotic violence that riots cause can last for days, if not weeks.  In the past, rioters have been known to go to local stores, such as Walmart and “loot” the store, leaving it nearly empty (Joseph). Also, in some situations, rioters even began to hurl rocks, and even Molotov cocktails at law enforcement trying to contain the situation (Alicea). Police officers have responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd to try and end the chaos. As a result of the violence involved in most riots, they bring upon repercussions to those who participate (Lopez).

For example, in the Los Angeles riots of 1992, nearly 12,000 people were arrested. These people were mainly arrested on charges for destruction of property for smashing cars and burning buildings. Others were arrested for robbery or offenses against emergency workers. All in all, over $1 billion in property damage was caused (Lopez). These violent demonstrations also may bring about the economic downfall of a city. Riots often scare away businesses and investors, and the damage caused may be left unrepaired, leaving scars on the community for years. Although these consequences are the outcome of some riots, most do not have a direct economic impact, and ones that do have become less common (“How Riots . . . Economy”). 

The Catholic Church’s views on Freedom of Assembly may be examined through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Bible, and statements by Pope Francis. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 1731, “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one's responsibility. By free will one shapes one's own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness . . .”(Catholic Church). In other words, the freedom we have is a gift from God. The way we choose to use that gift is up to us, but also that our freedom is a powerful thing and that we should act justly and maturely in our actions. The Bible states in 1 Peter 3:9, “Do not return evil for evil, or insult for insult; but, on the contrary, a blessing, because to this you were called, that you might inherit a blessing.” (Hartdegen). In this verse, God is telling us that we must not retaliate negatively to others harming us, but instead, pray for them to be healed, and in return, we will have peace. Pope Francis in an interview with the National Catholic Register said, “There is a limit. Every religion has dignity. . . even in freedom of expression, there are limits.” In other words, the Pope is explaining that all things have their boundaries, even freedoms guaranteed to through the United States Constitution. 

When cities are turned into warzones, buildings to ashes and the lives of thousands of people are at risk; we know that the limits of the Freedom of Assembly have been pushed. Unfortunately, over time, these scenes have become a recurring image across the world. Looking at the origins of riots rooted in protests, and the build-up and fallout of these tragic events may help us to understand how and why they even exist in the first place. I believe that protests are a completely legal and appropriate way of expressing ourselves through the First Amendment, and riots, though sometimes unavoidable, are morally wrong. We are given a fantastic freedom through the First Amendment to assemble as we please. This right should not be abused ,and those who take advantage of them should face the consequences involved. These gifts given to us by God should be used for the betterment of the world, and to glorify His name.



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