We know word choice matters. Right now there's a lot of talk about riots and protests and sometimes those terms are used interchangeably. But they don't mean the same thing. Permit me to get wonky and share the established meanings of these terms. A act of protesting is about sharing ideas and lodging complaints. Under most definitions, it doesn't include actions beyond gathering, marching and communicating.

The definition of a protest

For the context we're talking about here, a protest is all about exercising our Constitutional rights to come together speak freely about the actions of our local, state and federal government.

Here's the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of a protest:

2: the act of objecting or a gesture of disapproval resigned in protest especially: a usually organized public demonstration of disapproval

For a broad legal definition of a protest, refer to the NOLO Free Dictionary of Law Terms & Legal Definitions:

  1. To complain in a public way about an act, such as sending troops overseas, use of the death penalty, or adoption of a regulation or law.
  2. To dispute the amount of property taxes, the assessed evaluation of property for tax purposes, or an import duty.

The good folks at The Library of Congress posted this interpretation of the Constitutional protections for peaceful assembly (a/k/a protests):

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the United States Congress from enacting legislation that would abridge the right of the people to assemble peaceably.  The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution makes this prohibition applicable to state governments.

The Supreme Court of the United States has held that the First Amendment protects the right to conduct a peaceful public assembly. The right to assemble is not, however, absolute.  Government officials cannot simply prohibit a public assembly in their own discretion, but the government can impose restrictions on the time, place, and manner of peaceful assembly, provided that constitutional safeguards are met.  Time, place, and manner restrictions are permissible so long as they “are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, . . . are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and . . . leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.”


The definition of a riot

Riots, on the other hand, aren't peaceful (duh!). They may involve looting, arson, violence and other acts of destruction. I've been to protests and I've found myself in a riot. Though this won't stand up in a court of law, the energy is totally different and you know which one you're in.

For a more concrete explanation, our friends at Merriam-Webster define a riot thusly as "a violent public disorder specifically: a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent; b: public violence, tumult, or disorder."

The Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School broadly defines a riot as:

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 official definition, according to U.S. Code §2101:

(a) As used in this chapter, 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.

Of course, "clear and present danger" is open to interpretation, and in our country, law enforcement has broad (if not sole) authority to determine whether there is an obvious and immediate threat. If they declare a riot, they can legally disperse the crowd, using force if necessary, and under the protection of state and federal anti-riot laws.

Consider this way of looking at riots from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

We must devise the tactics, not to beg Congress for favors, but to create a situation in which they deem it wise and prudent to act with responsibility and decency.

Some people assert riots are just such a method. Perhaps it would be well to examine the nature of the outbreaks. They reveal in the first place that the time we have is shorter than many of us believed. Patience is running out and the intransigence and hostility of government—national, state and municipal—is aggravating grievances to explosive levels.

The riots are not simply a reign of terror or a splurge of crime, though both elements are partially present. They are also a wildly emotional protest and a desperate attempt to display the utter desperation that has engulfed many Negroes. The vast majority who actively participated were remarkably discriminating in avoiding harm to persons, venting their anger by appropriating or destroying property. There is an ironic purpose in this choice; to attack a society that appears to cherish property above people, the worst wounds to inflict on it are those to property.


Now more than ever, it's important to know the difference between these two words. I hope this helps.