The History of Protesting vs Rioting: What’s the difference, do they send the message?

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INDIANAPOLIS — For the first time, many of us are experiencing protests and riots in our own city. And there are a lot of questions. We want to answer those while providing you the historical context of the racial injustices throughout our society causing African-Americans to respond through emotion. 

What we’ve seen and heard over the last few days, are the voices of those who have felt silenced. That feeling and the growing frustrations of seeing someone just like you killed by police has sparked these movements and a new conversation. 

“What a protest is, is people who are peacefully protesting a cause or an issue and they are letting their voices be heard in the protest or march for the cause that their protesting. A riot is when people take that to another extent and they do damage to property or to people,” said Reverend Charles Harrison. 

Protests and riots have different outcomes but have the potential to lead to societal change. But are they sending the same message?

“I think the same message could be sent and it’s showing that people are fed up. And for me, thinking about it broadly what’s been happening over the past eight days across the country, starting in Minneapolis, and then spreading to other cities throughout the country,” said IUPUI, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Evava Pietri, Ph.D.

She’s been closely watching the nationwide protests and riots following the death of George Floyd. Some of those resulting in hugs from police, others resulting in destruction.

“This is a different generation of individuals and they express their pain in different ways than previous generations have expressed their pain … nobody hears us when we’re peaceful so people will hear us when we riot when we loot when we vandalize,” said Harrison.

It’s a unified message to end systematic racism but also a statement many don’t understand the history behind it.

“We see high profile examples of this just within the past month. But we can think about the past five years this consistently happening. And it’s not even the past five years right it’s in our full history,” said Pietri. 

Also, etched into the African-American history that dates back for hundreds of years. 

“We’re talking about a history that started back in slavery with the slave patrols and then policing in the south and what we’re seeing today,” said Harrison. 

In the ’60s civil rights activists marched, protested, and pushed for equality. They believed non-violent acts were most effective.

“It was viewed a lot differently as to what would be the best approach that would not harm the movement but would enhance the movement,” said Harrison. 

The movement continued 30 years later in the ’90s after the beating of Rodney Ling in Los Angeles, that incident sparked riots. 

“It shocked me that all of that tension and anger still existed in us where the whole country erupted,” said Harrison.

Now it erupts again 30 years later with George Floyd’s death sparking outrage.

“I don’t want the history book to say the 2020 protests were violent and based on looting cause I just don’t think that is the case either … I think that would be a huge mistake. Because there are so many people protesting peacefully and not causing any sort of destruction,” said Pietri.

Throughout it all, the goal of the movements and the message has never changed for decades. 

“And until we undo the injustices this kind of movement is going to continue to happen in this country and there will be no peace until there is true justice,” said Harrison. 

This movement that we’re seeing is a continuation of the anger and emotions of generations.

Pietri and Harrison both stressed to me that the actions we’ve seen over the last week will spark awareness and hopefully, lead to change.

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