Expressing Political Dissent in America’s Streets Through Public Disorder

In America we have always known the difference between demonstrating and rioting. A demonstration has rules and participants for the most part obey them. A riot on the other hand has no rules and rioters therefore feel free to violate legal prohibitions, standards of decency and are willing to act without shame. Demonstrations are usually planned in advance and include an effort to maintain order. They are generally sanctioned and controlled by public law enforcement who place barricades, issue permits for assembly and the use of sound equipment, approve marching routes, and maintain communications with representatives of demonstrating group throughout the life of the public event. Riots are usually spontaneous (or at least claim to be) and from the moment of inception are in violation of law. There are times when demonstrations deteriorate into riots, sometimes even by design. We have seen both demonstrations and riots in American streets. I have found myself in the middle of both in an official capacity over the years.

In America we traditionally settle differences amongst us by manifesting our opposition either through our judicial system or in the case of ideological or political disputes between groups, by availing ourselves of the right to peaceably and publicly demonstrate in an effort to take our case to the court of public opinion. A demonstration is often a step in a negotiating process undertaken to bring about a policy change. A riot is more akin to an act of war in which individuals choose violent confrontation on an individual basis to take over the ‘battlefield” and force their will upon society. Demonstrations have had success in America in changing policy, opposition to the Viet Nam War and the peaceful protests over racial inequalities for example. In recent days we have witnessed in America’s streets both demonstrations and riots as well as demonstrations deteriorating into a riots. As we are about to enter the holiday season, we are likely to see more of both as traditional targets for debate such as religion, economic disparities and politics are introduced into the dialogue adding an accelerant to a smoldering fire. Underlying these events is our ongoing efforts to contain opportunities for terrorist infiltration that any large gathering presents – especially when such assemblages make current screening programs extremely difficult. Demonstrations, and even worse riot conditions, clearly present the foreseeable risk of violence on a level heretofore not experienced in America’s streets bringing with it new challenges for public law enforcement.

The “Occupy Wall Street” Movement started as a demonstration centered in New York City’s financial district against America’s financial institutions by a small group of demonstrators. It has grown into a nationwide movement made up of disparate groups of supporters alleging in general a need for a more “fair distribution” of the Nation’s wealth. The demonstrations are centered on a piece of private real property known as Zucotti Park owned by a real estate holding company that has neither endorsed the “occupation” nor made a demand for the removal of the occupiers. The demonstration has received moral and financial support from a number of prominent members of the political community and appears to have financial support ranging from Hollywood celebrities to labor unions. They have also been cited for a number of criminal violations by the NYPD resulting from individual criminal conduct. Although there are other legal issues stemming from make- shift housing and sanitary code regulation violations to serious felonies involving assaults, including sexual assaults, they have not as yet been charged with group liability that could lead to their physical removal from the park and the revocation of their right to demonstrate. So far New York City’s mayor has not taken threatened action against the group for their various violations but has promised a swift response against acts involving danger to community peace including interference with city operations and the destruction of property.

What has started as a similar demonstration against financial inequities in the streets of Portland, Oregon has now begun the process of deterioration from demonstration to riot. It is reported that the City of Portland, known nationally for its tolerance of the alternate life-styles that have flourished in and around its city core for many years is finding it increasingly difficult to manage the “occupation” due to the large numbers of outsiders, including an infiltration of the mentally handicapped, chronic substance abusers and hardened criminals that have infiltrated the “Occupy Portland Movement.” The Portland Police Bureau has now found it necessary to forcibly shut down the city blocks currently being occupied as the center of the movement and has begun the removal of the movements “occupiers”.

Unlike other cities, Portland and Portlanders have long tolerated the presence of substance abusers, panhandlers, hustlers and more aggressive criminal elements in its downtown area. Over time, it has become a haven for a wide assortment of street people from cities across the Midwest and Southwest with less tolerant policies toward their alternate life-styles. Recent media stories depicting the obvious threats to peace and safety in the streets of Portland have served to highlight it as a fertile recruiting ground for its fast growing, and out of control “occupy” movement and has changed how many Portlanders view this invasion of their city resulting in a backlash against a movement which had drawn much local support.

Oakland, California demonstrators rallying on behalf the of the “Occupy Oakland” movement present an example of what can happen when a demonstration is allowed by local authorities to unravel into splinter groups which become separated from both control by their organizational leadership and a police force operating under unclear direction from the city’s political leadership. In what had started out as an orderly protest with goals similar to those of the other “occupy” movements around the country, Oakland became a classic case of a planned demonstration’s rapid deterioration into riot. Through physical force, the rioters moved onto Oakland’s waterfront shutting down all operations and blocking all exits throughout the day and into the evening. Groups then forcibly occupied buildings in the downtown area hurling rocks, bottles and fire- bombs at police responding to the unrest in the area. The police were unable to regain control as the rampage continued to other parts of the downtown area. Oakland’s movement can now claim the first homicide among the nation’s various occupy movements.

Resorting to the use of dangerous weapons, including rocks and firebombs, with the clear intent of inflicting serious injury to police officers ceases to be a demonstration and transforms it into a riot calling for a swift and effective response by police to neutralize the offenders, the restoring of order and the protection of the public and its property.


Use of police to maintain order and provide for the safety of the public and security of property is the main role of law enforcement. When a community is faced with either a planned lawful demonstration or a spontaneous outbreak of civil disorder in which there is a foreseeable risk of harm to the public or property, law enforcement has a duty to the community to be prepared to protect society professionally by taking reasonable steps to provide for the safety of the public. Concomitantly, community leaders, with public support, must be prepared for the implementation of policies that allow the police to carryout their duties under law unobstructed by inconsistent direction from civic officials and public statements of support for demonstrators engaged in illegal conduct no matter how compelling their cause.

Police are often criticized for their use of force in controlling an out of control mob of civilians stampeding through the streets leveling everything in their path. Even scenes of overturned automobiles, looted businesses and burned out buildings that were once someone’s home don’t always inhibit the public speculation over the question of how much force is too much – even in the pursuit of public safety and the return to our normal routines. During such moments of reflection it is important to remember that our police officers, mostly young men and women, products of the communities they are sworn to protect, are what stands between us and the mob; and we are best served when we invite their judgment on the decision of when and how to commence with vigorous control of public demonstrations.

Note: In the late 60’s and early 70’s the author served in an official capacity negotiating with demonstrators and monitoring police performance during riots and demonstrations in the streets of New York for the Office of the Mayor of the City of New York. I have witnessed first hand both the extremes of violence and restraint that were part of the confrontations taking place on city streets and university campuses during another troubled time in the nation’s history. There are few experiences in a civilized society comparable to facing an enraged mob in the streets of New York City, but I survived it thanks to the dedication of the men and women of the New York City Police Department. My thanks also the Portland Police Bureau for once again taking back the streets from the few for the use by all of us. For the past 20 years, I have watched with concern Portland’s battle to restore civility to its downtown area which I believe will be achieved when aggressive policing is allowed to take hold.

Share this post: