A Philosopher's Blog

Protests & Riots

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 16, 2016

While Trump’s election has been greeted by some with joy, others have responded by protesting. In Portland, Oregon a protest took a destructive turn and was classified as a riot by the police. This resulted in property damage, the use of less-than-lethal force by the police and arrests. Protests and riots are certainly philosophically interesting and I will begin by considering some basic definitions.

Put simply, a protest is an expression of disapproval. A political protest, of the sort that have been occurring, are obviously aimed at expression an objection to some political matter, in this case the election of Donald Trump. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the right of the people to peaceful assembly, although this is not an absolute right. Almost by definition, peaceful assembly seems morally acceptable. As with other rights, there are certainly cases in which peaceful assembly can be justly restricted, but this would need to be warranted because the assembly would result in meaningful and unwarranted harms. For example, if people wanted to assemble on the runways of the Atlanta airport to protest the low wages for fast food workers, then it would be reasonable to prevent that. The protest does not require the use of a runway to make its point and it would create both danger and considerable inconvenience to travelers and cargo shipments. As might be imagined, whether a particular peaceful protest should be allowed can be a matter of great debate, but that is an issue for another time.

While a riot can be a protest, not all protests are riots and not all riots are protests. For example, the 1992 riot that did $10 million in damage arose from a game between the Chicago Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers does not seem to qualify as a protest.  A riot is characterized by violent civil disorder involving a group. While the violence is most commonly directed against property, it can involve violence against people. Since attacks on people or property are both generally illegal, riots are generally regarded as criminal by their very nature.

For a protest to be a riot (and vice versa), there must be a group of people engaging in a violent civil disorder with the intent of expressing their disapproval. Since riots are generally illegal, a protest riot would probably also be illegal. However, there is an important distinction between law and morality, so a riot that is illegal could be morally justified.

In general terms, a riot could be morally justified in various ways. One obvious justification would be that the riot was in response to a terrible wrong that warrants such violence. For example, Americans often like to point to certain riots that took place in the run up to our revolutionary war as morally warranted because of British tyranny. The violence of such riots would presumably be directed at those who deserve such violence. As such, wrongs that do not warrant a violent response and violence against those not responsible would be unwarranted.

To use an analogy, if Sally did a terrible wrong to Jane and Jane could get no redress any other way, then she could be morally justified in using violence against Sally or her property. But, if Jane went after Bob, who has no connection to Sally, then this would be unjustified. Assuming those engaged in the “riot” in Portland were protesting (and not just opportunists) against Trump, their attacks on property in Portland would obviously be wrong. For example, wrecking cars in a Portland dealership does not strike a blow against Trump—even if Trump did something warranting a riot against him.

It could be argued that since so many voted for Trump, there is a chance that a Trump supporter will be impacted by a riot, thus “paying them back” for their misdeed. The easy and obvious reply is that this sort of riot roulette is morally unacceptable because it is more likely to harm someone who did not support Trump than someone who did. There is also the fact that it is morally unacceptable to regard voting for Trump as grounds for being the target of violence.

Another approach is to justify a riot on utilitarian grounds—if the riot results in more good than harm (and more good than not rioting), then it would be morally acceptable. Once again, Americans often regard their revolutionary riots as falling into this category.

While some people, assuming they are actually protesting Trump, might feel better venting their rage in a riot, it seems unlikely that this “good” will outweigh the harm done to those whose property they destroy or damage. Even if it assumed that Trump is evil and will be doing more evil as president, breaking other peoples’ stuff is not going to counter that evil. It could, of course, be countered that the destruction will show Trump that people are very serious and this will influence him. This, however, seems rather unlikely. One feature of utilitarian justifications is that the action must have actual results; ineffectual expressions of protest do not count in the calculation.

It might be countered that the destruction is morally acceptable because the (alleged) protestors are striking out against an unjust social order that enabled Trump to become president. The obvious reply is that while this might have some abstract appeal, the real damage is being done to the innocent rather than the guilty. Thus, such violence and destruction seem to be immoral.

The protests against Trump might decline as people work out their disappointment and anger; but they might surge again when Trump takes office and starts doing presidential things. One analogy worth considering is the Tea Party that was spawned in response to Obama. Trump might inspire a similar response by dedicated opponents on the left. If so, protests against President Trump could be routine and there will be something of a role reversal among the people, pundits, politicians and news media. For example, while Fox News was typically favorably inclined towards the Tea Party and almost all attacks on Obama, one would expect them to take a rather different approach to analogous behavior by Trump’s opponents.


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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on November 16, 2016 at 9:41 am

    This appears to present a good moral justification for damaging the property of abortionists and their clinics in protest against the violence they inflict upon innocent children. There is no legal redress in this matter and, since the victims are dead, a surrogate must protest in their place.

  2. TJB said, on November 16, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    And then of course there is Pussy Riot.

    • wtp said, on November 16, 2016 at 4:37 pm

      That was one minute twenty seconds of the stupidest thing I’ve seen all day. And it’s been a pretty stupid day. Aside from having the word “pussy” in their name, what does that have to do with anything?

      • TJB said, on November 16, 2016 at 6:57 pm

        I agree it is stupid. A desperate attempt to be relevant.

  3. DH said, on November 17, 2016 at 10:28 am

    I guess one of the main differences between today’s riots and those of the American Revolution is that the ones in the 18th century were against a real enemy that was doing real harm to the colonists. The Boston Tea Party was a protest against an actual unfair tax. The Boston Massacre arose from a protest against actual soldiers representing an actual oppressive government. The Pine Tree Riot was a protest against an actual authoritarian government making it illegal for colonists to cut down large pine trees, so they could be reserved for the masts of British ships.

    As you state, these protests were against actual enemies, and the destruction was targeted directly at the perpetrators of the wrongs.

    In contrast, not only has Trump done nothing oppressive – he has done nothing at all. Everything is based on wild speculation and imagination – fueled by the media.

    The video posted by TJB is indeed stupid, but not to be dismissed. I think that it is representative of the way a lot of people really think in this country. Perhaps they should wait to see what he actually does before they begin destroying people’s lives and livelihoods.

    • nailheadtom said, on November 17, 2016 at 7:26 pm

      The riots and protests that preceded the American revolution had no legitimacy. The colonists were, for the most part, British citizens in a territory governed by the United Kingdom. Of course, they had to pay taxes, just like other British citizens. Plenty of current Americans have a problem with their taxes. If they refuse to pay or riot, they go to jail. Part of the colonists’ problem with their government was quartering of troops. How much different is that than forcing Americans to pay the salaries, which are meant to cover food, housing, etc., of the many different forms of law enforcement and the military? The constitution forbids a standing army but a way was found to get around that. The pine trees were property of the crown so of course it would be illegal for colonists to cut them for their own purposes. This ignores the fact that the trees, along with the land, belonged to the native Americans, not the British or their American children.

  4. WTP said, on November 18, 2016 at 6:50 am

    Meanwhile, this protester is facing five years in prison for hanging posters.

    “Back in my Soviet dissident days, when I was collecting signatures in defense of Andrei Sakharov, I was screamed at, threatened, and lectured by the KGB and Communist functionaries,” Oleg says. “What I never imagined was that in the United States, the land of the free, I would not only be subjected to similar treatment, but go to jail.”


  5. TJB said, on November 19, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    Question asked:

    How Long Before Prominent Leftists Begin Calling Openly for Trump’s Assassination?


    Mike, as a man of the left, do you care to make a prediction?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 19, 2016 at 4:23 pm

      Americans generally oppose assassination as a political tool, but I suppose someone has already tweeted some vague threat about the 2nd Amendment.

    • WTP said, on November 19, 2016 at 5:12 pm

      Did you really expect a more coherent, rational response from this thinker of thinkology than this, TJ?

      • TJB said, on November 19, 2016 at 8:29 pm

        I’m trolling him because he consistently fails to see the moral failings of the left.

        • WTP said, on November 19, 2016 at 9:43 pm

          Oh, I wouldn’t say that’s entirely true. If in context he can avoid saying something was a lie, which sounds harsher than “morally wrong”, he will go with “morally wrong”. Which sounds more like an oopsie rather than a conscious effort to deceive. You have referenced “moral failings”, I guarandamnteeyou that Mike will not address your concerns about “moral failings” without rephrasing and obfuscating the issue, possibly dragging in other irrelevant data, in an attempt to pretend, in his own mind anyway, that he has addressed your point. So you see his failure to see is really your failure to see that there is nothing there to see. You see?

          Mike teaches ethics.

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