Drawing the line between a protest and a riot

Police walk a fine line knowing how to handle demonstrations that can quickly get out of hand.

TAMPA, Fla. – What’s the difference between a protester and a rioter? It’s a question that’s been asked as the nation has watched businesses burned in Baltimore, police cars torched in Ferguson, roadblocks across highways in Minneapolis, and street brawls in Baton Rouge. Those images often overshadow the peaceful protesters trying to bring about change, and where the line is drawn can be the difference between making a statement and creating chaos.

In Charlotte, North Carolina Wednesday night, there were two separate hashtags trending on Twitter: #CharlotteProtests and #CharlotteRiots. They symbolized two different conversations about the same event.

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"It was both. In my opinion it was both,” said NAACP Upper Pinellas County Branch President Bertha Kelley when asked what she saw as she watched what unfolded in Charlotte on TV Wednesday night. "What can start out being a protest can end up being a riot because we have no control over some people out there."

Kelley went as far as to cancel a planned protest earlier this summer because she was worried it might get beyond her control, knowing how quickly a peaceful protest can be hijacked and turn into a riot.

"We've had a number of demonstrations in the last several months, so far our track record is very good,” said Tampa Police spokesman Stephen Hegarty. “We just try to make sure that everybody’s safe, we don’t want any property damage, we don’t want any arrests, we don’t want any injuries and, for the most part, we’ve been very successful.”

Hegarty credits that success not only to officer training, but to open communication with the protesters themselves.

“I have to give them credit, again, we have a pretty good track record but that’s not just us doing our due diligence, also the organizers -- I think -- have the same goal,” said Hegarty. “We rely on the leaders of those demonstrations to do the right thing and get their message across effectively and that does not involve tearing up your own city.”

 

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