What You Need To Know About “Protester” vs. “Rioter” vs. “Terrorist” vs. “Mob”

On January 6, 2021, a mob at a protest rally in support of Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol building on the day Congress was set to certify the electoral vote count to confirm Joe Biden’s presidential election victory.

As people processed this shocking event, they debated how to refer to the participants in the siege. Should the people who invaded the Capitol, even if they were originally attending the rally, still be called protesters? Or do stronger words like rioter—or even terrorist—apply?

We will leave the exact labeling to justice departments, but here, we will investigate the dictionary and legal definitions to help bring some clarity to these consequential terms—and tumultuous times.

What is a protester?

A protester—also spelled protestor—is a person who participates in a protest. A protest is “an expression or declaration of objection, disapproval, or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid.”

Protests are often held against things like a nation’s involvement in a war or specific government policies or forms of injustice. Such protests are often held in public spaces by people who want to display their disapproval openly in order to bring awareness to their cause and put pressure on authorities to make changes.

A close synonym for protester is a demonstrator, a person who takes part in a public demonstration. A demonstration, in this context, is “a public exhibition of the attitude of a group of persons toward a controversial issue, or other matter, made by picketing, parading, etc.”

The word protest is first recorded in English in the 1300s. It comes from the Latin prōtestārī, meaning “to declare publicly.”

Legal definition of protest

Protestor, protester, and protest appear in many US laws, but no provision specifically sets out a definition for the term.

US citizens have the right to organize protests on the basis of the First Amendment of the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The police have the authority to stop a protest if there is a clear and present danger that it is turning into a riot, threatens life or property, disrupts traffic, or is otherwise a risk to public safety.

Find out if you know the difference between protest and dissent.

What is a rioter?

A rioter is a person who takes part in a riot. A riot is “a noisy, violent public disorder caused by a group or crowd of persons, as by a crowd protesting against another group, a government policy, etc., in the streets.”

Violent protests are sometimes called riots. But the term riot is often extremely loaded and used in a way that’s intended to be dismissive of protests and portray protesters as lawless, destructive, or violent.

The word riot is first recorded between 1175 and 1225. It comes through a Middle English word meaning “debauchery” or “violent disturbance” from the Old French riote, meaning “debate” or “quarrel.” Riote is a noun derived from the Old French rihoter or riotter (“to quarrel”).

Legal definition of riot

Riot is specifically defined in Section 2102 of Chapter 102 of Title 18 of the United States Code. According to this section, a riot is 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.

A riot, then, involves violence or a credible threat of violence. Peaceful, nonviolent protests can turn into riots.

What is a terrorist?

A terrorist is “a person, usually a member of a group, who uses or advocates terrorism.” Terrorism is “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.”

A terrorist is different from both a protester and a rioter in that a terrorist deliberately uses violence (or threats of it) with a motivation, usually political in nature. A rioter is engaged in a violent disturbance (a brawl, vandalism, etc.), but that disturbance does not necessarily amount to terrorism.

The word terrorism was first recorded in the late 1700s. It is based on the word terror, which comes from the Latin verb terrēre, meaning “to frighten.”

Legal definition of terrorism

Chapter 113B in Title 18 of the US Code has extensive provisions on—and definitions of—terrorism. In the US, protecting against terrorist acts is under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Based on Chapter 113B, the FBI also provides definitions for international terrorism and domestic terrorism.

  • International terrorism: violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups who are inspired by, or associated with, designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored).
  • Domestic terrorism: violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.

What is a mob?

A mob is “a disorderly or riotous crowd of people” or “a crowd bent on or engaged in lawless violence.” A member of a mob can be called a mobber, although this is rare. A group of protesters or demonstrators can devolve into a mob if they become violent and riotous.

The word mob is first recorded in the 1680s. It is short for the Latin mōbile vulgus, which translates to “the movable (changeable) common people.”

Legal definition of mob

The word mob appears in a few US laws, but, like protester, no provision explicitly lays out a legal definition of the term.

Of all of the words we have discussed, mob is the most general. Mob is often used as a synonym for the word riot in everyday language. In fact, mobs are frequently described as riotous

Because a mob is disorganized and chaotic, a member of a mob is different from a terrorist, who is part of an organized group or has (usually political) motivations behind their actions.

A mob can form out of a protest, but the word protestors is generally used to refer to people who are peacefully making their voice heard in public in some way.

Strengthen your vocabulary defenses by discovering even more about each of these terms.





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