Unrest in Philly: Looting and the Distinction from Protest

In the darkened cityscape of Philadelphia on the night of September 26, 2023, the aftermath of dismissed charges against an officer involved in the shooting of Eddie Irizarry birthed two very distinct narratives. One, a peaceful protest, encapsulated the spirit of constitutional freedoms; the other, a rampant looting spree, painted the dark alleys of opportunistic criminality.

Acting Police Commissioner John Stanford firmly iterated that Tuesday night’s plundering was not an extension of the peaceful assembly earlier in the day (Mcilwain & Mitman, 2023). This distinction between lawful protest and criminal activity harks back to historical precedence in tort law.

As a seasoned tort law professor, I can draw parallels to such incidents that culminate from a volatile mix of social unrest and opportunistic criminality. Case law, such as the rulings following the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, delineates this boundary succinctly. In those cases, courts have held that individuals who cause personal injury or property damage during a riot are personally liable for their actions (Miller v. State of California, 1991).

During the lootings in Philadelphia, over 100 juveniles and adults embarked on a spree, leaving the interiors of stores like Footlocker and Apple as testimonies of anarchy (Mcilwain & Mitman, 2023). While peaceful protests are protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, courts have consistently held that such protection does not extend to acts of vandalism, theft, or other forms of criminal activity (Hess v. Indiana, 414 U.S. 105, 1973).

Furthermore, as witnessed in the aftermath of the Ferguson unrest in 2014, business owners affected by looting and property damage faced significant legal and financial challenges in seeking compensation. Often, local ordinances and state laws, like the Missouri’s Riot Act (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.680), have been invoked to hold individuals criminally and civilly liable for their actions during a riot or unlawful assembly.

The conflation of criminal opportunism and genuine, peaceful protest is not a phenomenon unique to this Philadelphia incident. It necessitates a dissection of intent, action, and consequence, each evaluated within the legal frameworks that have been shaped by analogous historical events.

The presence of over 30 individuals, including three juveniles, being formally charged with burglary and seven facing riot charges (Mcilwain & Mitman, 2023) triggers reflections on the accountability mechanisms established in tort law. Individuals, when proven guilty, bear the legal consequences of their actions as illustrated in cases like City of Seattle v. McCready (123 Wash. 2d 260, 1994), which emphasized individual liability amidst collective disorder.

Indeed, while the city cleans the debris and counts the cost of the anarchy, the legal system, grounded in precedence and statutory law, will embark on its journey of discerning justice from chaos, a process all too familiar yet unequivocally essential.


KaplanMarx is a Philadelphia based law firm focusing on personal injury and accident cases. We pride ourselves in our community roots and help injury victims and their families every day to recover.



Get Your Free Consultation


This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.