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Social Media Mayhem: Should a YouTube Star Face Prison Time for New York City Riot?

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

This one might be an interesting case to ponder. It involves a social media personality who organized an event in New York City that did not quite go as planned. Now, he is facing possible charges. The question is: Should he spend time in prison for this fiasco?

The situation started on Wednesday after YouTuber Kai Cenat announced that he would be in New York City to give away several PlayStation video game consoles, among other goodies.

It did not take too long for the situation to devolve into chaos:

A social media influencer has been charged with “inciting to riot” after a giveaway in a New York City park erupted in chaos Friday, authorities said.

An NYPD spokesperson said that the video game live-streamer, Kai Cenat had been charged with riot, inciting to riot and and unlawful assembly.

They added that he was issued with a desk appearance ticket that will require him to appear in court at a later date.

Cenat, 21, had been removed from the area for his safety after thousands of mostly young people descended on Manhattan’s Union Square on Friday afternoon, New York City Police Chief Jeffrey Maddrey told reporters earlier on Friday.

Maddrey said that 65 people were arrested. Thirty of them were juveniles, he said.

They were taken into custody after people threw bottles, fireworks, rocks and paint cans that had been taken from a construction site at the park, Maddrey said.

Three officers were injured, he said. A sergeant suffered a broken hand.

Cenat, a highly popular social media personality, attracted quite a bit of attention on social media when he made his announcement. Word spread quickly, which was likely why there were so many young people present at the event. The park and surrounding streets were overrun with people, and the situation quickly escalated. The New York Police Department (NYPD) activated a “Level 4” disaster response because of the large crowd.

The situation became more dire when some of the individuals at the event began committing violent acts against the police, civilians, and property. Some of those in attendance swarmed a construction site and stole shovels, axes, and other dangerous tools. They lit fireworks and hurled them at police officers, which made the situation even more dicey.

The NYPD worked to disperse the crowd. As stated previously, they arrested a significant number of those involved in the chaos. Mayor Eric Adams noted that “outside influencers” might have aggravated the situation. He also highlighted the importance of coordinating such events with law enforcement to prevent situations like what happened on Wednesday.

The silver lining of this incident is that nobody was killed in the conflagration. The question is: How much responsibility does Kai Cenat bear for this disaster?

There are several factors to consider.

For starters, the social media star did not alert the NYPD or obtain a permit for the event. He did announce the event on social media, but it appears there was no collaboration with the city’s government. It is not quite clear whether he was required to obtain a permit for this type of giveaway, but it’s New York City, so it would be shocking if there wasn’t.

Social media personalities wield a tremendous amount of influence, especially with younger generations. This means those with massive followings have more of a responsibility to be careful about how they organize these types of events. But does this make him responsible for the actions of others?

Kai Cenat is being charged with inciting a riot and unlawful assembly. Inciting a riot is a Class A misdemeanor “punishable by fines of up to $1,000 or prison time up to 1 year in jail.” One is guilty of this offense if they urge 10 or more individuals to participate in “tumultuous and violent conduct.”

Unlawful assembly is a Class B misdemeanor which could result in three months in prison and up to $500 in fines. One is guilty of this offense if they assemble with “four or more other persons for the purpose of engaging or preparing to engage with them in tumultuous and violent conduct likely to cause public harm, or when, being present at an assembly which either has or develops such purpose, he remains there with intent to advance that purpose.”

While Cenat did not coordinate with the authorities or obtain a permit, there does not appear to be any evidence that his objective was to spark a riot at the scene. While he should have taken the proper precautions, it might make more sense to punish him for these oversights rather than inciting a riot – especially if he did not encourage attendees to engage in violence.

Moreover, there is the question of how much control he would have had over the crowd at that moment. Yes, he was certainly able to motivate a significant number of minors and adults to show up, but those choosing to attack property, civilians, and police did so of their own volition. Should Cenat be held responsible for those who actually committed the assaults and mayhem?

It’s a tough question.

It is also hard to ignore the elephant in the room on this particular subject. Former President Donald Trump has been accused on numerous occasions of inciting the riot at the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, even though he never told anyone to storm the facility. He was the one who exhorted his followers to come to D.C. on that day. But should he be held responsible for the actions of some in that crowd?

Perhaps there is another charge that would better fit Cenat’s situation. Or maybe there are some civil actions that could be taken against him. He was obviously irresponsible in how he organized the event. There might even be more information that emerges showing that he was more involved in the pandemonium than it previously seemed. But if he did not participate in the violence or urge others to do so, it’s difficult for me to hold him responsible for the actions of the rabble-rousers who actually perpetrated the offenses.

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