Why Do Protests Turn Violent?
Thu, January 27, 2022

Why Do Protests Turn Violent?



Recent protests fueled by the death of an African-American named George Floyd showed how people are fed up with racism. Floyd was killed by police officers on a Minneapolis street. In a viral video, the officers were seen pinning him to the ground while muttering “I can’t breathe.” After several minutes, he became unresponsive and was later on pronounced dead. A series of protests not only occurred in the US but also in many parts of the world after.

US citizens in all 50 states have staged protests and demonstrations in response to the killing. Floyd’s death isn’t the only factor that led to these protests. Rather, it is a manifestation of long-simmering, systematic racial inequities. Many black people have been victims of police brutality recently. 

Ahmaud Arbery, for instance, was reportedly shot by a former police officer and his son while they attempted a citizen’s arrest for jogging in the wrong neighborhood in Georgia. Breonna Taylor was shot eight times after police raided her apartment while looking for a person who did not live there and had already been detained.

These stories are just some instances of police brutality in the US. According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, an analysis by the Washington Post revealed that black Americans were 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be fatally shot by the police. Another analysis by The Guardian showed that black people were also twice as likely to be killed by police while unarmed.

As people protest about these injustices, demonstrations that are ought to be peaceful are turning violent.



Recent Protests Marred by Violent Clashes with Police

Alongside huge protests happening across the US, reports showed that more than 10,000 people have already been arrested. Police are reportedly using excessive force to control the crowds. More than 130 reports of journalists being attacked by police have also been recorded since May 28. In response to this excessive force at protests, about 12,000 complaints against police in Seattle, Washington, alone were made last week.

According to reports, police forces are regularly using pepper spray, rubber bullets, teargas, and batons on protesters, media, and even bystanders. Jarah Gibson, who was arrested while non-violently protesting in Atlanta, Georgia, shared how police used violence against protesters. “The police were there from the jump and literally escorted us the whole march,” Gibson said.

“The police are instigating everything and they are criminalizing us. Now I have my mugshot taken, my fingerprints taken and my eyes scanned. Now I’m a criminal over an illegal arrest. I want to be heard and I want the police to just abide by basic human decency,” she added.



Previous studies revealed that violence in protests is rooted in a deep sense of despair and helplessness that things never change. According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, protesters are more likely to adopt violent methods of protest when they feel their appeals to authorities will never be heard. Also, breakdowns in nonviolent demonstrations only happen when the rate of repression of nonviolent actions has been consistently high over a long period of time. 

How the police respond to these protests should also be considered. Decades of research show that violent, heavy-handed treatment from the police is a major catalyst for protest violence. Experts say that protests are less likely to turn violent if police have a good relationship with the local community. How they react to demonstrations on the day also matters.

Prof. Clifford Stott, an expert in crowd behavior and public order policing at Keele University, stated that if people feel that the police use of force against them is unjustified, this increases their "us versus them" mentality. "Riots are a product of interactions - largely to do with the nature of the way police treat crowds," he said.

Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences at UCLA, believes US police "ramped up their aggressiveness" over the weekend. "Deploying the National Guard, using rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray - these are a range of police tactics that can exacerbate an already-tense situation,” he added.




US Police Are Using Military Tactics

In protests and demonstrations, the goal of the police is to reduce damage and destruction as well as protect protesters. However, this is not what’s happening. According to Wired, a monthly American magazine that focuses on how emerging technologies affect culture, the economy, and more, reports show two police officers in Louiseville being fired after they fatally shot a man while their body cameras were switched off; six officers in Atlanta facing charges for using excessive force while arresting two students, and police cruisers in New York City driving into protesters.

“They’re relying on escalated use of force to try to police the protests. All of these are escalated use of force. That is incredibly heavy-handed, it’s militarized tactics — and it’s used on protesters who are actually protesting police violence,” Jennifer Cobbina, associate professor in Criminal Justice at Michigan State University, said.

Experts say that there are several things that need to be changed in protest-policing for law enforcement, including crowd management. Owen West, who spent 30 years policing in West Yorkshire before becoming an academic at Keele University, shared that it was once believed that people in a crowd would default to a violent, irrational, unthinking mob. 




However, this isn’t true. In recent protests, protesters were reportedly protecting businesses targeted by looters and even helped a police officer who had become separated from his unit and was left vulnerable. “They have an ability to police themselves, regulate themselves, and set their own parameters,” West said.

Even national leaders like US Pres. Donald Trump promote violence in protests. Recently, he called for authorities to shut down protests with tougher policing. However, research shows that the right way to police a protest is to avoid excess force, remain calm, communicate transparently, and constantly negotiate.