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Do Violent Protests Work?

line of riot police with shields with a cameraman in front of them filming

Political violence is not a new thing and that is true in authoritarian and democratic systems. Take any democratic nation on Earth, and you will notice a history of protest that often turns violent. From the US Civil Rights movement in the 1950s to the Arab Spring in 2010, there is a long history of protests turning violent. However, do violent protests actually work? 

First, we need to understand the origins of the violence that can appear in protests. In a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that violence is a result of three key emotions – fear, contempt and helplessness. The paper states:

contempt may evolve when previous attempts to address an injustice have been futile. Repeated violations of human moral standards by the government or other powerful groups, are also likely to provide a fertile ground for the development of (political) contempt.”

Helplessness arises from the lack of progress on the situation that caused the protests in the first place. In the case of the George Floyd protests, decades of institutional racism and police brutality have left the millions of African-Americans feeling helpless. That can sometimes also manifest as fear – fear of being stopped by the police, fear of going to jail or fear of being killed.

A 17-year-old Civil Rights demonstrator is attacked by a police dog in Birmingham, Ala., on May 3, 1963. This image led the front page of the next day’s New York Times. Source: Bill Hudson/ASSOCIATED PRESS

These emotions don’t arise in a vacuum. As the above shows, protest is the result of previously failed attempts to address an injustice. In the case of America, there is a long history of attempting change against the effects of racism. From the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement and the current George Floyd protests, American history is filled with attempts to change the racial status quo. In each of these cases, when the protesters have felt that the government has failed to listen to their grievances, some of the protestors have turned to violence as a means to bring about lasting change.

How Protests Turn Violent

French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser wrote that, when responding to protests, governments generally have two methods of control – the ideological state apparatus (ISA) and repressive state apparatus (RSA). Althusser talked of the ruling class which is synonymous with the government. The non-violent methods, which according to Althusser are classified as ISA, include methods such as the use of the media, education and religious institutions. Using the riot police though is a classical example of the RSA. 

The RSA involves direct state-controlled tools that a government can employ such as the police, military and political tools like laws. More often than not, these violent tactics are used as a method to quash protests without dealing with the underlying grievances. For example, analysis of Trump’s response to the widespread protests that followed the death of George Floyd shows that he heavily favours RSA responses and also relies on rhetorical violence through his use of Twitter and media appearances on the likes of Fox News.

For instance, in Minneapolis on May 27 protestors flooded the streets around the city’s 3rd precinct police station. In response, the police used tear gas, plastic bullets and concussion grenades to disperse the crowds. President Trump fully supported the harsh response and in cites like Portland even deployed federal agents to reinforce that approach.

An officer points pepper spray towards people after curfew on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

It’s not just Minneapolis, all over America, protestors have been met by the police and national guard who are dressed in full body armour and armed with military-style weapons. In so doing the state is using what Althusser would classify as classic RSA methods to send a clear message to protestors – ‘we aren’t afraid to use violence’.  Although in a few cases the police have joined protestors in taking a knee, however, this has been relatively rare. 

An overly aggressive response to protesters is very likely to make some protestors feel like they have no other choice but to respond with violence.

“The research suggests pretty routinely that when police over-respond to these events, they tend to escalate rebellion and defiance, rather than de-escalating it,” says Ed Maguire, professor of criminology at Arizona State University.

Police violence is well documented in the US, with 781 people being killed in 2020 alone according to Mapping Police Violence. Even when there is little need for it, police all over the US seem to be quick to resort to violence, as seen in the killing of Breonna Taylor.  Another example can be found in the following video of a Salt Lake City policeman pushing an elderly man who was simply walking near a protest.

Trump’s Rhetoric Has a Role to Play

What hasn’t helped matters is Donald Trump’s rhetoric. By using terms such as “dominate the protestors” and “throw them in jail”, Trump has openly called for violence to be used on non-violent protests. Such actions have only helped to stir up the feelings of helplessness protestors feel. Instead of calling for peace, Trump tweeted: when the looting starts, the shooting starts, cementing the belief that violence is his preferred solution.

In a paper for the European Journal of American Studies, Samira Saramo noted that “Trump utilized subtle and not-so-subtle rhetorical violence, which served to mutually strengthen populism and cultural violence,” in his 2016 election campaign. 

That violent rhetoric also translates into action. A good example of this is the shocking eviction of protestors in Washington DC for a photo op at St. John’s Church. The strange juxtaposition of Trump with a bible in his hand in front of a church served only one purpose – to rally his base and show the world that he stands for the conservative values of religion and order. That wasn’t a leader trying to heal a divided nation, it was a leader stoking the violence.

Populists often revert to such showmanship as Trump did with his photo in front of St. John’s Church in Washington DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

By openly calling for violence, Donald Trump seems to be declaring that he finds violent responses acceptable, which should not be ok in any democracy. Responding with violence is a tactic most often seen in authoritarian regimes, where civil liberties are not important. When the leader chooses to respond with violence, then protestors are likely to respond equally. As summed up by Régis DeBray: “the Revolution revolutionizes the Counter-Revolution.”

So How Does Violence Affect Politics?

Now we know how protests turn violent, the next question is do they work? 

There is a tangible effect in policy change following violence, as noted in a 2019 American Political Science Review paper. Using the example of the 1992 Los Angeles Riot, the paper stated “contrary to some expectations from the academic literature and the popular press, we find that the riot caused a marked liberal shift in policy support at the polls.” 

The 1992 LA riots aren’t an isolated case. Daniel Gillon historian and professor at the University of Pennsylvania said: “objectively examining protests—violent protest has a positive impact on political and policy change. Nonviolent protest brings awareness to an issue; violent protest brings urgency to an issue.” That urgency is critical to bring about change. 

To understand how effect, Gillion compared the George Floyd protests today to the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s. Even though violence was not a primary objective of either set of protests, the fact that there were violent outbreaks had a direct impact on the politics of the time. In the case of the civil rights movement, decades of protests and the violence they were met with culminated in the Civil Rights Act being passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.  

In this case, the violence done to protesters can have an even bigger impact than the violence of some of the protesters. That violence didn’t just impact law, but also politicians. In 1968, Abner Mikva, having witnessed the violence meeted out to civil rights protesters, successfully ran for Congress from Illinois on a campaign to push back against racial inequality. There was a similar effect throughout the nation on local government, with more and more people getting elected for supporting civil rights

Does it affect voting patterns as well? According to Dillion, it does have an effect although not a huge one. He said: “When you look at the positive support towards Black Lives Matter, it’s highly correlated with individuals voting. They’re more likely to turn out and when they turn out, they vote for the Democratic candidate. More African Americans turned out in 2012 than in 2016, but when you look at the areas where BLM protests took place, we saw increases in black voter turnout even as other areas saw a drop.” 

So while some may say that “violence is never the solution”, history tells us a slightly different story. Violence by protestors may not be intended, but when it does occur or when protesters are met with violence from the authorities, it does lead to massive change at both a local and national level. Violence by the state only cements protestors resolve, and as we have seen, can lead to violent responses. 

Sources: American Political Science Review, European Journal of American Studies, GQ, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, The Conversation, Public Understanding of Science

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