Protests and Riots


It seems like these two things go hand in hand all too often at the moment and whenever they do, a classic political drama plays out. We’ve nearly all seen it, and many of us have participated in it. It’s not a subject I’ve delved into much myself, but here goes. Let’s get two facts out of the way first.

  1. I condemn those who perpetrate violence and destructive vandalism in a democracy.
  2. I support the right of people to peaceably protest or engage in civil disobedience. (with the understanding that civil disobedience can result in arrest)

Seeming is Believing

One of the difficulties in trying to make observations is that the nature of the media will only ever show us the most dramatic stories. This means many perfectly peaceful protests garner no attention while any that result in violence are covered widely. The result is that for many it seems any act of protest includes violence. I was not able to find any systematic study to what percentage of protests go without incident, and how many include violence. Without hard numbers to look at, we are left to speculate based on media perception and personal experience. My own tells me that the larger the protest and the more attention it garners, the greater the chance for violence.

Who is Perpetrating the Violence?

That varies widely. Sometimes it appears to be organized anarchist groups bent on creating havoc. Sometimes they are just regular protesters who become so passionate they turn to destruction. Sometimes it is opportunistic looters just looking to steal merchandise. Sometimes it is the police who instigate violence provoking the same in return. Again, it is not clear who is the most culpable overall, but we’ve seen instances of each.

As of late, it certainly seems that protests are far more commonly held by liberal partisans and that more of these protests end in violence than those from more conservative partisans. Which is not to say conservative partisans don’t engage in violence, but it seems not to be part of the culture of those who do organized protests. The result is that violent protest has become strongly associated with liberalism in general. This is not entirely new, but the scale of such urban protests does seem to be increasing.

Most liberal leaders call for peaceful protests and most protests seem to be organized with non-violence in mind. None the less it remains a persistent problem, at least enough of one that it is so often in the media spotlight.

What is the political fallout?

By and large it is damaging to the causes of those who are doing the peaceful protests. It serves to harm them in a number of ways.

  1. It creates the appearance that liberal activists are generally violent or that the ideology breeds violence
  2. It draws the attention of the media away from the message of the protests to focus on the violence instead
  3. It radicalizes opposition to the groups doing the protesting creating greater political resistance to their cause
  4. It encourages police to act more violently and to create a more restrictive environment for protest
  5. It can cause people not to show up for a protest because they fear violence or don’t want to be associated with it

Omar Wasow of Princeton published a paper studying the political effect of black led protests in the 60s. His conclusions based on correlation were that non-violent protests correlated with greater support for democrats at the ballot box, while violent protests correlated with weaker democratic support and stronger support for republicans running on a law and order platform.

I can say that personally, such actions create a real sympathy in me for the victims of this violence as well as a disdain for those committing it. Even if the causes they fight for are ones I support, their actions embarrass and alienate me to some degree. I feel the need to take time to speak against them, rather than fighting the forces they themselves claim to oppose.

Justifications for Violence

I am not a person who is utterly opposed to violence for any reason. I do believe there are times and places where violence can be justified, not only at an individual level but a societal one as well. The most widely accepted justification is defense of yourself, or defense of another who is under threat of violence. The law, and I generally agree, further concludes that a threat must be evident and dominant to justify the use of violence for defense. Personally I would add that I think the use of force in defense should be commensurate with the hazard posed by the threat, and should be applied such that it does as little collateral damage as possible. Finally I think violence should be limited to that which is sufficient to prevent harm.

Most of the violence we see at political protests fails to meet these measures. While the protest itself may be on some cause seen as a defense of life and livery the specific targets of violence and vandalism are rarely the source of that threat, and the force being used is ineffective at deterring that threat. Indeed in many cases it only emboldens those who the protester is trying to fight against and garners sympathy for them with the public.

Some try to excuse or justify the violence as the natural product of anger. While I can sympathize with anger and admit it would be possible for me to be overcome by it, I think it is not a valid justification for it any more than anger is a justification for murder or any other crime.

Violence by police or violence by protesters can and does justify violence on the part of the opposing party. This is why it is so important for each side to carefully police itself to avoid unnecessary conflict. A study at UC Berkeley called the Deciding Force Project has been studying the causes of violence at protests to try and determine the best means to limit it. One of their strongest findings is that an aggressive police response to an otherwise peaceful protest is the most common factor resulting in violent confrontation. Of course there are other causes and even a very measured police response can be met with violent protesters taking advantage of the lack of police. Authorities are caught in something of a catch-22 where they can loose either way. The common wisdom is they should be on hand but not directly engaged with protesters until such time as violence breaks out, then respond strongly and swiftly to try and end it.

What I’d Like to See

  1. Firstly, I think those on each side committed to non-violence should condemn and shun those who perpetrate it on their side of the political spectrum. Recognizing that while they may be ideological allies, they are ultimately harmful to the causes they think they are supporting. To defend your ground, you should repudiate those who do it harm through violent actions.
  2. It would help if partisans on both sides could distinguish between the moderate and radical cadre’s on the other side of the ideological divide. There needs to be a circle in which civil discourse and debate can happen without allowing the violent fringe to poison the atmosphere between them.
  3. News media should take pains to point out the scale of violence vs the scale of peaceful protesting and to be clear about what message the leaders of a protest are trying to put forward.
  4. The police should always use the best research and techniques for managing protests peacefully and should only respond with violence when violence is offered. They should be there to ensure everyone’s safety, including the protesters.
  5. Protesters should continue to be active and should emphasis non-violence and take pains to learn the best techniques for leading a non-violent movement.
  6. All should encourage others right to protest peaceably even if their agenda is one you disagree with and even if you find their presence inconvenient.
  7. Protesting should not be an end in and of itself but a means to real social and political change.

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