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More than 400 worldwide antigovernment protests have taken place since 2017. According to the Global Peace Index (GPI), the incidents of civil unrest have doubled across the globe over the past decade. Moreover, the 2022 GPI indicates the world has become “less peaceful for the eleventh time in the last 14 years.” By 2020, antigovernment protests (defined as an organized public demonstration of public disapproval of some law, policy, idea, state of affairs, action, or inaction and opposing or resisting governmental policies) rose in North America by nearly 380% compared to a decade earlier, expanding each year at a rate of 17%, which is more than 48% higher than the world average. After reviewing societal safety and security, ongoing domestic and international conflict, and militarization, the 2022 GPI determined that the United States is one of 71 countries that was less peaceful than the previous year. Based on a 1-5 scale, with 5 representing a high degree of violence in a country, the U.S. scored 2.44, which places it in the bottom 25%, with a rank of #129 out of 168 countries.
Reviewing Motivating Factors – Protests Over Time
Since America’s early beginnings, people have used protests and demonstrations to advocate for change, starting with the Boston Tea Party in 1773. The right to demonstrate peacefully is at the foundation of democracy. The First Amendment protects the right to assemble and the right to express views through peaceful protest. However, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to determine when nonviolent demonstrations may quickly escalate into violent protests. Rioting and violent civil unrest are hardly the best solutions for situations perceived as injustice. However, thousands do not gather in protest for no apparent reason, which was true during the Boston Tea Party in 1773, the 2020 George Floyd Protests, and the 2020 election (including the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol).
In recent years, more threats, more armed protests, and more people have resorted to violence against the government. Polarizing events have ignited underlying tensions within American democracy. A study by the Institute for Economics and Peace published in 2020 concluded that roughly 40% of Republicans and Democrats consider political violence somewhat justifiable. Conversely, a joint university study in 2022 concluded that nearly one-quarter of the U.S. population feels it is justified to engage in violent protests against the government – almost 1 in 4 Americans hold an extreme opinion and support violence. This could prove to be a difficult task for law enforcement attempting to identify the unknown triggers that make protestors turn operational, moving from extreme opinion to extreme action, thrusting a peaceful demonstration into a violent protest.
People demonstrate for a myriad of circumstances, including grievances, efficacy, identity, emotions, and social embeddedness, according to a 2013 study by the International Sociological Association. If viewed through the lens of social identity theory, people separate the movement into us versus them. For the movement to recruit widespread support for their cause, then the movement is more than likely to be successful if they encourage feelings of shared identity with observers. However, extreme protest behaviors can provoke damaging views of movements because they diminish identification with the actual movement and instead place significant emphasis on the violence of the action itself. While participating in radical protests, actions may help or hurt a movement in certain ways these actions can even undermine widespread support for the movement. More often than not, extreme actions perceived to be immoral can reduce supporters’ emotional connection to the movement, this reducing identification with the movement.
Identifying Turning Points – From Peaceful to Violent
Whether a perceived threat from a polarizing incident, or an occupation of public space, demonstrations can quickly jeopardize social order. Because of their role, law enforcement agencies are expected to intercede promptly, ensuring the community’s safety and maintaining order. Law enforcement agencies must consider the complexities associated with a proper protest response, like the duality of protecting personal rights guaranteed under the First Amendment while simultaneously ensuring public safety during demonstrations. Sometimes striking the proper balance can prove difficult, particularly since agencies around the U.S. have different levels of familiarity with mass demonstrations and preparedness for such events.
Sometimes striking the proper law enforcement balance between protecting First Amendment rights and protecting public safety can prove difficult.
Policing the protests is intrinsically challenging as each mass demonstration has some propensity to evolve into violence. With a society based on group dynamics, peacefully minded protesters may act out violently under certain circumstances. In theory, when group behavior exhibits aggressive tendencies, the larger the organized group, the more propensity for a larger-scale violent eruption. For example, at a football game, patrons typically do not go to a game with the predisposed intention of storming the field and taking down the goalpost. However, it happens many times because of crowd mentality. The contagion theory suggests that crowds employ a “hypnotic influence” on their participants, which results in emotionally and irrationally charged behavior, referred to as crowd frenzy.
Several studies show why demonstrations escalate and become violent and establish early on some of the policing best practices that must be employed in response to organized demonstrations. Certainly, preparedness is paramount, primarily because the environment at mass demonstrations can escalate quickly and get out of control. A Columbia Law School study determined that when law enforcement is viewed as performing procedurally and professionally, protesters are more likely to consider law enforcement as lawful sources of authority and thus exhibit peaceful, lawful behavior. Conversely, when law enforcement is viewed as employing its authority aggressively and oppressively, conflict is more likely to happen with demonstrators.
Preventing Escalation – Facilitation vs. Control
People who are already demonstrating to express a grievance could intensify that sense of grievance and direct it toward the officers who are there to provide public order and safety. A way to diminish this so-called transfer of grievance is to permit demonstrators a chance to express themselves peacefully. Law enforcement can enhance interactions between themselves and demonstrators and lessen the possibility of conflict if it is managed from the perspective of “how to facilitate” versus “how to control” the demonstration.
Preparing for protests ahead of time can be particularly important for law enforcement. Officers must understand their fundamental role before responding and handle their duties in a manner that affords First Amendment rights while protecting public safety. A clear understanding and direction for protecting those rights during demonstrations can benefit the law enforcement community and reduce friction at the event. To every extent, law enforcement should engage in cooperative and strategic planning with community members before, during, and after peaceful demonstrations.
Preparing agencies before a demonstration with raw intelligence is critical. Law enforcement should seek to inform themselves about the general culture and conduct of the protesters. Agencies should gather as much information on the underlying intent of those demonstrating. The information regarding the protest culture of the group then can be an assessment of how to design the operation to facilitate the demonstrators’ legitimate intentions while preventing their non-legitimate ones. Analyzing and gathering intelligence on social media platforms the group uses regularly can give law enforcement a better look into not only the intentions of the demonstration but the hostility that may be building up before the event itself. For example, on far-right social media platforms, protesters gave directions on which streets are safe to avoid interaction with the police, and which tools to bring to help pry open doors for the January 6, 2021, Capitol riots. Several dozen social media posts even discussed carrying guns into the halls of Congress.
Consistent psychological research has shown that individual behavior can shift solely on the clothes one wears. Police departments equipping officers in tactical gear can likely affect officer tendencies as well as the point of view for the protesters who perceived tactical gear as intimidating, a tactical mismatch, which is likely to influence escalation that could potentially lead to further unrest. Law enforcement should generally be dressed in non-tactical uniforms and have an open dialogue to keep the lines of communication open and prevent escalating conflict with the demonstrators unless clear intentions are known ahead of time to deploy officers in riot control gear. Because violence often begets violence, agencies should proportionately adjust police response to the crowd’s actions. This measure would evade a snowballing effect of tension that may already be embedded by intensifying and employing more force or equipment than needed to control the current situation. Agencies’ demeanor and training will also affect how police are perceived by those demonstrating. Demonstrators are more likely to cooperate when they perceive law enforcement as fair, respectful, and restrained in their interactions and responses to the crowd.
If the possibility of violence is perceived by law enforcement agencies ahead of time, they should adopt a “graded response,” where officers in riot control gear can be deployed quickly but staged out of plain view. A mass demonstration observing police officers in riot control gear in plain view of a nonviolent group is an approach that may encourage the very conflict police initially intended to avert.
Recommending Action – Communicate, Train & Review
Effective protest policing starts with effective communication. Communication can be the most important method by which law enforcement can determine the intentions of demonstration coordinators and how best law enforcement can facilitate these goals. It can also be a great way for law enforcement to understand potential public safety concerns better and attempt to counteract them together with organizers and demonstrators. For example, in January 2023, police communicated with Tyre Nichols’ family to preserve order and prevent conflict. Nichols’ mother urged Americans to “protest in peace” as the Memphis Police Department prepared to release the bodycam footage showing the law enforcement interaction that led to her 29-year-old son’s death.
Following years of unparalleled violence that occurred in many cities across America, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) released a report in February 2022 providing several recommendations that law enforcement agencies can utilize to plan for and respond to demonstrations or protests in the communities they protect. PERF’s nine major recommendations from that report include:
- Invite leaders from the community to participate in agency meetings and trainings about police response to demonstrations. These events better educate all involved on what reactions to expect from both sides and better prepare for those actions.
- Communicate and ensure everyone in the agency has a clear grasp of the goals of policing mass demonstrations. This understanding should include the use of deadly force policy and specific tactics, actions, and tools that appropriately respond to various demonstrator behaviors.
- Train officers and supervisors adequately. Do not lower standards to hire more officers.
- Thoroughly evaluate every type of less-than-lethal device available during the demonstration, its capabilities and limitations, and any known risks it potentially poses to those in its path.
- Warn crowds before deploying less-than-lethal force.
- Avoid mass arrests and using force, if possible. They could create the feeling that law enforcement is prohibiting and punishing First Amendment rights. Therefore, agencies should clearly communicate the thresholds for arrest and warn demonstrators when they violate the law and are subject to arrest.
- Prepare and activate mutual aid agreements. Communicate specific and clear response protocols, particularly when officers from supporting agencies are needed to adhere to the policies of the host agency.
- Protect officers’ security and well-being. Establish policies that help prevent fatigue and poor decision-making resulting from sustained exposure to the stress of policing a mass protest.
- Ensure vigorous review of the police response to each demonstration.
Of the above recommendations, law enforcement training is paramount in preparing officers to respond to mass demonstrations, particularly in areas around the laws, policies, and regulations regarding public demonstrations, freedom of speech, and use of force. Often, the use of force employed by police officers may culminate in police repression or violence by taking the form of police charges against demonstrators. Soft-skill approaches like de-escalation and peer intervention should be applied, and training considered for officers. Like active shooter and other trainings, mass demonstration exercises should encourage multiagency participation to foster a mutual understanding between the agencies involved in the community.
The U.S. government has failed to create a methodical unified response or guidance to the mushrooming of protests that continue across America. Leadership has treated each as an irregularity rather than a larger trend, failing to scale up capacity to respond to mass demonstrations uniformly. The rise of global mass protests has been unprecedented in frequency of occurrence and in magnitude.
According to a 2020 Center for Strategic and International Studies study, the assessment of the factors suggests the trend of mass protests will persist, and the number and intensity of these events will rise. Higher standards, better training, and coordinated exercises within the law enforcement community are undoubtedly needed. This a difficult challenge in an era of calls for police accountability and reform, which have left departments across America battling to keep the current officers and attract new ones.