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Cars: Opinion: What changes a protest from peaceful to violent? Aggressive law enforcement

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Dan Wang is an associate professor of Management and (by courtesy) Sociology at Columbia Business School. His research analyzes how social networks can create change in organizations and society through social movements, international migration, innovation, and entrepreneurship. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)Throughout the protests that have erupted across the US in response to George Floyd’s death, we’ve seen troubling examples of police using excessive force. From cops pushing protesters — including a senior citizen — and pulling college students out of their car to confronting reporters just for doing their jobs.

One such incident happened late last month, when police in Charleston, South Carolina arrested a 23-year-old protester in a downtown square. Givionne “Gee” Jordan Jr. was charged with disobeying a lawful order and he spent a night in the county jail, according to the Charleston Police Department website.
In a video circulating on social media, police arrested Jordan, a Black man, simply for peaceful protest while Jordan was expressing love for all people and understanding for the cops, saying “I am not your enemy.”
Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds defended the officers, telling the Charleston Post and Courier, “We specifically asked for them, numerous times to disperse … We said if you don’t, you will be arrested.” Reynolds also said that the viral two-minute video clip did not show the entire protest in the park.
But just weeks after Minneapolis police officers killed Floyd while he was in custody, it was disturbing and appalling to watch Jordan forcefully detained for expressing a heartfelt hope to connect with officers. Not to mention, we’ve seen how videos often contradict the police’s accounts of events.
In the video, some 200 fellow protesters were shocked by the overzealous police action, and some jumped to Jordan’s defense to plead that he be released.
This is more than a singular example of aggressive policing. To understand how a protest turns violent, the video of Jordan’s arrest is essential. In general, protesters usually aren’t the first to instigate violence: overwhelming evidence shows that violent protest emerges typically when law enforcement initiates action.
Through years of analysis, researchers in 2009 published the largest public database of more than 23,000 protest events in the US between 1960 and 1995. Among these protest events, 17,494 didn’t have police presence. Of those, 1,194, or less than 7%, turned violent. By contrast, the research found that police were present at more than 6,099 protests and 2,316, or 38%, escalated into violence — as experienced by Jordan — according to the analysis.
To be clear, violence is defined as physical force used by one human on another human with the intention to harm, incapacitate, or kill.
The complication in the age of social media — where we’re flooded with viral videos from reporters and bystanders — is that it’s easy to miss out on context. Brevity introduces ambiguity, opening the door for misinterpretation and questionable assumptions by Twitter commenters and news commentators. It’s difficult to get a clear-cut example of triggering events like the arrest of Jordan.
But what we see in the video of Jordan instantiates an extensive body of evidence-based sociological research focused on understanding demonstrations — both violent and nonviolent. Jordan’s arrest is a textbook example for how police spark violence in a peaceful demonstration.
Sociologists and political scientists have long studied the aftermath of protest repression by police. The results are almost identical in many studies of protests across the world — establishing a number of universal truths.
First, violence is not a strategic aim of most protesters. In fact, protester violence in the US has become more infrequent since the 1960s. The goal of a protest is to be heard, because the other avenues available for achieving social change simply aren’t making an impact. It could be that voting is ineffective, or Congress isn’t taking a problem seriously. In many cases, protesters choose civil disobedience to disrupt the status quo, from the Greensboro sit-ins against Jim Crow-era laws to AIDS demonstrations on Wall Street.
Second, my own research with Alessandro Piazza, a professor at Rice University, shows that as protests become larger, the likelihood of violence among protesters actually decreases.
This is because the aim of protest is to garner attention through unity and numbers, not physical force. There have been demonstrations against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter in all 50 states, in hundreds of cities ranging from Sandpoint, Idaho, to Decatur, Alabama. As former President Barack Obama noted, there is broad support for reform — a key difference from protests that use violence.
Third, when police carry out violent repression against protesters, this can both escalate violence in the moment and precipitate more violence in future protests.
This puts current protesters in an especially dangerous position because we also know police are more likely to initiate violent repression when peaceful protesters are mostly Black Americans, or when protesters speak out about police brutality. The rare cases of violent protests are frequently initiated by small fringe groups who are not allied with the protest’s central causes. We’re seeing evidence of this phenomenon play out in the demonstrations following George Floyd’s death.
The biggest unknown is whether fringe violence will have a positive or negative spillover effect in the long term. We’ve seen the latter in the past several decades of protests against animal cruelty. Acts of violence in the 2000s by more radical groups diminished much public support for the movement’s overall goal of eradicating unethical animal testing.
It’s more important than ever to understand the facts about the protests playing out on screens. Forceful provocation initiated by law enforcement is largely responsible for physical confrontations in our streets today, just as it has been in protests in the past.
Law enforcement officers must remember that their principal duty is to protect the public — embedded in the code of ethics of police departments. Research shows that authoritarian calls to action — from President Donald Trump’s own tweets to Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s call to send in the troops — can play a part in transforming peaceful protests into melees.

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