Protests: Not the breeding grounds of Violence

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By Sidra Ahmad | Apr. 19, 2021


“When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes a duty” these words of Thomas Jefferson most aptly define and justify the very existence of protests.


  Citizens are an intrinsic part of every country in the world and the government exists to safeguard the rights and freedom of the people, hence citizens are vested with certain rights to protect their interests. One of them and perhaps the most important is the “Right to Protest.”


The citizens unquestionably have the right to criticize, oppose and protest against the unjust, inappropriate, arbitrary, and undemocratic practices, policies, actions, or laws of the government, and these grievances can always be conveyed through peaceful protests. Hence, a protest may be defined as “a statement or an action or a publicly organized demonstration expressing disapproval of or objection to something”.


Protest ≠ Riot

  While defining protests, it is imperative to differentiate one from a riot. A riot is “a disturbance of the peace created by an assemblage of usually three or more people acting with a common purpose and in a violent and tumultuous manner to the terror of the public”. Very often the thin line existing between protesting and rioting becomes blurry. Protests always have the prospect to turn into riots and when they do, peaceful protesters are often muddled for rioters and face arrest, even though they were principled the whole time.


What makes people land on the streets in the first place?


What sort of conditions lead to protests? When there is a dearth of say onions in the market, people tend to question the manufacturers and panic, but they do not protest. But when the government offices ask the employees to stay at home, while the landlord requires rent and the hospital bills of the ailing in the house have to be paid, people protest.  When the officials price the medical facilities, treatments, or vaccines in ways people couldn’t possibly understand, they protest. When unjust laws and undemocratic practices persist year after year which affects the people in certain ways, they protest. When there is unequal and racist conduct towards certain individuals, they protest. And hence, the elixir or rather the strategic aim of all protesters is not violence or destruction but to have their appeals heard because other methods of approach are ineffective or not available.


Violence on the streets doesn’t stem from a vacuum, but grows from intense feelings of despair and helplessness that the wrong and the unjust policies against those who are affected will never alter. At the heart of every disapproval are puddles of grievances. In terms of emotional mechanisms, when these grievances are bottled up, anger becomes the catalyst for protests. A close relation between anger and efficacy also exists: people who regard the protesters as fearless are more likely to experience anger and desire to take action; people who perceive them as weak and ineffective are more likely to feel fearful and move away from the group. Although anger is seen as the prototypical protest emotion, contempt, shame, sympathy, and despair have also been identified with protest. 


The more one relates or identifies with a group, the more likely they are to engage in protests benefiting that identity. Even if they are not a part of that group, identifying with others creates cognizance of a shared lot in the political system, which can stimulate them into action. Feeling part of a group that one perceived as disadvantaged is particularly important for engagement in protest. The decision to take part in protest is not taken in loneliness. Social embeddedness looks at how individual grievances and feelings are transfigured into group-based grievances and feelings within social networks. 


What makes a protest violent?


The question of why some smooth and calm protests lose their non-violent constitution while others do not, has been remarkably underexplored but here are some factors which certainly do play a role in transforming a peaceful protest into a violent one:


1. Heavy Handed Policing 

"Riots are a product of interactions - largely to do with the nature of the way police treats crowds." 


Generally, protestors are not the first ones to incite brutality. Violence is less likely if the police have a calm and logical relationship with the people on the street. Evidence suggests that destruction or violence emerges when law enforcement or the police use violent techniques first. It is quite a fact that violent and heavy-handed police have been a driving force for violent demonstrations. When the police make use of such techniques, the possibility of protestors retorting violently and using a similar brutal force in future outcries becomes high. It is a deep sense of disappointment that the people protesting experience when their non-violent actions, are met with government violence time and again, and they become not “people asking for their rights”, but rather get labelled as “people who are enemies of the state”. 


One of the recent instances of police brutality can be traced down to when an officer was filmed using his bicycle to shove a black woman who was protesting, during the George Floyd protests.


Researchers have spent some time figuring out what kind of a relationship persists between the police crowd and the protestors crowd and how do the two groups interact. The myth is that a large crowd of police wearing riot gears from the start, using tear gases, splashing water, using pepper spray and rubber bullets on the crowd maintains the sanity of the protest, but the truth is that the overwhelming police force with a wide variety of torturing tactics is the largest factor which makes a protest violent. When the police force proceeds as a whole towards all the protestors while only some initiate violence, a notion of “us versus them” mentality is created when they think that the brutal use of force towards them is not justified, and this makes them more confrontational in their approach.


2. The Role of Media 

The media is known for portraying a biased picture of any event, especially when it comes to social movements or protests. When the news media channel just shows a protestor pushing a police officer and ignores instances of police brutality or bombards the audience with tales of bloodshed rather than spotlighting the protestors who are peacefully asking for equality, the aim and the intentions of carrying out that movement goes down the drain. The media should also focus on exhibiting and describing the gravity of the source of the uproar, rather than repeatedly showing the outcome of it.  The fact that the news has become negative over decades is real. It is responsible for distorting people’s vision of a particular problem, as it usually tends to show only the negative outcomes of instances, as doing so increases their viewership. 


This can be seen as practice when the issue of farmers protest in India was raised by Greta Thunberg, the media portrayed her tweets as a secret conspiracy, and the Delhi police reportedly registered a case against Greta.  


Online interactions often give birth to shared outrage and commitments. When people chatter on a social media platform where others share their disapproval or anger on a certain political or social issue, they discover a familiar purpose and shared rage that they have to contest for the sake of brotherhood, and they come to believe that if they act together, situations may change. 


3. What’s at Stake

Moral psychology says that when people with strong ethical constitutions see some rule or policy or treatment as immoral and inhuman, they deem protesting as a valid solution to protect their moral understanding. Such people would be willing to raise their voice and go to the extreme level to fix the broken law or issue.


For example, a person who is of the strong opinion that abortion is immoral and should be criminalized would be comfortable in burning down an abortion clinic, along with some other people of the same view.


When we take a look back in deep history, we see abundant examples of peaceful protests and approaches to political and social unjust adversities. Some instances of the same include, The Salt March when Mahatma Gandhi Ji decided not to choose violence but simply violate the salt law which later lead India to freedom, or be it The Singing Revolution(1986-1991) where no weapons were used but only the voices that sang threatening songs or be it The Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913 which was described as one of the most “impressively beautiful spectacles ever staged” with no trace of violence at all. All these marches were made up of inspiring and admirable chunks of strength, passion, bravery, and non-violence which are living examples of peaceful uproars being successful and fruitful in achieving justice.