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Police-Provoked Violence At Protests Is As Predictable As It Is Avoidable, New Research Finds

A study of 1000s of incidents during Occupy reveals how violence erupts.

New York City police charge protesters during 2011's Occupy demonstrations.
Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) a katz


Across America, protesters and police increasingly seem to be on a collision course. Whether demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, or during the Occupy Movement, or at routine political party conventions, police increasingly show up heavily armed and ready to use force to control crowds. The results are often unnecessary violence, prompting the same questions after every confrontation, “What could have been done differently?”

The Deciding Force Project is analyzing thousands of police-protester interactions during the Occupy protests to answer that. Nick Adams, a sociologist and fellow at University of California Berkeley’s Institute for Data Science, oversees this research and spoke to AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld about what provokes police-protester violence.        

Steven Rosenfeld: Are police provoking violence in demonstrations? Are they doing this? And then we can get into the evidence and talk about what might be different.

Nick Adams: The way that we answer that question is we have data from over 8,000 news accounts: newspaper, radio, television, local, regional, national—accounts covering events of the Occupy Movement across the United States, 192 different cities. We gather all of this information and then we parse it and turn it into numbers and a database, and we can look at interweaving narratives in each city across different events. Whether they’re protests, marches, demonstrations, or police raids of camps, or whatever they are. We can look at the strategic, operational and tactical level, and see how violence is emerging—sometimes strategically, often at the most emotional escalations that are occuring on the ground.

So to answer your question, do police provoke violence? Certainly, sometimes. Whether they’re doing it intentionally or not varies, moment to moment. Sometimes police provoke a standoff or some kind of force strategically, but often times it emerges out of an escalation with protesters. All of this is shown in the data that we have. We’re still processing data so we can put hard numbers on it.

SR: Let’s break it down a little bit. You’re talking about several different situations, such as police going to where people are camped, or where they are lined up. Where is violence between protesters and police more likely, or less likely, to occur?

NA: We need to be careful about how we are defining violence. For some people, when they hear violence, they might think rubber bullets, tear gas and batons, and so on. In our work, we define it as any use of force. And that goes for protesters also, if protesters are pushing police officers, even if it’s not hurting them. We are really interested in force, even more so than just violence.

But force is more likely to occur when police use skirmish lines—when police get into line of officers and are challenging protesters’ ability to move or to be in a particular space. It happens, obviously, when police raid an encampment and they pull people out of tents, with the use of force. When police show up in riot gear and signal to protesters that they’re ready for a fight. Whether or not police actually engage in the first acts of force, we have seen in the data there are higher rates of force being used by either or both parties once police show up in riot gear.      

When crowds seem very very large, police seem more likely to engage in the use of force. We think that’s because they’re human too, and they experience fear when they see a crowd of 5,000 people. Only 2 or 3 or 5 or a dozen of those protesters get out of control are engaging in property destruction and pushing officers; it’s hard for the police to see just those handful of people and only worry about them. They become worried about the whole crowd of 5,000. And it puts them in a state of fear. It doesn’t matter how much riot gear you have.