People have used protesting as a way to object against unfair laws and policies for centuries. However, in the past few years, protests have been used more and more frequently, for example the Insulate Britain protests, Covid protests, and the Black Lives Matter protests; all of which have happened in the past two years.
But one question many people have is: why do some protests become violent riots, with others remaining peaceful displays of objection? Crowd psychologists have speculated about this for many years, with their findings helping to change policing methods and the treatment of crowds.
While it was originally believed that crowds are irrational and volatile, recent research has shown that crowds and protestors are an effective way of leading to changes in societal beliefs and can cause necessary societal restructuring. We have seen this particularly recently with the climate change protests, which have led to many countries committing to reducing plastic waste, or becoming carbon neutral.
This shows how crowds can be a successful way of bringing about change, so why do we so often associate protesting with violence and rioting? Previous research has suggested that people that take part in violent protests may just be violent by nature, an idea that was exemplified by the attitudes towards the 2011 riots. Many members of the public believed that the riots were due to criminality, gangs, and moral decline.
However, subsequent research instead cites the relationship between the crowd of protestors and the often-forgotten second ‘crowd’ of those policing them. The behaviour of protestors is usually determined by how they are treated by the police, for example if they are treated as one collective group, they will begin to behave as one, and unite against the opposing group (the police). In the 2011 riots, many people described the police as the ‘biggest gang out there’, and said the police had a history of discrimination against those rioting, and this was why they then started destroying police property. This sense of unity then means that if one person becomes violent, their new united group will join them.
If the police then also deny protestors their rights, without communicating why, they can become more angry and volatile. Instead, police need to help facilitate legal crowd aims such as allowing them to march peacefully through the streets, without assuming they will turn violent. Police also need to consistently communicate with the crowd, explaining why they are following certain procedures, such as removing certain members or cordoning off areas. This will then allow the protestors to see police as people that are helping them, and so they will categorise them as members of their own group. Many people assume that crowds are a one-sided process, but they are actually an intergroup process, and so the influence of the police cannot be understated.
This was illustrated in a different form of crowd: football fans at the UEFA Euro 2004, where a graded policing system was used. Officers in normal uniforms were scattered throughout the crowd, to keep an eye on things and provide help. Riot squads would only be brought in if there were serious conflicts. This led to very low levels of conflict and more ‘self-policing’ in the crowd, where some fans would prevent others from getting angry or violent.
This can also be applied to protestors, and suggests police should treat crowds not as bombs about to blow, but as calm groups of people that are there to exert their right to protest. Hopefully, we will begin to see more graded policing, or more accommodating behaviour rather than ‘saturation policing’, where a disproportionate number of officers are present, leading to an environment of intimidation and potential conflict.
Research into protesting and crowds has come a long way from the suggestion that crowds must be volatile or irrational, some of these beliefs are still influencing our policing system, causing more violence. We should instead look to more current research to change these policing practices, and encourage more peaceful protests.
Emily Semmens is a final year undergraduate student at Loughborough University.