Why do bystanders justify the use of violence by protesters?

By Patricio Saavedra Morales

Recently, the UN Human Rights Office published an extensive report about human rights violations and abuses during protests occurring in Venezuela from 1st of April to 31st July 2017.  In the document, UN officers accused the Venezuelan police force of excessive use of force during protests and illegal detentions of both protesters and political opponents. Furthermore, the report claimed that the right of peaceful assembly has been systematically violated, and the protesters (as well as journalists who have tried to report protests) are treated as ‘terrorist’ and ‘enemies of the state’ by government authorities. In this context, the report argues some protesters resorted to the use of violence as a method to confront the action of the police and pro-government groups.

However, the use of violence during protests is neither a new issue nor exclusive feature of Venezuelans. Social psychologists from different countries have demonstrated that emotionsthe perceived efficacy of violent actions, or the lack of collective efficacy could be antecedents for people consider getting involved in violent actions during protests. Moreover, an outstanding approach based on identity dynamics and crowd psychology has proposed that the use of violence by members of a crowd (as in protests) follows a specific logic where violent tactics are legitimised due to the indiscriminate actions of the police, and a subsequent change of group representations to ‘us’ (protesters) and ‘they’ (the police). Hence, ‘violent actions’ can be justified as self-defence or retaliation by the protesters (as a group) when they see other group (the police) as an enemy because of the use of transgressive actions against them.

Despite the findings mentioned above, both the influence of the perceived political context on bystanders (the extent to which people perceive their government and the police restricting or facilitating protests) and how these bystanders perceive that other people give legitimacy to protests have barely been explored as antecedents of the justification of the use of violence by protesters. To address these topics, we carried out four quantitative studies using samples from Chile and the UK for each of them.

A few brief words are necessary about the countries involved in the studies before describing the results. On one hand, Chilean historian Gabriel Salazar has claimed that the use of violence in protests and by social movements has been present across Chilean history to try to achieve social change. The same scholar has also argued that in spite of the presence of popular violence in their history, many Chilean people have often focused their efforts on condemning its use (because of its assumed ‘irrationality’ and supposed criminality) rather than trying to understand why or when some people have considered it as a valid approach. On the other hand, the UK (specifically England) has seen episodes such as the ‘Battle of Westminster’ in 1988 and the riots in Tottenham and Hackneyduring 2011, where the actions of the police against protesters operated as a trigger for a series of events in which the use of violence became legitimized. Regarding these facts, a group of scholars from this country have developed a scientific approach to understanding the occurrence of riots based on social identity dynamics instead of assuming that crowd’s actions are a product of pathological irrationality.

With respect to the main findings of our four studies, we demonstrated that people from the UK and Chile were more willing to justify the use of violence by protesters when they perceived their political context as more restricted in relation to protests. We also found that besides the general perception about political context, police transgressions are especially relevant for Chileans, compared to people in the UK, in their legitimisation of the use of violence during a protest.

Another significant result of our studies was that when people perceived their political context as more open to protests, they were more likely to also think that other people would legitimise the implementation of protests in the streets (a process called meta-perception). The latter is relevant because the perceptions about another important actor within the political context – other people – were included in the equation beyond institutional actors. Interestingly, we also found that for British people the perception of what other people thought about protests was a relevant factor to justify the use of violence by protesters, but this was not the case for the Chilean sample.

In conclusion, our results suggest that what the government authorities and the police do in relation to protests is an important factor that people evaluate in forming attitudes to different protest activities. At the same time, we think the special relevance that police transgressions have for Chileans may be due to historical antecedents (during the fascist dictatorship, Chilean police actively repressed and killed people during protests), and/or the unnecessary or excessive use of force against protesters frequently alleged by international organizations as Amnesty Internationaland Human Right Watch. A third hypothesis which could explain the importance of police behaviour in the justification of the use of violence in Chile is the massive use of paramilitary policing to manage protests in that country. Paramilitary policing is characterized by the use of water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas against protesters, as well as an extensive control of public space by the police force. Although recent psychological literature has demonstrated that paramilitary policing has a negative impact on the protesters’ trust in the police and the fact that policing approaches based on coercion could help to escalate violence between the police and crowd members, it seems that Chilean authorities have allowed the police force to retain its old and repressive tactics without considering non-coercive methods before crowds events and protests (Some remarkable examples of the use of a non-coercive approach during crowds events have been carried out in the UK.)

However, a topic still unsolved is the relevance that the British (but not Chileans) give to the opinion of others for the justification of violence during protests: could this difference between countries be explained by cultural background discrepancies? Which specific cultural aspects would be behind it? Whatever the answer to these questions is, the big picture obtained across the studies matches with what other scholars have suggested on the use of violence by social movements and in collective action, which is that it follows a specific logic characterized by the emergence of new norms due to the illegitimate interaction between protesters and other groups (as the police). These new norms of interaction might mean that violent tactics (which could have been considered illegitimate in the past) become a valid strategy of action to confront or retaliate against police transgression instead of being caused by people’s ‘irrationality’ or ‘criminality’. In line with this, we suggest that knowing the extent in which people perceive their political context as open to allowing and facilitating protests would be a new piece of the puzzle to get a better understanding of the use of violence during these kind of events. Additionally, we propose the rationale described above would not be exclusive to those who actively participate in collective action but also it can be extended to bystanders (general public) who are not necessarily directly involved in the actions but can support the use of violent tactics by protesters after forming an opinion of their own political context.

Independently of the claims on international intervention in the Venezuelan crisis, we suggest that the approach described above might be applied to explain the use of violence during protests in that country. If we follow the UN report, we might conjecture that some people have justified the use of violence in the streets because of both the government restrictions to implement peaceful protests and the systematic police misbehaviour against the protesters. The latter would be aggravated whether we also consider that government authorities have explicitly considered protesters ‘as terrorists’ and sent detained protesters to military courts. Nevertheless, less clear is whether Venezuelans have considered the opinion of other people to justify the use of violent tactics in the streets. At the moment, through the press, we have just some hints that protesters (especially younger ones) perceive that the views of other people legitimise their presence in the streets to fight against the pro-government groups and the police.

This post was originally published on 7th September 2017 in the blog of the Crowds and Identities Research Group, led by Dr John Drury.

Find out more about our research on Social and Applied Psychology.

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Posted in PhD research, Research

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