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Sullivan on Protests That Turn Violent


 Heather Sullivan
Heather Sullivan

An article by Assistant Professor of Government Heather Sullivan was recently published in the online magazine Political Violence at a Glance.

In “Why Do Protests Turn Violent? Blame State-Society Relations (and Not Provocateurs),” she draws on research about factors that contribute to protests escalating to violence.

“A story of some bad apples from afar might be politically useful, but social science suggests that other factors may better explain the protest violence that we are currently seeing in cities across the country,” Sullivan said.

She said that research on protests has shown that the relationship between citizens and state agencies affects how protests will proceed. When there is a generally good relationship between the two groups and citizens view state agencies as being helpful in solving problems, “protesters and state officials are more likely to see each other as trustworthy enough to coordinate and engage in negotiations before and during protests.”

Sullivan also discussed research suggesting that protest violence is more likely when relations between state and society are weak and the role that experiences of repression may play in the escalation of violence during protests.

“If protesters expect a repressive response even when engaged in nonviolent action, then the relative cost of violence is reduced. Under such circumstances, protesters may choose violence more readily,” she said.

Comparing recent U.S. protests in which a show of police power was used to others in which police marched alongside protesters, Sullivan pointed out that “cities where police opted against a militarized response and joined recent protests were marked by an absence of violence.”

Repairing relations between state and society should be part of the strategy for avoiding future violent protest, Sullivan concluded.

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