The Right to Protest and (In)alienable Violence

by Sakunkan Neesung


One clear pattern I noticed in this year of the COVID- 19 outbreak is that an inefficient government, social inequality and economic gaps can lead to social unrest. Many governments enrage and disappoint their citizens in similar ways- poor decision-making, controversial policies, failed pandemic management, and widespread corruption. It does not take long for people to notice, point out the mistakes of their governments, and start to demand explanations or changes.


When I talk to my friends in other countries about the pandemic conversation often moves toward politics and how their countries have failed to handle the crisis. There were already many protests happening globally during 2019 and 2020 prior to the pandemic. Hong Kong and Thailand have been fighting for their democratic rights. In America, people have expressed their anger towards systemic racism and police brutality, and Greta Thunberg has long led protests in climate change.

A protest is about shouting at the top of one’s lung to those in power demanding that something needs to be done. Protests are a call for attention both at the national and international levels, an attempt to get their message across.


A number of demonstrations have been turning points in human history, shaping the world as we know it. Many powerful protests had an impact not only on legislation but flipped public perception towards certain issues. Demonstrations such as the 1913 Women's Suffrage Parade that granted voting rights for women, Gandhi's Salt March against British taxation, and the March on Washington in 1963 protesting racial inequality are all instances where the banding together of people in protest brought about a social revolution.


A protest is the way we communicate; its cost, however, can be high. With so many protests going on, questions regarding violence in protests arise. If not all demonstrations are violent then what brings about violence when people are protesting? What are the factors that lead to violence at sites of protest?


Sometimes a protest gets out of control. When violence escalates during protests, chances are there will be property damages, business losses, injuries, and casualties. Peaceful protests in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd that later turned into vandalism and looting as seen in a video of protesters looting Vans shop or a black woman condemning protesters for vandalizing the bus stop in her neighborhood. Damages amounted to approximately 500 million US dollars in Minneapolis alone, with more than 400 businesses damaged. Apart from economic losses, protest crackdown is often accompanied by injuries and casualties. In Iran’s massive protest on the economic crisis in November 2019, more than 300 were killed and thousands were detained.

Protests turn violent for several reasons. The first reason is the unpredictability of the crowd. The larger the protest, the more difficult it is to control protesters. How can protesters communicate with each other when there are thousands and thousands of people and when the police are marching towards them with a water cannon? When police cracked down on a pro-democracy protest in Bangkok on 16th October, 2020, protesters shouted “come back” repeatedly when there was a protester crossing barriers to face police. That was the first time I saw how people efficiently communicate and control each other in a big protest. Besides, there are some groups of people who take advantage of the political unrest and also those who only want to cause trouble. All of the factors combine therefore make protests unpredictable and can easily turn violent.


The second reason why protests turn violent according to Gary M. Shiffman, a behavioral scientist, is that the tension among groups is naturally more intense than that of individuals. When a group of people shares the same anger or identity their voice gets louder. Protesters associate themselves with the groups and alienate the opposition, seeing them as the ‘other’. If one protester is hit by police, other protesters are likely to be emotionally affected by that one incident. This can be proved by the 2011 England riots where a man shot dead by police led to four-day vandalism and looting.


Last, violence arises as a result of law enforcement response. Before reading the article Violence v Non Violence: which is more effective as a driver of change? by Ed Cairns, I thought that if a protest is peaceful, then there is less chance of violence.This is partially right according to a study cited in this article. It says that nonviolent protests have a five times higher rate of success than the violent ones. However, if authorities still decide to crackdown on peaceful protests, the situation becomes violent. A study has shown that the way police react to protesters can provoke violence in several ways such as a presence of disproportionate police force or police wearing riot gears. Undercover police seemed to be the perfect example. Even though they are to observe the situation and make sure things get under control, it is also reported that they were misusing stop and search power to obtain protesters’ ID cards and sometimes take a photo without permission. Besides, overly active response enrages protesters the same way with a lack of active response. The main idea is that the government/authority response plays a significant role in keeping protests peaceful.


To illustrate what I mean by government/authority response, I refer to a recent study. A statistic from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) reported that 95% of Black Lives Matter protests were peaceful protesters. Yet, there has been marked increases in both government intervention and use of force as compared to the same period in 2019. This raises questions of how to efficiently protest while avoiding violence at the same time. Police intervention in protests is also a big issue in recent protests such as in Hong Kong. So balancing interaction between police and protester is also important in handling protests.


When protests turn unruly police may attempt to disperse the crowd depending on the laws and norms of that society. They might ask protesters to leave because the protest blocks traffic, disrupts public transportation networks or if there are reasons to believe that the protest will result in serious public disorder or cause property damage. However, police also have to let protesters know that they violate the law before clearing the area and to allow them so that they choose whether to comply with the order or not. Clear communication between the police force and protesters is a key in maintaining a peaceful protest. Sometimes, authorities do not reveal or notify people of their plan to control demonstrations. This lack of communication between groups causes mistrust and suspicion for both sides.


Sometimes protestors are subjected to all form of mistreatment and violence exerted by authorities in many societies. In the United States’ anti-racism protests rubber bullets, pepper sprays, and tear gases were used to disperse demonstrators. Water cannons were used by Nepalese police to crackdown on anti-lockdown protests. It was reported that the Hong Kong police used excessive force to disperse young protesters in ongoing pro-democracy protests. Even though the term “excessive” is immeasurable, it is not difficult to identify. Excessive use of force is when a policeman uses a firearm to stop an unarmed thief from escaping when he could stop him with his bare hand.


Even though the nature of protest is violent, protests can be peaceful if they are well planned.

The key to peaceful protest is that it has to be lawful. Protesters will have to notify local police of place and time. If protesters are to march on the road they have to ask for permission. Each country has its regulation on organizing protests stating what kind of activity violates or not violates the law. Details such as using the amplifier in public or where to and not to tie banners are petty but are necessary to note.


Another thing that is important to avoid violence is to recognize the difference between hate speech and freedom of speech. The right to freedom of expression guarantees the right to freely express our opinions, whereas hate speech is “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor” according to the United Nations. Freedom of speech is to be properly used. We can convey our message using facts and reasons. protesters can make changes without making a situation intense by, for example, by name calling or cursing. The violent emotion that was built up in protest can distract protesters from the purpose of a protest. In order to achieve the goal of a protest, we need to come out so as to address the problems together rather than taking the street, showing some anger and going home without really making changes.


The pro-democracy protest in Bangkok, Thailand has taught me that protest is not about name-calling or cursing the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, because he fails in administering a country. The protest is about educating the public why Thai people want him to resign, which is more impactful and creates long-term effects in how Thai people perceive and evaluate the efficiency of their government in the future. In short, treating a protest as a way of communication rather than a way to express anger could be one way of avoiding violence in protests.


The violence that accompanies protests comes from many factors such as the size of the crowd, shared identity, police response, and many others. Protesters should familiarize themselves with protest laws of that country and arrange protests in a way to minimize encounters with police as much as possible. Protests should come across as social messages rather than just groups of people blocking traffic. I see protests as changes to a better future the way we update our software for new applications. It is one method of communication that allows us to see how many people agree on the same issue and feel the need to bring it to the attention of the public and authorities.


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Justice Adda was a part of the Cambridge Social Ventures Programme in the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School 2016-17.