Research Shows Peaceful Protest Depends On Police Behavior

12:03 minutes

a black man peacefully protesting with his arms spread out wide. he stands in front of a wall of police with shields. a large crowd stands behind him
Demonstrators protesting against police brutality, racial inequality, and the killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans in Washington, DC on May 30, 2020. Credit: Geoff Livingston/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This week, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans by police brutality and racial inequality continue to fuel demonstrations around the nation. In many cities, police are using tear gas, rubber bullets, and other control tactics on protesters. 

A history of 50 years of research reveals what makes a protest safe for participants and police alike. The findings show that police response is what makes the biggest difference: de-escalating and building trust supports peaceful demonstrations rather than responding with weapons and riot gear.

And, as thousands of protesters risk abrasive, cough-inducing tear gas and mass arrests, health researchers are concerned a militant response could increase demonstrators’ risk of acquiring COVID-19. 

Maggie Koerth, senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight and a Minneapolis, Minnesota resident, joins Ira to discuss these stories.

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Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, why having more black dermatologists could improve skin cancer detection for patients with darker skin. And we’ll pore over the science behind your perfect cup of coffee.

But first, Americans are protesting in every state in the nation in scores of cities. People are marching in the streets in opposition to police brutality and racial inequality. In cases where the police respond with barriers, projectiles, tear gas, and pepper spray, and mass arrests in a time of pandemic, you can bet there is science, research saying what actually promotes safety for protesters and police alike. Here to explain is Maggie Koerth, senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight. She joins me from Minneapolis. Welcome back, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Hi. Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You know, this is for me, I know you’re out in Minneapolis where all these protests originated following the death of George Floyd. And for me, this is like a deja vu, talking with a journalist covering protests. Because I started my career 50 years ago covering protests. So I can only imagine how difficult it is for you as a journalist and as a resident of Minneapolis. Tell us a little bit about that.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Well, I have been out a couple of times doing reporting in the streets. Last Thursday, I and another reporter, a freelancer with The Washington Post ended up at the third precinct when it was being burnt down. And then Saturday night we were out again, when there were very, very few protesters, but a lot of police aggression.

So we have seen what the violent end of things looks like, from both the protester part and the police part. It’s been a really long week in Minneapolis. The story that I am talking to you guys about today, I actually filed a little late because I had to help my neighbors hunt through our bushes for incendiary devices.


MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, yeah. There were a couple of cases where people had found jars full of gas, and another case where somebody found a basket that was full of gasoline-soaked firewood. And so everybody in town, all of a sudden found out about this and had to go out and look for it.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Sorry to hear that. I know there have been a lot of stories about the conduct of the protesters and the conduct of the police in response to them, questions about looting and vandalism by some protesters, and questions of police escalating the conflict into violence, even when protesters are just sitting there like we saw outside the White House the other day. And I know you reported just this weekend what the research says. There is research about what keeps protests safer for everyone involved, and it turns out it’s all in the power of the police. Tell us about that.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Well, so I thought it was interesting that you were talking about protests 50 years ago, because this research on police and protester interactions dates all the way back to the 1967 Kerner Commission to investigate urban riots. So the broad consensus is that police escalation of force plays a major factor in whether a peaceful protest turns violent. For example, that Kerner Report which looked at 24 riots in detail found that police action had been pivotal in starting half of them.

And when we’re talking about police action and police force here, what we’re talking about is pretty broad. The researchers I spoke to described when peaceful protesters show up at a location and the police are already in riot gear, that can be an escalation of force. And that’s actually something that we saw happen in Minneapolis on Tuesday night, when the first march in protest of George Floyd’s death made it to the third precinct.

There’s also things like moving into protesters’ space, and the use of these less lethal projectiles that we’re seeing all over the nation. All of those things are forms of escalating force that can actually increase tension and promote violence happening.

IRA FLATOW: Did this study talk about how to de-escalate?

MAGGIE KOERTH: That’s something that researchers have been working on as well. A lot of this research is qualitative, it’s not quantitative. Because it’s really hard to compare one protest, one riot, one uprising to another. The circumstances are all just so different.

But the de-escalation side of things, one thing that they all agreed on was that it starts long before there’s actually ever a protest looming. It starts with making connections between community and police, and not having relationships that allow you to avoid the need for a protest to begin with.

And other examples that exist out there are things like the Berlin Police Department that has been working really hard at de-escalation techniques. And one of the things that they do is maintaining this constant transparent communication with protests. So they have information sent out over loudspeakers throughout the entire course of the protests, telling the protesters what they are doing, telling them where the police are going to be moving next, how things are happening, and also kind of sending instructions to the crowd, and everybody kind of talks in this calm, neutral tone of voice that make those voices sound more comforting and more like something people want to listen to.

IRA FLATOW: How exactly do you conduct research on protests? Where does the data come from?

MAGGIE KOERTH: So this is actually what they’re really interesting things to me, is that one of the ways these researchers do this work is to go out into the crowds themselves. I talked with Edward Maguire at Arizona State University, and he’s one of the researchers who’s done this, where you take a bunch of grad students, and you basically just embed yourselves in a protest. And he told me what he does is have his cell phone up so it looks like he’s talking on the phone, when what he’s actually doing is recording notes to himself in voicemail about what’s happening, what happened when, and how the police and protesters are interacting, what that relationship looks like throughout the evening.

Now, as you might suspect, that can end up going poorly for these researchers. Maguire has been shot in the face with a projectile.

IRA FLATOW: I’m just speechless. I don’t know how to react to that.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. I think what’s interesting about him is that he is somebody that has really good relationships with the police. And he actually does police trainings. And he has been trying to convince departments across the country that they need to focus more on de-escalation. He was interviewed by The Washington Post after Saturday night when you had these pretty heavy-handed crackdowns all over the nation, talking about how these things that he was seeing really did represent that escalating of force that his research was talking about. And that kind of ties in with some of the stuff that I saw.

My reporting partner and I were threatened with a projectile gun at one point. At another point, we saw video and met some people who had just had some police officers shoot at them while they were on their own porch. And we ended up meeting up with a local newspaper reporter whose window had been shot out by a police projectile.

IRA FLATOW: Does the research point to anything that protesters themselves do that might affect everyone’s safety?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, they also say that protesters pushing into the police’s space can do the same kind of thing. It’s not that police are the only ones escalating, but what they have found is that police escalation is often a first step towards other groups escalating back. And that police have an opportunity to stop that cycle by not escalating from the beginning.

IRA FLATOW: As they say, we are still dealing with COVID-19, but there’s also been some concern about whether the protesters and the protests are bringing people too close together. What do we know about the protests and the pandemic?

MAGGIE KOERTH: One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot in this past week is how those first protests on Tuesday here, right after Mr. Floyd’s death, people were really working hard to try to make those be COVID-aware. People were masked up, they were socially distanced. I had some friends who were at that march and were sending me videos where this crowd just looked completely massive, because it turns out when everybody is six feet apart, your march goes on for miles down the road.

When they were met at the police station by officers in riot gear, and some kind of confrontation began, that pretty quickly shifted from this peaceful march with socially distanced people to officers firing tear gas and projectiles into a crowd, and the way that my city councilman who was at that scene called indiscriminate. So the result was hundreds of people coughing, demasking, fleeing, being in each other’s personal space in a way that they hadn’t been up to that point, that the escalation of force wasn’t just about the safety of the officers and the safety of the people, and the safety of buildings around them. It was also about upping that risk for COVID-19 exposure.

And there’s been several articles that came out this past week talking about the way that tear gas can actually up the risk of COVID-19 infection just by itself, because you’re talking about something that induces coughing and heavy breathing, which means more particles in the air that could spread coronavirus around. The New York Times also reported that military research in the past has found that exposure to this kind of gas can up your risk of contracting a respiratory illness.

IRA FLATOW: And I know the arrests where police crowd people together on a street, sitting down, waiting to be arrested or even at the police station.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Right. And we haven’t seen a whole lot of that here in Minneapolis. But the videos that I’ve seen in other places, it’s definitely a technique that is going to force more people closer together.

IRA FLATOW: Is there a recipe they’re saying for a pandemic-safe protest?

MAGGIE KOERTH: I’m not seeing any clear recipes for a pandemic-safe protest. What I am seeing is people talking a lot about balancing the risk of contracting coronavirus with the risk of doing nothing about what they see as police brutality in their community. When the first protests were being put together on Wednesday, I saw people online having these conversations and sort of talking about how they were going to make sure that people were trying to wear masks, and how they were going to make sure that people were trying to stay six feet apart. So it’s definitely something that protesters are thinking about, at least here in Minneapolis.

IRA FLATOW: Maggie, always a pleasure talking with you. Please, I know you hear it all the time, stay safe. You have our concerns with you.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Thank you. I’ll do my best.

IRA FLATOW: Maggie Koerth, senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight, based in Minneapolis.

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