UC Berkeley researchers study connections between violence, protests

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UCPD officers hold batons during a protest in front of Sproul Hall on Nov. 9, 2011.

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A study conducted by UC Berkeley researchers aims to examine how violence unfolds during protests, with the hope of promoting peaceful protest practices around the world.

Led and created by sociology graduate student Nick Adams, the project analyzes the events leading up to and during protests in an effort to predict whether violence will occur. Adams and his team looked at data specifically from the 2011 Occupy protests in 192 cities.

“There are no scientific accounts of why violence occurs,” Adams said. “We want to see with our data not only how violence is induced strategically, but also how violence emerges as emotional escalation between police and protesters.”

Sifting through more than 8,000 local, regional and national news accounts, Adams and his team of researchers collected data from the Occupy protests to compare the ways citizens and police conducted themselves during the protests.The project, entitled the Deciding Force, grew out of Adams’ interest in the Egyptian military’s responses to protests during the Arab Spring.

The findings showed that when police reduced violence, the message of the protest was clearer. It also found that media coverage of protests often focused on violence rather than on the protesters’ message. Additionally, the researchers said they found protests tend to turn violent when officers used aggressive tactics.

The researchers sorted each news account into three categories: whether the violence was initiated by police, by protesters or by other variables, considering circumstances such as police arriving in riot gear or protesters yelling profanities, said Marybeth Baluyot, a senior researcher of the project.

The city of Berkeley experienced Occupy protests in 2011. UCPD received criticism at the time for its response to campus protesters. In the past few years, UCPD has changed its approach to protest response, according to UCPD Lt. Marc DeCoulode. Campus administrators and university officials have tried to take a more “active role” to try minimizing the violence of protests, he said.

“We see protests almost weekly on some subject matter, and very rarely do they turn violent,” DeCoulode said.

Michael Sherman, chair of the city’s Police Review Commission, said he felt that militarization of police forces — as seen in the ongoing Ferguson, Missouri, controversy — should not exist.

“The role of the police is to protect and defend the rights of people to peacefully protest and for the media to be able to cover these protests in a manner that is consistent with the First Amendment — which is freedom of the press and freedom to assemble — without fear of arrest and intimidation,” Sherman added.

The researchers are in the process of developing a social-science research tool that would cut down the time required to hand-code news accounts, and they are collecting detailed data of the protests, Adams said. This next stage of the research includes gathering personal accounts of police officers monitoring protests.

“I can see that Nick’s approach is going to give us multiple payoffs — both a better understanding of police-protester violence itself and a set of research strategies and tools that will generalize to problems across the social sciences,” said Cathryn Carson, a campus associate history professor who has worked with Adams, in an email.

According to Baluyot, researchers are looking to publish final results in the coming months with a book to be published later.

 

Lydia Tuan covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tuanlydia.