The 99% or Marginalized Minority? Coercion and the Occupy Movement

By Christian Davenport and Will Moore

Repression like we have recently witnessed in response to the Occupy movement is not rare in democracy.  This fact tends to surprise people, so let us explain.  Government repression—the use of arbitrary arrest, physical force, and other forms of coercion—is the most common government response to publicly made challenges to existing policies: throughout the advanced industrial democracies popular protest tends to elicit repression.  To be sure, repressive behavior is neither automatic nor guaranteed: it is trivial to identify protests that are passively monitored by, and even some that are ignored by, police.  What, then, determines whether police will repress or monitor /ignore protesters? The simple answer is: perceived threat.  Threat can be usefully broken into three parts: stakes (the further from the status quo, the more threatening), the means by which the claims are advanced (e.g., lobbying and non-violent public action as opposed to violence), and the social status of the protesters (i.e., the extent to which they are marginal members of society).  Stakes play an important role, as do the means, but we focus here on the third category: marginalization.  Take, for example, the stakes of the Tea Party Movement /Occupy Wall Street (OWS), and the public demonstrations those groups have produced, thereby setting stakes and means aside.  In such a circumstance, the government’s, and most explicitly the police’s, perception of the social status of the protesters will strongly influence the level of coercive policing the protesters will experience.

OWS supporters sometimes observe that there have been a number of Tea Party rallies at which protesters openly carried rifles or pistols, yet police did not arrest anyone whereas several hundreds of people have been arrested throughout OECD countries, including the US, at OWS protests where no protesters posed a coercive threat to the police.  So if threat of violence is an important determinant of coercive policing, they seem to be asking, then why were the Tea Partiers given a “free pass” while the Occupy protesters have faced tear gas, arrest, and even some beatings?  The answer is police perception of social status.  As dull as it might be, demographics help shed light, but the narrative that both supporters and detractors offer about the protesters’ demographics might be more important than the actual demographics.  And while this point might initially strike readers as evidence of a failure of democracy, it is actually precisely the opposite.

Recall, democracy is politics by majority rule: one person, one vote.  And it turns out that majorities routinely support “aggressive” policing of marginals such as minorities or ideological non-moderates that gather in public to challenge the status quo.  What demographics are relevant historically?  Naturally, the specific ones over which cleavages form change over time and across countries, but these are the usual suspects: income and wealth, race, nationality, language, and religion.  Some of these things change.  For example, research by one of the authors of this piece with Sarah Soule and David Armstrong show that police responding to African American protests of the mid to late 1960s were more likely to use violence and force compared to protest activities undertaken by non-blacks.  After this period, African American protesters were no more likely than non-black protesters to be repressed.  Of course, following this time frame, black protest was rare and young black males were more likely to find themselves behind bars but the point remains: there was no fixed policy of repression being directed against a certain subset of the population that could be viewed as marginalized.

This is not a new phenomenon.  It is true that The Federalist Papers warned us of the “tyranny of the majority,” but that observation does not change the bare facts that democracy works the way it was designed to when police differentially deploy coercion based on the perceived social status of the protesters.  This is inconvenient for the champions of democracy, but nonetheless incontestable.  What such bias does violate is equal protection before the law, but any reader who believes that equal protection before the law, and civil rights more generally, enjoy widespread approval among voters in OECD countries generally, and the US in particular, is plainly unfamiliar with decades of public opinion research, to say nothing of the outcomes of specific elections in which “law and order” candidates have defeated “civil rights” opponents at the polls.  Repeatedly, Americans and others in the West have chosen safety from challengers over freedom of expression for the discontented.  This, then, is the depressing take-away for readers who wish to appeal to democracy.  As long as the majority is willing to tolerate the use of coercive behavior against perceived challengers/outsiders, however, then it will be used.  Not only will it be tolerated but it is possible that such behavior could bring major benefits to those involved.  Indeed, it is commonly believed in research referred to as the domestic democratic peace that state coercion will result in electoral sanctions being used against perpetrators and those claiming responsibility over them, but the reality of the situation is that repressive leaders are frequently not voted out of a democracy but are actually put in office and kept there.  Drawing upon another literature in political science, as long as the perceived targets are clearly distinct from the majority (i.e., there appears to be some selectivity with the behavior of interest), then there will be no perceived threat to their existence and they will not call for a cessation of coercive activities.

The Occupy protesters are clearly marginalized, and not only in the rhetoric of pundits like Ann Coulter.  This should sound strange given the OWS explicit strategy of defining themselves as the 99%: the majority.  Can the “majority” be a marginalized “minority”? Again, perception plays an important role: public opinion research has consistently shown that most Americans believe themselves to be middle class despite the fact that they are not.  In a society that Pimps it’s Rides, obtains credit on the cheap and is given access to seemingly everything under the sun via cable, the citizens of the US forgot that they were relatively broke, under-educated, ignored and – yes – marginalized.  In such a situation, it becomes possible for individuals to see people like themselves out in the streets but still not see themselves.  This is the rhetorical struggle ahead of the OWS movement; they are fighting to show their similarities with the people at home at the same time that many in the media attempt to portray them as anything but.  A stagnant economy might assist in this endeavor as more individuals find themselves in search of work, housing, healthcare and so forth, but there will be a fight to re-sensitize the population.    OWS’ decision to produce television commercials, and air them on shows that draw conservative audiences, is an interesting strategy (irony aside).

That said, when still and video cameras are present individual police officers can make errors that work to the protesters’ advantage, as was recently demonstrated in Davis, CA when the casual pepper-spraying of passive students generated a meme along with considerable protest.  Elected officials and police departments are, of course, aware of this, and are likely to take action to restrict the presence of recording technology, as New York City’s mid-November execution of the temporary eviction of OWS’ from Zuccotti Park in amply demonstrated.  The nation wide crackdown on public photography and video in the wake of 9/11 has produced a small movement to prohibit police departments’ restrictions, but it is an issue that fails to resonate much beyond the press corps and civil liberty activists.

That the actions of both protesters and police influence public opinion about the demands of protesters is not news: the Civil Rights Movement firmly established that idea in the American public consciousness.  The central point we wish to make is that coercion of protesters, exercised primarily by police forces, is “business as usual” in democracies (big business actually – both in the US and abroad), and as long as the majority of people do not self-identify with the protesters elected officials and their police departments will have wide latitude in performing that coercion.  Unless OWS, and related protest movements, are able to do a better job persuading a larger portion of “the 99%” that they should identify with the movement we are likely to see more of the discontented getting beaten and arrested, all with considerable support from the mass public.


Filed under Daily Disruption

9 responses to “The 99% or Marginalized Minority? Coercion and the Occupy Movement

  1. To me, contra Christian Davenport and Moore, “means” and not “social status” explains the difference in governmental and law-enforcement responses. Occupiers presented challenges to officials by the means of their protests, which was the long-term occupation of public space. Such means of expression can provide many, in the Lockean sense, inconveniences to society. The Tea Partiers provided far less inconveniences though their scheduled events.

    Did authorities and public officials really feel threatened from Occupiers deviation from the status quo (i.e., the “stakes” of the protests), as suggested by D &M? Did public officials feel enabled by Occupiers’ marginal/inferior “social status,” as asserted strongly by D & M? To me, the answer to both is a resounding “No.” Neither “social status,” nor “steaks” of Occupy’s protests determined governmental response.

    My simple explanation is that the Tea Partiers’ means provided less inconvenience to the public than the Occupiers’ means and, thus, the more coercive response by government to the latter than the former.


    • willhmoore

      Frank Cohen raises a great issue: means of protest influences government response. We agree: indeed, it is the second of three points that we identified. However, we left it aside to focus upon a third issue that is frequently ignored. To address the “means” issue, I agree that the Occupy tactics have been more taxing than the Tea Party tactics. Indeed, if we could get in a time machine, replace the Occupy supporters with Tea Party supporters (and their demands), and then re-run this fall with the Tea Partiers using the Occupy tactics I believe they would have met the same fate.

      This might appear to contradict the argument in our post, but it does not. Our point is that in addition to stakes and means, social status matters, and that point is especially salient given the decision of the Occupy movement to adopt the “We are the 99%” slogan. Most observers seem to believe that in democracies government coercion is unusual when protesters use tactics that are protected by law. Our essay contends that this is not true: majorities have not constrained governments from cracking down upon protesters who are viewed as outside the mainstream (as both Tea Partiers and Occupy protesters are viewed).


      • Will, what I’m struggling with is your definition of “repression,” which seems to be any act of coercion, which means repression=coercion, which makes them synonymous. Can’t you see how others might see you and Christian making the imprecise and troubling equation of repression to coercion? If the police arrest someone who makes a trespass on my private property (broadly speaking, ranging from a physical assault on me to someone putting up a tent in my back yard), then, is that action, in any way, repressive towards the alleged tresspasser (i.e., alleged assailant or squatter)? Doesn’t that action actually constitute protection of my rights and, more abstractly, isn’t it an act of rule of law rather than an act of repression? Shouldn’t there be a threshold to surpass for coercion by government to constitute repression? For instance, that threshold, in the abstract, may be John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, which asserts that one is free until they do harm to others. I have every reason to believe that Mayors Bloomberg and Menino (in NY and Boston respectively) were using that principle to determine the use of coercion against Occupants and, therefore, their use of police was not, in essence, repressive.


  2. willhmoore

    Frank, I won’t speak for Davenport, but I tend to use the words coercion and repression as synonyms (as we put it: “Government repression—the use of arbitrary arrest, physical force, and other forms of coercion”), though they certainly can be distinguished, so I will adopt your usage.

    You appear to hold the view that only coercion, and neither arbitrary arrest nor undue force, was used against against Occupiers in recent weeks in the US and abroad. Jennifer Earl recently posted on the topic of disproportionate levels of force by police. Perhaps in addition to the definitional concern our disagreement lies with police tactics. If so, we will have to agree to disagree.

    The point of our post was not to address whether the use of coercion was appropriate, but rather to observe that police coercion is common in democracies. I find that most political scientists, pundits, commentators, and those who pay little attention to civic affairs assume that the public will restrain police from arbitrary arrest and disproportionate levels of force. We have observed that the extent that this is so varies with the extent to which the engaged majority identifies with those who are the object of police attention (i.e., that in addition to means, social status influences police use of coercion and repression).

    In addition to Earl’s post, these might be of interest:

    DHS Funding for Military Weapons

    Killing Dogs in the Drug War


  3. Frank Cohen

    Thank you for the clarification on the “point of our post” and the additional references.


  4. Pingback: The Withering of the Occupy Movement | Mobilizing Ideas

  5. frank,

    i’m working on a piece called “repression with synonyms: unifying the study of domestic spying, censorship, protest policing, torture and genocide” that might clarify my characterization. my view is generally encompassing because i think that we all too frequently ignore certain types of government actions because we are focused on a specific subset. we need to take the full government’s repertoire into consideration when we think about this stuff. i also think that the issue of appropriateness and proportionality (i.e., the perceived illegitimacy of the government’s action) is a separate issue from acknowledging that the government has done something. historically, “repression” was kind of associated with the perception that some group was receiving more than their fair share (think monty python’s declaration in the holy grail: “help, help, i’m being repressed). at the same time, i would maintain that this label is the one most frequently used across all relevant activities. i never thought that political control or coercion sounded as good. it is hard to use words that are frequently used in the public domain with one interpretation within an academic setting where we are trying to do something else.



  6. Christian, sorry to be so late in replying. Thank you for your thoughtful response and clarification. I look forward to “Repression with Synonyms.”


  7. There is a freshman class that we developed called “Political Violence,” which is a “get your feet wet,” initial exposure to theory, concepts and methods in political science. This discussion, along with source citations, is too weighty for them but not for those who started in that course and continued to our upper-levels and capstone. I will make sure to expose those students to this exchange. They will find it stimulating. You’ll be interested to know that, inspired by my initial exchange with Will in December, I had the freshmen explore whether or not Occupy is a movement of “non-violent resistance” and whether or not Occupants were subjected to “repression” or “rule-of-law” by government, giving them definitions of the concepts and having them work with them for a week. Your “Synonyms” work, given my pedagogy, especially interests me.


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