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.
Further reading: see Ted Robert Gurr, “War, Revolution and the Growth of the Coercive State.” Comparative Political Studies, 1988 <gated> for a useful introduction to why OECD countries have developed powerful police states. Michael Walzer “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1973 <gated> offers an important essay that explains why elected leaders’ use of torture does not undermine democracy. Christian Davenport, Sarah Soule & David A. Armstrong, II, “Protesting While Black: The Differential Policing of American Activism, 1960 to 1990.” American Sociological Review, 2011 <gated>.