In the months of Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd in May, President Donald Trump has called on local and state officials to crack down as harshly as possible — a call he repeated at Tuesday’s presidential debate. But experts say that Trump’s rhetoric and actions risk inflaming tensions and escalating protests further, instead of keeping the peace.
Trump has characterized the protests as violent, even though more than 90 percent of thousands of protests nationwide have been peaceful. He’s dismissed protesters’ concerns, promising to “DEFEND OUR POLICE” rather than pursue policing reforms. He’s refused to criticize a vigilante shooter who killed two demonstrators and was charged with murder.
Trump has saved his harshest criticisms for local leaders he claims are too soft on the demonstrations. He’s called cities like Portland, Oregon, where protests have gone on for months and at times gotten violent, “a mess,” claiming Portland and other cities are “weakly run by Radical Left Democrat Governors and Mayors!” He sent federal agents to harass and arrest protesters in Portland and other cities. All of this escalated last month as the Trump administration declared New York City, Portland, and Seattle “anarchist cities,” setting them up to potentially lose federal funds.
He again used this kind of rhetoric at Tuesday’s presidential debate: “If we would send in the National Guard, it would be over.” (Governors in states where riots broke out have, in fact, sent in the National Guard.)
Some Republican leaders are taking cues from Trump. Last month, for example, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed changes that would escalate penalties for riots, block state funding for cities that “defund the police,” and stiffen penalties for protesters who hit a police officer during a “disorderly assembly,” Politico reported.
But if the goal is ensuring that protesters can exercise their First Amendment rights while avoiding the outbreaks of violence seen in Portland; Kenosha, Wisconsin; and other cities in the US this past summer, the confrontational, dismissive approach that Trump and his allies are taking will very likely make things worse, experts say.
The point of protests is for people to feel heard. Demonstrators are marching in the streets because they want to say something, and they want others — the public, politicians, and so on — to see and hear those messages.
“When we look at where protests are flaring up, they’re flaring up in response to incidents of [police] brutality,” Erica Chenoweth, an expert at Harvard on protests and political violence, told me. “So the No. 1 thing is to just make those instances of brutality stop.”
In the moment, government officials who want to keep peace at protests, including the police, should take steps that don’t just protect protesters’ and the public’s safety but also their rights to speak out and demonstrate.
If law enforcement acts indiscriminately — by, say, tear-gassing everyone — that risks escalating the situation, fostering a sense among protesters that their rights to free speech and assembly are being suppressed even though they did nothing wrong.
That’s especially true when it’s the police’s own actions that are the subject of protests. By behaving in a way that may validate protesters’ concerns about excessive use of force and police brutality more broadly, the cops only heighten tensions further.
“If an authority figure exerts some type of control or dominance or power that’s perceived to be unjustified, what that does is then trigger a psychological process where [protesters] now have a common enemy,” Tamara Herold, director of the Crowd Management Research Council at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told me. “And that can actually escalate violence.”
Protests can be calmed as long as people feel heard, and if they can peacefully practice their legal rights to free speech and assembly. Break that — with inflammatory presidential rhetoric or blanket tear-gassing of largely peaceful crowds — and violence is more likely to break out.
Protesters want to feel heard
The goal of the government’s response to any protest should be to ensure that people feel heard and can express their opinions, while still protecting the broader public if things get out of control.
The problem is this is easier said than done.
“There’s a million factors that can affect the outcome that will impact how you approach, from weather conditions … to the time of day to the demographics of the protesters to where you are,” Herold said. “There are no easy answers.”
One method is meeting with the protest organizers to set the terms of engagement — what’s known as “negotiated management.” The terms have to be reasonable, and the police should try to avoid taking sides. In doing this, police can set expectations, so it’s less surprising if they, say, have to suddenly move into a crowd to arrest someone. At the same time, this also can help protesters know what they have to avoid and potentially self-police to keep the peace.
This model, however, has fallen out of favor with many police departments since the 1990s as protests have become less organized and hierarchical, at times leaving no one for the police to actually meet. That’s led more police to move toward a model of “strategic incapacitation,” in which they try to contain protests and target only those who are acting out violently.
What that looks like: “Whenever we can, facilitate the constitutional rights of protesters who are protesting peacefully and not causing harm,” Herold said. “At the same time, quickly and efficiently as possible address those individuals who are causing harm. And you have to be very focused when it comes to that.”
Again, that can be difficult. If several protesters are throwing bottles, rocks, and bricks at police from within an otherwise largely peaceful crowd, officers have a decision to make: They can forcefully move in to nab the wrongdoers (putting themselves at risk), they can try to disperse the crowd (an indiscriminate action that will affect peaceful protesters), or they can back off (which can risk letting violence, such as rioting or property damage, spiral out of control as it’s unsupervised). Coordination with protesters can make this easier, but that’s only likely if the police earn protesters’ cooperation.
Police can make these situations more difficult too, particularly if they take an aggressive stance against protesters — by, for instance, donning militarized equipment like long guns and body armor, as departments around the country did in response to this past summer’s protests.
“Most of the escalatory dynamics take place when, at least in authoritarian regimes, agents of the state turn out prepared for and engage in active repression,” Chenoweth said. “That’s always going to trigger escalation.”
When police are the target of protests, they likely overreact more
Videos from earlier this year showed police cracking down on the protests with excessive and indiscriminate force, like when New York City cops rammed vehicles into protesters, Dallas officers tear-gassed peaceful demonstrations, Buffalo police shoved a 75-year-old man to the ground, and federal agents beat a military veteran in Portland.
Based on the research, aggressive police behavior this summer wasn’t abnormal. A 2016 study by researcher Heidi Reynolds-Stenson, looking at protests from 1960 to 1995, found police are more likely to act aggressively against police brutality protests than they are against other kinds of demonstrations — showing up twice as often and taking action, from arrests to use of force, almost 40 percent more often.
In short: Police act more aggressively when they’re the target of protests. As Herold put it, “When you are the target of the protests, it certainly changes the dynamic of what happens at these events.”
But experts emphasized that the authorities should still try to acknowledge the protesters’ concerns, even if they feel wrongly attacked or criticized. Some police chiefs already do this following a police shooting or killing — saying the incident is being investigated or, in the case of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, describing what the officer did as a “murder.” Other departments have tried to avoid a confrontational stance, either ditching the riot gear or kneeling with protesters in an attempt to make it clear the demonstrators’ concerns are heard.
“Perception matters,” Herold said. “The specific tactics that the officers use influences that perception, so it matters a great deal — everything from the way officers are dressed to the equipment deployed to the way directives are being issued. All of those things matter.”
If protesters feel that their attempts at peaceful demonstrations are being or have been unfairly shut down, they’re more likely to get aggressive.
“Police need to understand their role in the relationship dynamic with crowds,” Ed Maguire, a criminal justice expert at Arizona State University, told me. “Each act on their part that is perceived by the crowd as aggressive or escalatory will result in the crowd escalating. The goal is to ensure that police do everything possible on their side not to escalate conflict unnecessarily.”
Protest control tactics can only go so far
While specific tactics can work in the moment to prevent largely peaceful protests from getting out of control, the way forward, in the long term, is to actually address the issues protesters are raising. In many circumstances, the situation that leads to violence doesn’t bubble up solely in the hours or moments before that violence breaks out.
Protests don’t solely react or escalate based on what’s happening right in front of them. They’re influenced by all sorts of factors: what public officials are saying about them at the time; whether their actions are leading to significant social, cultural, or legal changes; the historical issues surrounding their grievances; and so on.
In some cases, riots and looting are really just people taking advantage of chaos to make a quick buck. But these acts of violence are also often rooted in genuine grievances about a social issue.
If protesters feel like they or people like them have been saying the same thing for decades, and no one has listened, there’s a chance they will be more aggressive and even violent. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
This is an issue at any Black Lives Matter protest. Systemic racism has been a part of the US for centuries, and the issue of police brutality, specifically, has led to generations of protests and riots over police abuse against Black people going back to the 1960s and before.
Yet in all this time, minority communities’ grievances with the police — that they’re simultaneously too oppressive but do little to solve serious crimes — haven’t been resolved. That leads to frustration and anger, which in turn can lead to more aggressive and violent acts of civil unrest.
The protesters’ concerns have been repeatedly validated by federal investigations. The Justice Department’s report on the Baltimore Police Department in 2016 noted when a police shift commander created an arrest form for loitering on public housing, he didn’t even try to hide his racist expectations. In the template, there was no space to fill in gender or race. Instead, that information was automatically filled out: “black male.”
The report found that Black people in Baltimore were much more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts even after controlling for population. One Black man in his mid-50s was stopped 30 times in less than four years — nearly one stop a month — despite never receiving a citation or criminal charge.
“Racially disparate impact is present at every stage of BPD’s enforcement actions, from the initial decision to stop individuals on Baltimore streets to searches, arrests, and uses of force,” the report concluded. “These racial disparities, along with evidence suggesting intentional discrimination, erode the community trust that is critical to effective policing.”
This is not something the Justice Department found only in Baltimore. It’s appeared again and again: Whether it’s Baltimore, Cleveland, New Orleans, Ferguson, or Chicago, the Justice Department has found horrific constitutional violations in how police use force, how they target minority residents, how they stop and ticket people, and just about every other aspect of policing.
None of this justifies the damage and harm that riots and general violence do. (And the research suggests riots can backfire politically.) But if you want to stop people from rioting, you have to understand the issues that led people to riot in the first place.
“It’s a huge country, and these are really complex issues,” Chenoweth said. “It’s not easy.”
Trump is making the situation worse — maybe deliberately so
Meanwhile, Trump is basically doing the opposite of what experts recommend to calm tense demonstrations.
He’s ignored or outright rejected protesters’ main concerns about systemic racism. When asked about police killing Black people, Trump responded, “What a terrible question to ask. So are white people. More white people, by the way.” (When considering population, Black people are disproportionately killed by police, far more than white people.)
Trump sent federal agents to Portland. The agents were indiscriminate in their actions, going after attendees both peaceful and not with tear gas, rubber bullets, and arrests. That led to nights of violence and chaos in the city, calming down only after the feds left.
Trump has even justified violence when it wasn’t perpetuated by Black Lives Matter protesters. After a self-identified militia member killed two people at the protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and was charged with murder, Trump argued the shooter “probably would have been killed” and was acting in self-defense. That seemed to condone vigilante violence against the demonstrations, inflaming tensions on both sides.
“Unfortunately, President Trump’s words routinely escalate conflict and violence rather than calming tensions and reducing these problems,” Maguire said.
This, arguably, makes things more difficult for police, too. The rhetoric around Black Lives Matter protests “is exacerbating the situation that police find themselves in,” Frank Straub, director of the Center for Mass Violence Response Studies at the Police Foundation, told me. “It’s creating a no-win situation.” He added, “If we can get the rhetoric down and the polarization down, we are in a unique period of our history that, with thoughtful, constructive discussion, there’s the opportunity to maybe reach some resolutions to these issues or find a collaborative way forward.”
Perhaps the escalation is intentional. Trump has repeatedly pointed to the protests and chaos in US cities in what seems like an attempt to distract from his failures as president, including his botched handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the collapsing economy. His campaign for president appears to see the violence as beneficial, speaking to the need for Trump’s dog whistle of “law and order.”
“The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order,” former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News.
That, of course, ignores that all of this “chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence” is happening under Trump’s watch. Yet that hasn’t stopped Trump’s campaign from blaming Democratic mayors for the violence and using the scenes of protests to claim, in reference to the Democratic presidential candidate, “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
In this context, maybe the Trump campaign wants to keep the chaos and violence going.
That’d be straight out of the authoritarian playbook. “It’s almost universal that authoritarian leaders try to foment conflict in these types of conditions,” Chenoweth said. “It’s really hard for them to manage the use of people power. … You almost have to give in to make it stop.” Short of that, Chenoweth explained, authoritarians will try to make peaceful protesters out to be terrorists or coup plotters, and “infiltrate and provoke movements into using violence” — and that violence by protesters, at least in countries with strong government institutions, “almost always favors the incumbent politically.”
That seems to be the gamble Trump is now taking: Maybe his actions and rhetoric lead to more violence in the short term, but that’s okay if it gets him reelected. The candidate who’s claiming that he’ll make America safe is now possibly making America less safe to get his most desired wish.