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Police Psychology: Why Protests Occur?

By Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP at Inside Police Psychology | Wed, 27 Sep 2017

The past few days there was rioting in St. Louis.  It may have started as a protest but moved quickly to a riot.  Riot [RAHY uh t} – a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd.  The subject was a judge’s decision of not-guilty for a cop that shot the driver of a car who led the cop on a high-speed chase.  “He killed him because he was black!”  “The gun in the back seat of the car wasn’t his.”  A $900,000 settlement was made with the family by the city prior to the trial.  The officer had said we’re going to “kill this motherfucker” on the car cam prior to the stop.  The driver had all the marking of being a heroin dealer and had some drugs in the car.  The judge just didn’t see evidence beyond a reasonable doubt for the cop being called a murderer.

At Georgia Tech University, a campus cop shot and killed a student who was wielding a knife and refused to drop it.  Cops say she went closer and closer to the officers yelling “kill me.” The cop eventually shot her.  This was after a 9-1-1 call when someone complained about an intoxicated person with a weapon.  The female student was non-binary (identifying with neither sex) and had attempted suicide earlier.  Protests are under way at this writing.

Nancy Pelosi, a democrat who has always been identified with the plight of the immigrant in America, decided to have a press conference and let people know what deals were being worked out on DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals) bill.  She couldn’t get her words out before a group of protesters started screaming at her that she was a liar and she was negotiating with the president to deport them.  She was completely flustered, as they would accuse her she would say, but you don’t even know what happened, don’t even know what we are negotiating for.

During the Vietnam days people protested the war and sent a message to government to stop the fighting.  It was centered on one topic and issue related.  The current protests do not seem to be either.  They are all about many different things and about nothing.  And they didn’t start with Trump.  They have been around quite a few years before Trump took presidency.  Remember Black Lives Matter in 2014 and 2015 and the Occupy Movement in 2011.  This has just been a continuation and sort of a normal increased in intensity as the protests grow.  Why is this happening now?

Social psychological science says that protests begin when people’s relative poverty seems to be increasing.  As foreclosures got to an all-out high starting in 2009 and 2010, the relative poverty level of most people got to a point that it is setting records for a low.  The society has become two levels (rich and poor) more than any other time in my lifetime and that is a sure sign that protests are going to increase.  I think the change we saw in the November elections last year is part of the people protesting that the quality of life has gone down and the cost of living has gone up, and they wanted something different.  It has become a Petri dish for protestors to grow.

Social psychologists also points out that social media has allowed crowds to appear that seem to have no face, no leaders.  There are people that stand out front, but announcing a rally in “x” on Facebook, Twitter or any one of the other social media platforms allow protestors to just seem to spring up seeming out of nowhere and quickly for that matter.  I remember a conference in police psychology where a psychologist (and great friend of mine) was presenting on how flash mobs were forming and will cause a problem with terrorism in the future.  That was somewhere around 2008-2009.   Maybe I need to write my friend in Singapore and get some lottery ticket numbers from him.

The French social psychologist Gustav Le Bon more than a century ago wrote an eye-opening book on crowd behavior.  He said members of an anonymous crowd cannot think rationally, logically and become hysterical.  Of course, since that time there are many reports about the “wisdom of the crowd effect” which suggests crowds come to more correct answers than individuals.  However, in order to say the crowd has better answers you have to look at the specifics of the crowd and the answer used in research.  For example, when crowd are given all the information, they are more effective.  With the media today they are not given all the information for sure, at least not accurate information.  When crowds are diverse they are more likely to come to a correct answer.  Certainly, the crowds demonstrating are not diverse in opinions, rather they are so similar it is ridiculous.  When there is a correct answer, the crowd is better than when it is opinion.  Again, people are not protesting about the name of the 50 presidents or the prime ministers of England.  They are protesting about opinion.  So, any of the benefits of crowd averages, don’t make a lot of sense in this argument, and really “wisdom of the crowd effect” is not relevant.  Yet, we continue to publicize the crowd are making noise with protests, and they continue to fight for what they believe to be right given the limited information they have, or even listen to.

And you can take all this social science research and throw it out the window because half the people are there just not to miss something and they want to have a social event.  They want to be part of a protest regardless of what it says.  Don’t believe me?  Go here or here  to see some of the more ridiculous protests.  It’s fun to be part of something.

We are a country built on rebellion from the British Empire over religious freedom and taxation without representation, so it is not likely we will ever get that out of us.  So, if we want to stop the protests, we have to turn the world into rainbows and unicorns.  A place where everybody earns enough money and for each person living it is a lot more fun.  That’s not going to happen too quickly probably.  So, maybe if we can just have a little understanding for people who are hysterical or driven by hate.  Both sides need to stop making quick judgements.  And all of us need to stop stop saying stupid things about killing someone or other types of intolerant talk driven by emotion instead of logic.  The majority of people are not that bad and tolerance with no stupidity should win in the long run, at least make it better while we get on track with unemployment , jobs and our quality of life.  Then maybe we won’t protest.

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