Expert comment: protest psychology can be used to diffuse tense standoffs03 June 2020
Dr Emma Pape, a social psychologist at the University of Reading has provided expert comment on how psychology can help to diffuse tensions between protesters and police.
Dr Pape said:
"Protests naturally encourage the formation of a shared and salient social identity within the crowd. As in the case of protests against the deaths of black lives such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many more this shared identity can be in relation to race and/ or the belief that racial disparities within police brutality must be challenged.
"This shared identity creates a powerful them (police) vs. us dynamic, which can prove explosive in the context of what might ordinarily be a peaceful protest. The behaviour of the police in any kind of collective event is an important factor, with high profile policing typically being related to higher instances of disorder.
"Given the role of ‘the police’ as both a party to the dynamic and as enforcer of law in the present context, the way that these protests are managed by them becomes paramount, and we have already seen stark differences in how this is being handled and the relative effectiveness of differing approaches.
"By listening to the crowd, engaging in respectful dialogue and kneeling or walking alongside protestors, police are acknowledging their grievances and effectively presenting themselves as being part of the crowd’s shared identity. This diffuses the tension associated with the them vs. us divide. In contrast, any kind of excessive force or high profile policing is sadly only serving to exacerbate the situation and leading to further senseless loss of life, as we have seen in the case of David McAtee’s recent killing.
"Importantly, the Black Lives Matter voice needs to be listened to and action taken to address the disproportionate targeting of black individuals in the context of police brutality. Without this, even the best police handling of the protests will, over time, appear disingenuous. This kind of low profile policing relies on perceptions of a genuine desire to assist (as opposed to oppress). Without a significant effort from the wider police and government in acknowledging and tackling the underlying issue here, we will continue to see history repeating itself.
"Instead of asking 'How can we de-escalate these riots?', we should be asking 'How can we ensure that protests of this nature are no longer necessary?'."