From Protest Permits to Pepper Spray: Examining Repressive Police Response to Black Lives Matter Demonstrations



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In summer 2020, the United States witnessed protests that began in Minneapolis in response to the death of George Floyd and spread to cities across the world. Some police responded positively to these demonstrations, while in other places, they responded with violence, making mass arrests and using pepper spray or rubber bullets for crowd dispersal. This research addresses the question, how and why does police response to protest vary? How do police tasked with public order and citizen protection act when they themselves are the target of demonstrations? Or, when demonstrators are protesting them? I draw on social movement literature and theories of policing to explore the interactions between police and activist groups, and how each group responds to the actions of the other. I propose a series of factors to predict when police show up at protests and what kinds of action they take, including political environment, protest tactics, and the physical, situational threat posed to police. I locate these factors in three historical case studies, and I then examine them through statistical analysis, using a dataset of nearly 12,000 protest events in the US from May 27 through August 26, 2020. I test ordered logistic regression models to determine the statistical significance of factors of political environment and threat on police response. I find that the situational threat of a demonstration has the most significant role in determining how police react. The threat of a protest’s claim—whether it is pro-Black lives—greatly increases the likelihood that police will respond with more repression. I illustrate these findings with a case study on the Denver Police Department in Denver, CO and their disproportionately violent response. I conclude with questions about the feasibility of police reform and the success of the Black Lives Matter movement.



Black Lives Matter, Protest policing, Social movements