Sociological Research on Protests during shootings in America.

“Love trumps hate!”, “Not my President!” signs and chants like these became loud and clear as hundreds filled the streets of Time Square and other cities across the United States. It was clear that the 2016 election polarized the country and that many people were very upset with the results but what were the goals of these people who exercised their constitutional right to protest peacefully? How effective were they?

Protests involve the sociological concepts of socialization, inequality, and social institutions as a whole. This can especially be seen in the present debate on the shooting of unarmed black men by police officers. The shooting of unarmed black men and women by police officers has sparked a huge controversy in this country about race relations. The deaths of 102 such individuals in 2015 has attracted recent media attention and created a polarizing environment for police officers as well as African Americans.

Names such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Alton Sterling have become widely known in American households. Cities like Ferguson and Baton Rouge now represent ideas of police brutality to some people. Protests in response to these shootings have also been controversial as movements like “Black Lives Matter” are making their voices heard across the country.

As a result, I wanted to study what made some protests for a certain cause more effective than others. I believe that more successful protests tend to better mobilize resources such as physical capital, human capital, have strong organizational strategies, and develop more connections to the political process by clearly listing out their goals. My hypothesis builds upon the sociological model of grievance theory and group-position theory of race relations. We can examine what makes up a protest and compare various recent movements like Black Lives Matter and see what makes them effective.

Before we look at why protests happen, it may be helpful to define what a protest is. Klandermans believed that protest is “a form of collective action and of social movement participation at the same time.” Over history, we see that protests can take many forms through demonstrations and civil disobedience for example.

There is disagreement on how protests form, two competing views occur in conflict studies. One view says protests occur randomly over time while other believes it is contagious and that “protest breeds protest.” (Lichbach, 1985) Multiple theories on protest activity depend on political and economic context. The Political Opportunity Structure (POS) model looks at what influence a society’s political structure has on protests. There is the idea that when political openness exists, protest activity is more likely because people know government will tolerate it (Tarrow, 1998). The opposite view also exists that closing political systems increase levels of political activity like protests.

Another interesting sociological theory behind an individual’s decision to protest is grievance theory. Feeling a relative deprivation when comparing one’s own situation to the standard motivates protesting. This is especially true for groups: “People who experience both personal deprivation and group deprivation are the most strongly motivated to take to the streets.” (Klandermans, 1997) Protesters certainly have grievances for which they are taking the time to see get addressed.

Regarding police-community relationships, multiple studies were done to get more information on why there seems to be disconnect between both sides. In “Hispanic Perception of Police Performance, a sample of 500 Hispanics in Texas were taken to evaluate police performance. There is an interesting article because it shows that the relationships between police officers and minority population of Texas aren’t so well. One common complaint is that the police officers have not provided them good service and protection, and instead the subjects felt they received harsher treatment. They also thought their local police were more likely to treat them differently and believed there should be less discrimination against Hispanics. The author of this study concluded that their findings were largely influenced by ineffective communication. (Carter, 1985)

Another article looking at policy – community relations, “Reforming the Police: Racial Differences in Public Support for Change”, shows that blacks and Hispanics are most supportive of police reform. Most Americans believe that the criminal justice system should not have any type of racial bias and the federal government should try to work for equal treatment between police officers and minorities. They also think that there should be some type of common grounds and understanding between police officers and the community. This idea supports the previous idea that more communication is needed when police officers interact with minorities. Additionally, their findings supported the group-position theory of race relations which states that prejudice lies in the structural relationship of racial groups in society (Weitzer and Tuch, 2004).

As an Asian American and as someone who is in the minority, there may have been some biases I held when asking questions regarding police relationships with minorities. However, I tried to not let any bias affect the questions asked to the participants or affect their responses to the questions I asked. Before I interviewed all ten York College students, I first received consent from them by fully explaining my study. Since my study did not do more than ask questions about current events and protests, the participants were not put in any increased risk of danger. While there were no ethical concerns in each of my interviews, all participant information and responses were kept confidential. I also decided to do interviews rather than observation because I thought this way I would get more direct answers to my questions and I would have to less guessing about what people believed about protests and police.

After finishing transcribing all my interviews, some common themes emerged in my findings. The participants ranged from lower classmen to senior classmen at York College from different backgrounds and race. One theme that came up repeatedly in my interviews was race. This was especially true when I asked them about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Some responses included, “BLM represents the importance of black lives!”, “it means bringing an end to racism towards blacks”, “unarmed black men who get killed for no reason”, etc. Another common theme had to do with racial profiling. Many students believed black people were unfairly stopped and searched especially during deadly confrontations with the police.

The theme of race being an important factor in protests against police brutality is related to the group-position theory of race relations. Again, the theory could be applied here since there are less black people in police departments compared to those who are in the community. The difference in power between the two groups can influence the poor relationships police and communities of color have. This is especially true, like the students brought up, when community members think they are singled out by the police because of their race.

When I asked the participants about protests that they remembered well, one student gave a descriptive response about the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong. She gave a short summary of the protest in her native country, “Hong Kong students would go to the streets holding banners and protesting against the government for more political freedom.” The 2014 protest still was fresh in her mind as she remembered “the yellow umbrellas protesters used to shield themselves from police pepper spray.”

Another participant remembered about the Ferguson protests when asked the same question. They thought the protesters were trying to actively get their points across and remembered people marching on the streets after the killing of Michael Brown with their hands up. The same interviewee added, “Consistency is the key, getting the message out there more often, as compared to a failed protest where people will forget about it.”

This reminded me of how protests are related to grievance theory. The student who remembered the protests in Hong Kong also remembered the grievances of the protesters. The point of “getting the message out there” also means clearly listing what you want out of the protest. This leads me to think that the more effective protests are the ones that make known their grievances and make sure their message is consistent.

I also asked all research participants about their thoughts of how police departments and communities can achieve better relations. There was a common response of better communication between both sides. Some solutions offered by the York students were “gather ups”, and “communities interacting and speaking with local police departments.” One person pointed out that better communication would not only make communities feel safer but also will lead to more trust and less misunderstandings.

Social media and television news is how most of the participants learned about recent protests and police brutality. This is not surprising since we are in the social media age where many people get most of their information online. It was also interesting to see that even though there was one person who responded with “all lives matter” when asked about the Black Lives matter movement, they also believed the criminal justice system should not have any racial bias.

I wanted to look at the most recent protests and tension between the police and minority communities and see what made them effective. After conducting my interviews and doing a literature study, I concluded that more effective protests are those that clearly list out their goals or grievances. Based on studies, it also looks like better communication between police departments and the communities they serve is needed. This can help stop police brutality and repair some of the trust between them.

Some of the major themes that come up in my interviews were race, consistent messages from protests, better communication, and social media. Movements like Black Lives Matter are working to bringing an end to police brutality. While they probably won’t end racism, they do have a list of grievances that they make clear. Black Lives Matter clearly made their grievance known in the name of their movement. They were tired of believing that they don’t get equal treatment by the police like other races do. So, they focused on racial profiling of blacks, and raise awareness of what they have to go through as a community during every police shooting. The movement is focused on criminal justice reform and that is why people remember their movement.

Another recent protest success story is the one at Standing Rock with the message of NoDAPL. Even though it didn’t get a lot of media attention, the protesters had one main goal: to stop the proposed pipeline that would run through the land of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The protesters still were going strong even while being pepper sprayed and water sprayed by the police. The clear goals and grievances made by the protest made it easy for people on social media to donate to the cause. Making the government stop construction for now is no small thing and show a protest can still be effective.

This study did have a small sample size and maybe for future research, interviewing police departments about their opinions of protests and how they think to better reputations with communities could be the way to go. Race and power relations still seem to be important factors in why protests occur and grievance theory can help explain which protests are more successful. Peacefully protesting is a constitutional right and sometimes the power of a movement can have positive effects for change in the community.


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