Protests, Riots, and Discursive Bubbles


Street protests are messy things. There are lots of people, often at cross purposes. Negative emotions are the motivating factors bringing most participants into the streets, and these emotions spread and escalate easily. Protest crowds are often at odds with the prevailing norms of society, so are less bound by the typical internal controls that guide most of our decisions. Consequently, it does not take long for the the crowd to influence and act upon situational norms that may legitimize violence and destruction.

Even biology works against us when involved in street protests. Participant brains are inundated with adrenaline, cortisol, even testosterone. None of these neural chemicals lend themselves to reasonable and consequential thinking.

Add on top of that the myriad motivations of the protestors. The messiest thing about street protests is that they happen on the streets. They are open to the public. It’s not like one can show up to the turn-style outside of the protest and present a certified peaceful protestor card as an entry requirement. Anyone with access to the street can have access to the protest.

So when riots happen in correspondence with street protests we may ask, “how could such a thing happen?” In fact, we should wonder why such things don’t happen more often.

Let’s take a look at just one element of the variables influencing street protests–it’s participants. Participants can be divided into five groups. Active protestors, passive protestors/observers, police, passersby and agitators. Each is motivated by its own norms, its own expectations, its own ends. Each is reacting to the perceived actions of the other members.

Active protestors are the most obvious, and often the most numerous group. Though the protestors may be on the streets for similar reasons, they are not a strictly homogeneous group. They fall on a spectrum of dedication to the cause, with some being immediately impacted by the issue, while others are not impacted, but rather sympathetic to the victimization being protested.

Protestors also come to the streets with various levels of discipline. Many are involved in organized social movements and they understand the importance of peaceful protest, even if such protest is intended to be disruptive. Many even have specific training in non-violent resistance and de-escalation. Other protestors are merely outraged and enter the field without any particular preference for non-violent resistance or any institutional discipline at all. If they are scared, or facing violence, they are likely to react.

Protestors are in the streets to make a statement. They may be gathering a following, raising their voices, even obstructing traffic or business or the daily flow of life. Regardless, the last thing they want is violence, vandalism, or especially a riot to break out. They know that once that happens, the message that they are trying to get out is often the first thing lost in the melee. Ten thousand people may be gathered peacefully, but if one person breaks a window or throws a bottle, you can bet that the headlines the next day will read, “Protestors Vandalize Local Businesses,” or “Protestors Turn Violent.”

The next most conspicuous element of a street protest is the police. In many ways, the police stand in contradiction to the protestors. The police represent the state, authority and obedience. Protestors are often in the streets because they have a grievance with the state, a grievance with how authority is exercised and are certainly not invested in being obedient. On the other hand, the police expect to be obeyed, and obedience is often enforced through some spectrum of violence, from intimidation, to physical intervention, to tear-gas and, ultimately, to shooting.

The police, however, are not monolithic. Many individual officers and deputies may even be sympathetic to the protestors and their goals. Others see the protestors as anathema to the law and order they value. Some see the protestors as criminals, or at the very least, potential criminals (and they are not entirely wrong). Regardless, the police, often the minority, find themselves surrounded by an angry crowd. That anger is often directed at the police and the “law and order” they represent. By any standards, this is a threatening situation.

Chief Mark Saunders takes a knee with protestors in Toronto. (Click Here for Story)

On top of these potentially inflammable ingredients is even more fuel. There are those who show up to observe, or participate passively. These may be sympathizers, or just curious onlookers. One thing is certain. They are not there out of a sense of dedication. They will not link arm in arm to face off a police cordon on the march. When crisis hits, they will react, and their reactions will be hectic, adding to any overall confusion.

Then there are the counter-actors. Counter-protestors with varying levels of discipline and diverse motives may be there adding fuel to the fire. Some may show up specifically to incite conflict. These may be instigators from the opposition or even from the state who take it upon themselves to turn a peaceful protest into a riot in order to discredit the movement. They may be more radical elements of the movement intent on forcing participants into a more aggressive direction than the organizers planned. Very often they are non-affiliated agitators who see an opportunity to burn cars and break windows with anonymity and immunity.

With so much going on, backed by an ocean tide of emotion, it’s no wonder when street protests devolve into riots.

We need to be aware of this as we scroll through our social media looking for “news” from the streets. With so many pocket cameras and video recorders, there’s plenty of meme material for everyone to make their point. You agree with the protestors, you’ll find plenty of examples on-line of protestors doing noble and heroic things. Think the protestors are nothing more than Antifa scum? You’ll have this assumption reinforced when all of your friends post pictures and video of masked rioters breaking windows and flipping cars. Think the police are heroes? You’ll get all kinds of footage of police being heroic. Think the police are fascist scum? Yeah. You’ll be able to download outrageous acts of brutality.

That’s the nature of street protests when put under a wide lens, they are complex, confusing, contradictory. When we focus our lens to compensate for our cognitive biases and the demands of our reference groups we create a picture that fits neatly into our discursive bubble.[1] This behavior is then reinforced by our peers who go on to tell us how clever we are.

Rinse and repeat.

Yet, with all of this confusion, all of this complexity, there are some consistencies from which we can learn and act.

First: Street protests don’t just happen. People who are happy and contented do not take the streets with their fists in the air. Taking to the streets is risky, combative and disruptive not merely to the lives of passersby, but to the lives of the protestors themselves. Taking to the streets is a sacrifice. In many places, with police forces indistinguishable from paramilitary organizations, taking to the streets also constitutes a significant risk. There must be some kind of grievance to bring such action. Now, we can debate that legitimacy of these grievances, but to the actors, these grievances are real and legitimate.

Secondly: Street protests are often the last option for groups and individuals that have already tried to resolve their grievances through legitimate means. We are all aware of Martin Luther King’s axiom, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” People who have adequate access to the courts, to legal protections, to legitimate avenues of redress and, yes, to real and reliable police protection, do not take to the streets, let alone wreck businesses and burn cars.

Martin Luther King describing riots as the language of the unheard.

As a last resort, street protests and even riots serve some important functions:

  • They communicate the anger of the aggrieved to the larger society. They are a shout to the dominant, comfortable groups that there is something wrong in the social world they have constructed. There are people who are suffering to the point of boiling over and something needs to be done.
  • They communicate to other, similarly aggrieved members of society that they are not alone. There is a community of support that shares the same values and the same frustrations. Come join.
  • They bring organizers together and help to form networks that later become organized social movements. After Occupy, I took part in quite a few meetings away from the encampments with people who wanted to do more.

Thirdly: No amount of force, either from ad hoc vigilantes and counter-protestors and their pathetic baseball bats and Bahama shorts, nor the full artillery of a para-militarized police department or even the very real military of the United States government can resolve the grievances motivating the first and the second rules. Indeed, such actions only make things worse. True, state violence can put down the protests themselves. People can be driven from the streets with tear gas, batons and rubber bullets. If all else fails, the real bullets and even bayonets can come out.

This tactic, however, does nothing to resolve the underlying grievance. At best, it provides a respite until the next street protest. In the last few years we’ve seen more than one instance of people taking to the streets to protest police brutality. Until the police become less brutal, these protests will continue regardless of how effectively those in power “dominate“. Unless the underlying grievance is addressed, or structures are put in place to ensure legitimate access to redress, the aggrieved and their sympathizers will continue to protest.

Some will riot. Some will meet around their kitchen tables and organize. Some will primary your tired ass and replace you in the halls of government. The outcomes of street protests are just as complex as the protests themselves.

What we shouldn’t do is lose ourselves in our own meme sharing and discursive bubbles while our fellow citizens are letting us know that they are angry and hurting and scared.

  1. What the heck are Discursive Bubbles. This term emerged from my discussions in sociology class when discussing media. I used the idea of a bubble to visualize what I earlier described as Idea Cults. Discursive Bubbles are social environments in which only a single discourse and those stories that reify that discourse are allowed legitimacy. We all have our little bubbles where we feel most comfortable. When we close off that bubble and refuse to step out of that bubble and even scapegoat those outside of the bubble as “the other” then we are participating in the kind of cultish behavior I describe as Idea Cults.

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