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Cooperation can end violent protests

Protests related to the Israel-Palestine conflict have erupted on campuses across the United States, often resulting in police intervention. At Dartmouth College, police tackled a professor to the ground. At UCLA, officers fired rubber bullets into crowds. And at Columbia, amidst historical NYPD aggression towards protesters, police discharged a gun in a campus building.

These acts of violence are a chilling reminder: 54 years ago, at Kent State University, the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students and injured nine others. Today’s incidents highlight the urgent need to keep protests peaceful and avoid past mistakes. Science and history can show us how.

Facing sustained large-scale protests, police frequently employ an “escalated force” approach — the use of progressively more aggressive tactics — believing that arrests, rubber bullets, and tear gas will disperse crowds and reduce future protests. However, our research — grounded in decades of experience applying mathematics to social systems — contradicts this belief. Traditional tactics of escalated force fail to suppress protests and often intensify them, leading to more violence and injuries.

Our study consisted of two distinct parts: First, we statistically analyzed 23,869 protest events across the U.S. in 2020 and early 2021, focusing on the frequency, scale, police interventions, and injuries. This analysis revealed that the use of forceful tactics is associated with more protests and more violence soon thereafter.

For example, each use of rubber bullets was associated with an average of 19 more protests the next day nationwide and a statistically significant increase in injuries and deaths. Second, we developed mathematical models based on principles of social psychology and procedural justice. These models simulate “what-if” scenarios to explore the potential outcomes of different police responses to protests. The results consistently showed that escalated force exacerbates tensions, leading to an escalation in unrest.

What’s a better alternative? Negotiated management — which emphasizes communication and cooperation between law enforcement and protesters — is more effective for controlling protests and preventing violence.

Negotiated management involves establishing designated spaces for safe dialogue with protest leaders, collaboratively choosing protest routes or areas to minimize disruption, and outlining expectations — like noise levels — beforehand. 

Newark, N.J., provides a prime example of negotiated management’s success during the 2020 protests following George Floyd’s murder. Years of community-police relationship building, initiated by a federal consent decree, allowed for a peaceful outcome — a stark contrast to the violent clashes seen elsewhere.

City officials, including Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, collaborated with protest organizers ahead of demonstrations to plan routes and establish open communication. Police officers maintained a non-aggressive presence, wearing regular uniforms instead of military gear. This proactive engagement fostered large, peaceful protests; looting, arson, and forceful police actions were avoided.

More broadly, American history vividly demonstrates the superiority of negotiated management over escalated force. During the turbulent civil rights and Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, heavy-handed police tactics fueled the flames, leading to larger, more intense demonstrations. Arrests, injuries, and property damage skyrocketed.

In stark contrast, the 1980s saw a shift to a more measured approach, and protests were correspondingly less violent. Regrettably, the 1990s witnessed a regression to more confrontational police tactics and subsequent violent unrest following the beating of Rodney King and the killings of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, and others.

We are currently seeing escalated force and negotiated management play out in real time across college campuses. At Columbia University, repeated police interventions to dismantle student encampments escalated the situation. In contrast, Brown University’s administration avoided force, fostered civic engagement, and reached an agreement to dismantle the encampment in exchange for the university’s commitment to consider divestment. Recently, Harvard University followed suit.

Negotiated management reflects a commitment to dialogue and peace, crucial for police and colleges. Done right, these steps will manage tensions, prevent violence, and rebuild trust, ensuring preparedness for the upcoming presidential election and beyond.

Embracing negotiated management is essential for preserving our democratic values and ensuring we advance together in safety and harmony.

White and Rodríguez are researchers at Denison University and the University of Colorado-Boulder, respectively. Topaz is a researcher at Williams College and co-founder of the QSIDE institute.


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