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Police respond with violence more often at protests with Black people

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  • There’s an inequality gap when it comes to Black and white protesters.
  • In an analysis of more than 15,000 protests dating back to the 1960s, we found that protests involving African Americans were much more like to receive forceful attention from police.
  • Christian Davenport is a Professor of Political Science and Faculty Associate at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.
  • Sarah A. Soule is the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the authors.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Many Americans watched in disbelief when CNN reporter, Omar Jimenez, was arrested in late May while covering protest activities in Minneapolis. Stunned by what appeared to be a clear violation of the First Amendment, Americans reacted with shock. How could a credentialed reporter be arrested?

The incident raises many important questions about our supposedly free press and it joins other similar instances of the apparent repression of reporters at recent events following the killing of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests.

Even more disturbing to many of us watching CNN that day was not just the attack on the press, but the fact that police targeted Jimenez — a person of color — before arresting the other members of his team. Although seemingly all of the team were identified as threatening, Jimenez was deemed worthy of early and extra attention. 

The differential treatment of Jimenez should not be surprising. Our research shows just this type of targeting of BIPOCs during protests, which we refer to as “Protesting While Black” is once again on the rise

Police target Black people during protests

In an analysis of more than 15,000 protest events that took place in the US between 1960 and 1990, we find that in most (but not all) years, protests involving African Americans were much more likely than those involving whites to draw the presence of the police and forceful action all else equal, including protesters’ use of threatening behaviors, such as throwing objects, using weapons, and damaging property. 

The impetus for our research was that much of what we know about protest policing presumes that all protesters and protests will be treated the same — that is, what really matters to police is what people do at protests, and not who they are.

For example, decades of research on protest policing points out that certain behaviors, such as throwing rocks and bottles and damaging property, are particularly problematic in the eyes of police. In fact, according to the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, police were trained to look out for, and react to, the throwing of objects. 

But there are many reasons to doubt the claim that, in the eyes of the police, protester behavior is more important than protester identity.

First and foremost, for decades, research has shown differences in treatment of Blacks by police in the US in general (and recent data show differential treatment of black people by police in Minneapolis, in particular).  

These differences can be analyzed in terms of the use of force, but also in the way that police speak to people. Stanford Professors Jennifer Eberhardt and Dan Jurafsky’s research shows that police speak less respectfully to black people than they do to white people. The reasons for this are complicated. Black people have long been viewed as physically and politically threatening, which might prompt police officials to engage with members of this community in a particular manner.

And, the culture of many police departments often socializes rookie officers into protecting elite interests as they enforce the law. Finally, as much research has demonstrated, some police officers hold perceptions of black Americans, which predispose them to expect criminality, weapons, disrespect and aggression.  

Police treatment of protests is moving back towards the 1960s

In our research, we show that in the 1960s, the differential policing of white and black protesters was especially stark. As the overall level of black protest declined in the United States however over the following decades, the influence of race on policing began to wane, and it began to look like police were less interested in who the protesters were, and more interested in what they did.

Given this, why do we see a return of the disproportionate treatment of black and brown protesters in the current wave of protest? We argue that the new wave of black protest (similar to the 1960s) has activated the long-held views of the police regarding black people. Once again placed in situations of protest, the police will behave in ways that result in Jimenez’s treatment. 

What will it take to ensure the equitable treatment of black protesters? Current calls for police reform, abolition and citizen oversight of police are certainly important steps. But, we are going to need much more than this. We need an “all hands on deck” approach, what we refer to as “a movement of movements.”

This approach recognizes that the differential treatment of black protesters (and journalists) is a symptom of racial bias in policing more broadly, which in turn is a symptom of deep seated inequality and racism in our country. 

The police have become a synecdoche, standing in for so much more. But this is misguided: to fully come to terms with police violence means that we all must lean into our discomfort and talk about equity because this lies at the root of racist police practices.

To fully come to terms with police violence means that those of us who enjoy privileges must recognize what those privileges afford us, and must open our eyes to what it means to not enjoy those privileges. To fully come to terms with police violence means that we all must take action to build (not rebuild) our democracy and to ensure racial justice.

This will take a lot of hard work and resources to be sure, but the protests of recent weeks appear to have reignited a commitment to these ideals that have lain dormant for far too long.

Sarah A. Soule is the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Stanford. Her major areas of interest are organizational theory, social movements, and political sociology.

Christian Davenport is a Professor of Political Science and Faculty Associate at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and Elected Fellow at the American Association for the Arts and Sciences.

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