Understanding the Dynamics of Mass Protests

As the protests against the election of Donald Trump as president continue into this week, conservatives are using isolated instances of vandalism and violence to discredit them, just as liberals do with conservative protests. As someone who has covered and attended lots of protests, I think it’s important to understand their dynamics.

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Every time there’s a wave of protests, whether it’s the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010, the Occupy protests, the Ferguson and Baltimore protests, or the protests of the last few days, there will quite often be incidents of vandalism and violence that take place, but usually isolated from the vast majority of those participating. For left-wing protests, the violence usually comes from anarchists and communists; for right-wing protests, it typically comes from the paranoid militia types.

Several years ago we had protests at the state capitol in Lansing over budget cuts. There were a few thousand people there and I was at the time the editor of the Michigan Messenger and was there with my reporter, Todd Heywood, and an intern to cover them. Very early on, Heywood spotted a group of about a dozen local anarchists that he’d seen at protests before and said we better keep an eye on them, they’re the ones who always go too far and cause serious trouble.

By the end of the night, they’d been arrested. But they had nothing to do with the thousands of other people there. Many of the protesters tipped off the police to keep an eye on them, and the police were calm and professional and generally respectful of the protesters. This is something that happens over and over again at protests across the political spectrum. The problems are caused by a small minority spread out among vast numbers of peaceful, law-abiding citizens who are just there to exercise their rights. And the behavior of those few troublemakers has no bearing at all on the legitimacy of the protesters’ cause.

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