Protest is a common approach to the pursuit of societal change and a legal and protected procedure under the democratic system. Mobilising people to come together and express their opinion on social issues can, in some cases, push the government to create new policies. It can also attract the broader public to become engaged with particular movements (e.g., animal rights, marriage equality, clean and transparent political processes, etc.).
However, some protests, especially when they involve a huge number of people are seen as a threat to public order. In many countries (e.g., Egypt, Hong Kong, Turkey, Ukraine, and Indonesia), this perceived threat to public order became the justification for handling public protest with a repressive strategy in the hope that people would withdraw their involvement in the protest. Repression is not only about the physical violence, but also the narratives produced by the government against protestors. For example, this September saw massive student protests in Indonesia, against a new act allegedly weakening the Independent Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). In response to these protests, a repressive approach was employed by the police and authorities, not only against the protestors, but also the ministry of higher education, research, and technology, intimidating university leaders for letting their students join the protest.
Despite being used by several governments, social psychology studies have revealed that repressive approaches in handling public protests are not always effective. Instead of stopping the protest by activating feelings of fear, repressive or even violent strategies employed by the authorities can drive the action to become more sustainable and garner increased participation and support for the movement.
When is repression is not effective?
The repressive approach exploits the power to intimidate, press, threaten or even injure. Authorities may take this approach to deal with protest actions, especially when the protest is focused on responding to political issues and perceived to threaten the interests of the political elites.
Evidence shows that repressive narratives or violence conducted by the authorities can increase perceived risks in a protest’s participation. Other than that, repression can also lead to the feeling of fear and being oppressed.
According to the authority’s perspective, the fear is expected to reduce or even stop the intention to participate in the following protests. Indeed, fear can be a deterrent to protesters, and violence and imprisonment can drive them off the street. However, repressive acts from the authorities are also able to strengthen the participants’ engagement with the action. Violence and repression can undermine the perceived legitimacy of the state, not just in the eyes of protestors, but in the broader community. In addition, the shared experience as victims of oppression can grow the sense of familial ties amongst protestors, as shared anxiety or fear can bring people together and strengthen the bonds of protestors. To put it simply, the previous ties that might be based on the same demands or interests are replaced by a form of kinship ties, adding a new emotional intensity to previous perceptions of solidarity.
This sense of fusion or family ties creates a feeling of agency for the group, manifested in a strong tendency from every individual within the group to do something more significant on behalf of the group.The participants will be more motivated to protect their own, even risking their own life to become a shield for their fellow protestors.
In the more extreme context, when the kinship bond is built amongst the protestors, and the real threats appear from the authority (e.g., police), then the tendency to make a counterattack will rise and the protest might develop into a riot. The riot is caused not just by protestors’ escalation of tactics, but by the mutual radicalisation of the police and security forces, who may cease to see the crowds as citizens worthy of protection.
This pattern can be observed in the protest events in Hong Kong. Following the repressive approaches from the police, the protestors’ solidarity seems to be even greater. The individuals who do not know each other personally, through their participation in repressed protests, even become sau zuk (Cantonese term to express a very strong tie, etymologically means ‘hand and feet’) with each other. It also appears that the broader relationship between the community and the state has become more polarised and oppositional.
In conclusion, activists’ efforts to create an expected social change are of course part of long-term processes. People mobilisating to raise public awareness or to encourage authorities to create more favorable policies often experience a backlash from the government, in the form of stigmatisation or even violence. In many cases, especially in a less democratic country, this repressive approach is employed out of a desire to stabilise the situation. However, an important point to consider is that this approach is often not effective. Instead of stopping their actions, the protestors experiencing collective fear and anxiety may strengthen their feelings of kinship ties and escalate their action’s intensity; the police and state actors may radicalise away from the protection of citizens to commit human rights abuses; and the broader community may come to feel the state itself is less legitimate as an authority. These are not trivial risks for a government to run.
- By Susilo Wibisono
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.
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