Commentary: Police tactics can escalate, not end, protests

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This Sunday saw renewed protests for free elections in Hong Kong, the first major demonstration since police cracked down on protesters over a period of 11 weeks last year. Unlike during the 2014 protests, however, police refrained from using tear gas, water canons, and batons. They may be hoping to avoid the hard lessons that confronted officials late last year when use of force only encouraged people who had been sitting on the sidelines to join the throngs. Rather than shrinking, the movement grew.

It was a story that played out in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, on the streets of São Paulo and other cities in Brazil, and in Maidan Square, Kiev, from late November, 2013, until the demise of the Yanukovych government in February 2014. When researchers asked people in Gezi Park and in the Maidan why they had joined the protests, the most common answer was that they were angered by images of police repression.

A team of researchers from Yale University that is studying street protests in new and emerging democracies has shown that heavy-handed police tactics are especially likely to provoke young people — young men, but also large numbers of young women — to join the protests. Many in Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the group leading the protests in Hong Kong, are high school and college students. In the course of our research, we have heard many stories like that of a Turkish mother and daughter who saw images on television of the police attacking protesters in Gezi Park at the end of May 2013.  At first the mother, fearful for her daughter’s safety, begged the daughter to stay away from Taksim Square and Gezi Park. But after many hours of watching the images from the park, the mother said, “Okay, go; please help your friends. These police are a bunch of merciless, heartless people.”

The governments in Hong Kong and in Beijing may be tempted to use tougher measures, as has been attempted elsewhere. Tear gas canisters can be aimed directly at protesters’ heads, rather than into the air; water canons can be laced with chemical irritants. But they should think twice. Aside from the human rights violations they may commit and the international condemnon they will provoke, the intensified use of less-lethal methods is often an enormous tactical mistake. Rather than ending the protests, they are likely to make it grow.

Of course, authorities in these situations sometimes turn from less lethal to deadly tactics, and turn from the police to the military to stop the protesters. In the back of everyone’s mind, as those in Hong Kong and around the world watch events unfold there, is Tiananmen Square, where 25 years ago the Chinese government ended a pro-democracy movement by unleashing military tanks that used live ammunition. Untold numbers of demonstrators were killed and seriously injured. In an increasingly interconnected world, where more is known about events on the streets, and with the Chinese government now having more at stake in its image in world opinion, the Tiananmen option seems ill-advised.

Yuriy Lutsenko is a Ukrainian politician and Maidan activist who was abducted in 2013 by thugs thought to be linked to the Yanukovych government. His abductors tried to get him to reveal the “military secret” to how the activists kept the Maidan protests alive. Lutsenko told our researchers that his advice was “Don’t touch [the Maidan movement] at all. I’m telling you honestly, don’t touch it, and it will go away.” The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong may not simply go away if the police there show restraint. But the option of ending the movement with tear gas and water canons is not a viable one for Hong Kong authorities.

Susan Stokes is the John S. Saden Professor of Political Science and director of the Yale Program on Democracy.

(Photo via LingHKShutterstock)

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