Political protests are pointless

Internal security

Robert Pelzer

To person

Studied sociology at the Free University of Berlin and criminology at the University of Hamburg. From 2006 to 2009 he worked as a research assistant at the Center for the Modern Orient in Berlin in the BMBF project "Muslims in Europe". May in Berlin ". He is currently working as a research assistant at the Institute for Criminological Social Research at the University of Hamburg.

Most of the demonstrations in Germany are non-violent. In a few cases, however, the protest escalates violently. Which protest groups can be distinguished, what role do the police play in the conflicts, and what are the causes of violent protests?

Violent demonstration against the G8 summit 2007 in Heiligendamm. (& copy AP)

Violence is newsworthy. This also applies to violence in the context of protest events. Masked demonstrators throwing stones at police officers and riot geared police officers using batons and pepper spray produce eye-catching images and arouse indignation. There is talk of an increasing willingness to use violence among demonstrators, but also of disproportionate police operations that affect peaceful demonstrators. What happens at political protests that are violent? Why is violence being exercised here? What role do the police play in this? And has politically motivated violence increased?


How can violence be defined?

Violence is a term that carries values. Parties to a conflict tend to refer to only the behavior of the other side as violence; one's own violence, on the other hand, should appear to the public as legitimate "counter-violence". Violence research tries to deal with this problem through a value-free definition of violence. Whether violence is present should be determined by the characteristics of an action, but not by its moral evaluation. In most cases, a narrow term violence is used, which understands by violence the intentional or recklessly accepted physical injury to a person. This must be distinguished from a broad concept of violence, which also includes so-called "psychological" violence.

In practice, however, there are still conflicting definitions. They usually arise where demonstrators not only passively (being carried away or pushed away) against police measures, but actively defend themselves, but do not exceed the threshold of physical attacks on police officers. Typical examples are refusing to arrest or pushing against a police chain. Many demonstrators do not rate this as violent because they see it as a harmless and legitimate form of resistance. For the police, on the other hand, it is a violent and at the same time punishable opposition to lawful police measures. To enforce their measure, the police may use what they consider to be necessary and legitimate physical coercion, which, conversely, is often viewed by demonstrators as disproportionate or illegitimate and perceived as police violence. In how many cases police officers actually use unlawful violence according to legal standards - this is mainly about the allegation of bodily harm in office (Section 340 StGB) - is highly controversial.

Difficult distinction between peaceful and violent demonstrators

These conflicting definitions make it difficult to distinguish between violent and peaceful demonstrators. When there is talk of a willingness to use violence, a precise distinction must be made between what actions demonstrators are willing to take in what situations. First of all, it should be noted that the majority of the demonstration in Germany is completely non-violent. Means of protest are sometimes also confrontational methods such as sitting blockades, occupations or attempts to circumvent police barriers. These are limited rule violations, which most activists believe should remain non-violent. Nevertheless, conflict situations can escalate. This can lead to activists crossing the threshold to violence and becoming entangled in an escalation, even though they did not plan to do so and fundamentally reject violence.

This must be distinguished from protest groups that consider violence as a possibility of protest from the outset. A distinction must be made here between groups who consider violence legitimate only in certain situations (situation-related willingness to use violence) and groups who regard violence in principle as a legitimate and also a necessary means of protest (in principle or general willingness to use violence). These groups include members of the right-wing extremist and left-wing extremist scenes. Since, from a statistical point of view, the overwhelming majority of violent protest events can be assigned to the left spectrum - especially the "autonomous" - right-wing extremist demonstration violence is only marginally discussed in the following. (see section "Right and left crime in the context of demonstrations")

"Autonomous" consciously question the state's claim to authority

The "Autonomen" are a heterogeneous movement. Their unifying feature is first and foremost the rejection of the current social order in connection with the utopia of a "self-determined" life in a society "liberated" from domination and oppression. Her self-image includes questioning the state's monopoly on the use of force. They reject the police's claim to authority and claim a self-determined, i.e. legally free space. This is linked to the claim to "defend" demonstrations against interference by the police. Against this background, the use of violence at protest events has a strongly symbolic and expressive character. It is about demonstrating to oneself and the public that one radically rejects the "system" and is determined to violently oppose the authority of the state monopoly on the use of force. Violent confrontations with the police therefore primarily serve to confirm identity. For example, some "autonomous" regularly deliberately mess with the police in order to demonstrate the repressive character of the "system" based on the following police violence.

Nonetheless, the use of force by the "autonomists" is often combined with political objectives. The focus is mostly on specific topics that are linked to a protest event or a protest campaign. The point is then to generate greater media attention for the protest issue, to influence public opinion formation by conveying "left-wing radical content" or to enforce a protest goal by violent means, such as preventing a Castor transport or a deployment of right-wing extremists.

Regulatory authority requirements play a major role, especially in demonstration marches. The assembly laws of the federal states allow the police to restrict the freedom of assembly through requirements (e.g. the length of side banners or the demonstration route). The police do this when they believe there is a danger to public safety, e.g. through the presence of violent demonstrators. Conflicts are often sparked off by violations of conditions that the police are trying to enforce through intervention measures. Other points of conflict are interventions due to violations of the ban on masking, the diversion or stopping of the demonstration march or the so-called "enclosing" escort (trellis) of a train by police forces. But also the implementation of video recordings for documentation and evidence preservation purposes is seen time and again by "Autonomen" as a provocation.

Different perceptions of conflict among police and demonstrators

Such conflicts are not limited to the "autonomists". Rather, they are an expression of a basic conflict between demonstrators and the police. It is the task of the police to guarantee the right to freedom of assembly in a politically neutral manner, while at the same time ensuring security and order. Protesters repeatedly accuse the police of restricting their ability to express protest and thus the freedom to demonstrate by imposing conditions or interfering with the demonstration.

If the image of the police as an opponent of the demonstration solidifies among protesters, it can happen that demonstrators perceive an intervention as illegitimate, even if they may not even know the reason for certain police measures. As a result, they can show their solidarity with the violent demonstrators, which can lead to an escalation. Conflicts between the police and demonstrators derive their dynamic from opposing perceptions and assessments of the situation, a so-called "discrepant punctuation". Both sides then claim for themselves that their actions or their violence only react in a legitimate way to illegitimate actions or violence on the part of the other side.

This mechanism can also lead to an escalation in the case of peaceful blockade actions. An example of this is the evacuation of the Stuttgart palace garden in connection with the protests against Stuttgart 21 on September 30, 2010. Opponents of the construction project had carried out a sit-down in the palace garden to prevent trees from being felled. During the evacuation, the blockers offered mostly passive resistance. For reasons that are currently being clarified by a committee of inquiry, the police saw themselves forced to take a tougher course - including the use of water cannons - in order to enforce the evacuation against the resistance. The protest against the felling of trees was now mixed with protest and outrage about the use of force by the police, which was perceived as inappropriate - all the more since it served to implement a political decision that was unacceptable from the point of view of the blockers. Protesters loudly expressed their displeasure by reaching out to police officers to intervene or to complain. This set in motion a spiral of escalation.