Protests Turn Violent In Britain: What Needs To Be Done Differently?

This past week, London experienced a clash of forces as Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists and far-right groups took to the streets to defend their beliefs. The turmoil came a week after BLM supporters in Bristol, England targeted statues honoring those who upheld racist ideals, including that of Edward Colton, which was vandalized and thrown into the sea. These actions of the BLM community caused much uproar among counter-groups, most notably the ultra-conservative movement. Several of the protesters threw cans of beer at police officers, who then responded with batons. One drunken man was found urinating on a statue. In the end, over 100 members of far-right groups were charged with violent disorder, assault on officers, possession of offensive weapons, possession of class A drugs, and drunken disorder. Given the actions of the two opposing groups, London mayor Sadiq Khan instructed citizens to stay away from the core area of the protests, maintaining that “perpetrators will feel the full force of the law.”

This exchange of violence between police officers, BLM protesters, and far-right protesters has been a common occurrence, especially in the past several weeks. The suffocation and death of Black American George Floyd at the hands of aggressive police officers in Minneapolis, MN has brought a variety of political responses that have resulted in both peaceful protests as well as violence and clashes between groups with competing interests. Part of this inability to find peace stems from the actions of police officers. In the United States especially, police violence has been a recurring theme at BLM protests. Though many protests have indeed been fulfilled peacefully with the help, rather than the hinderance, of the police, multiple concerning videos have been released demonstrating unwarranted police brutality against protestors. Some U.S. police officers have used tear gas to control crowds, such as in Washington, D.C. right next to the White House. Videos from New York and Los Angeles show police cars barreling into protestors. Other footage shows law enforcement beating or shoving protestors or using harmful rubber bullets.

The promotion of violence by right-wing groups, like in Europe, has also been a problem for the United States. Though there have not been many far-right protests in the United States since the death of George Floyd, these groups have still perpetuated violence by calling for military intervention and the use of violence against BLM protesters. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton (R) insisted in a recent New York Times op-ed that “one thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force.” Florida congressman Matt Gaetz (R) tweeted, “Now that we clearly see ANTIFA as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?” President Donald Trump even chimed in, tweeting, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Such statements, glorifying violence, are only worsening the relationship between police and protesters.

This culture of violence is a big concern for future protests. The incitement of violence against public property, against protesters, and against the police will only escalate if policies do not change. Protesters should not have to face police aggression for expressing free speech, standing up for their beliefs, nor should police be battered by protesters. Unfortunately, each group has responded to violence with violence. BLM protesters destroy a statue; far-right protesters engage in criminal activity in response; police attempt to tame both groups with violence, and the cycle continues. Responding with violence only encourages more violence from counterparts. And while all parties have demonstrated violence at some point, the police especially need to be help accountable. As upholders of the law, their actions set examples for the rest of society. As long as the police continue to exhibit violence, protests will remain unpeaceful.

Violent responses furthermore fail to create productive conversation surrounding the issue of racism. Instead of building an understanding of different viewpoints on the issue, each group maintains their beliefs and their actions. If the police and BLM protesters cannot conversate about the clashes within their relationship, no change can be made. Conversation is what propels protests into laws, and laws can establish the change demanded by protests. Black Americans and their supporters are demanding peace and justice for Black lives, and justice is brought through the court system.

Ending the cycle of violence requires acknowledgement of the challenges and participation from all sides in working towards a resolution. The first step to facilitate open conversation between all parties involved. It is important for groups to talk about why they are protesting and even why they are moved to violent behaviour. Each side can share both stories and criticism. BLM protesters can express their frustration with laws and their anger with the police. Police officers can discuss their struggles with enforcement and can be open to admitting biases. Together, the two can help each other understand what the barriers are to achieving an America free of racism. Such conversation will also be beneficial regarding vandalism of statues. BLM supporters in Britain are trying to tear down more statues but have been met with resistance. It is important that citizens and public servants come together to discuss the crimes of the past, as well as the triumphs. Removing long-standing statues from public areas needs to be done in a way where all parties involved recognize the benefits and issues with doing so.

Once open conversation is achieved, laws can be put in place to regulate police activity. Progress towards this goal has already been made in the United States. As of June 8th, New York announced a new law against “aggravated strangulation” of a citizen by a police officer, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. On a national scale, Democrats are currently pushing for federal legislation to regulate racial discrimination and the excessive use of force among police officers, and to make it easier to prosecute perpetrators of such crimes. While this progress is promising, it is only a small step in the right direction. Racial discrimination is a worldwide issue that requires worldwide change. The fight for equitable laws, not only in the United States but in every country, will be a long one. Defunding the police will help quicken the pace of this project, taking away unnecessary weapons from police officers and using public budget to instead promote social services.

Another complimentary step is to regulate the use of hate speech, in this case towards Black Americans, more strictly. For this step, the German model is worth considering. Although many countries lack a system for controlling such language, Germany has a law in place that condemns “Volksverhetzung,” or incitement to hatred. According to German law, any person or group who denigrates another or promotes violence against them based on ethnicity or religion is subject to imprisonment for up to five years. This law was established to condemn the actions of Neo-Nazis, who continued to proclaim the need for a pure race. This system is plausible in many countries, such as Britain, where the condemnation of violent speech would prevent far-right protestors from acting as they did this past Saturday.

Having laws in place to deal with hate speech would likely be less popular in American, where free speech has always been a staple of democracy. However, Germany still promotes freedom of expression, so long as that expression does not cause others to feel unsafe. Now that even the President has begun to incite hateful speech in America, this system is worth considering. No one, especially not the president, should cause others to feel unsafe for standing up for their beliefs. Hate speech often corresponds with violent speech, which further destroys a sense of community peace. Even after laws are put in place to regulate police behavior, far-right groups could continue to spread a culture of violence. The combination of these three steps—open conversation, police regulation, and criminalizing hate speech—will allow Europe, America, and other countries worldwide to establish greater peace. Rather than responding with anger and violence, whether that response if warranted or not, we must step up and respond with organized communication and policy.

Lily Gretz

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