There's no getting around the record: protesters and police have a long and storied history of conflict in these United States.
A few U.S. highlights: the May 3rd workers' rally in Chicago in 1886 that preceded the next day's Haymarket massacre; the 1965 civil rights march out of Selma known as "Bloody Sunday"; the Democratic National Convention of 1968; Seattle's WTO protests in 1999; the Occupy melees of 2011, most notably in Oakland, California ... and then there's last month's militarized suppression of protest in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Via a headline story in the SF Chronicle, recent events in Ferguson surfaced ongoing research at UC Berkeley -- the Deciding Force Project -- in which sociologists have begun to use cutting edge data mining techniques to analyze police-protester interactions, and identify circumstances and tactics that lead to violent conflict. According to the article, the objective of this research is to reduce such violence, to the degree conscious and well-informed decisions on the part of police and of protesters can defuse volatile situations.
Let's say that the Deciding Force Project is successful in identifying ways to keep protest from boiling over into violent conflict. And let's say the project's research and analyses is made available to everyone, giving all parties access to information that describes conditions that lead toward and away from protests turning into riots.
Would activists and police/government benefit equally from this research? And is rigorous avoidance of violent conflict a goal that advances progressive political goals?
It's easy for most people to accept that non-violent exercise of democratic rights is 'better than' violent conflict. In general, I believe that is true. It's also easy to assume that more information is 'better than' less. It's hard to make a reasonable case for ignorance.
On the other hand, when civil discourse, electoral engagement, and peaceful protest fail to resolve weighty injustices -- what is to be done? And when information and the insights it facilitates are coupled with state and/or corporate power, many (including this writer) believe that its collection, analysis, and use become a risk to broadly-participatory democracy and to progressive political goals.
Work like the Deciding Force Project could be a boon to activists, who might use it to base strategic organizing on new and deeper insight into the way crowds of protesters and battalions of police interact. Or -- with apologies for the hyperbole -- research in this vein could be developing a kind of information-based soma (à la Aldous Huxley's Brave New World), which might be deployed by the surveillance state to neutralize dissent. There's also the possibility that research of this sort won't deliver on its promise: that it won't predict the relationship of specific behaviors to on-the-ground outcomes any better than seasoned police and activists have done since time immemorial, on the basis of experience, familiarity with their own communities, and intuition.
'Big Data' and its analytical findings are part of the modern mix, whatever effect it might have. That's a fact. To my way of thinking, its introduction into political space demands attention and debate on the spectrum of possible roles 'Big Data' might play in relation to grassroots activism.
This post is not aimed at providing definitive answers. I do hope to raise questions and ideas worth examining. More below the squiggle.