Americans favor punishing only protestors they disagree with, new research shows

Study finds Americans support harsh punishment – and even government repression – for protestors and protest movements on the opposite of the partisan spectrum

KINGSTON, R.I. – Aug. 23, 2023 – A protester at a large political demonstration hurls a rock that strikes and injures a police officer. Does that act of violence warrant a government crack-down on future protests by that organization? According to a study co-authored by a University of Rhode Island researcher, your answer may depend on your political leanings and those of the protesters involved. 

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of people involved in protest movements and a lot of different opinions about how the government should respond to protests,” said Luzi Shi, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at URI and co-author of a new study published in the journal Socius. “We show that those opinions are often not always objective. For identical acts of violence or harm, people tend to support punishing protesters and repressing protests on the other side of the political spectrum, and not on their own side.”

Shi co-authored the study with Jason Silver, an assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. 

For the study, Silver and Shi surveyed a representative sample of 1,260 Americans. Survey respondents read hypothetical scenarios of violence or harm associated with a protest. In one scenario, a protester throws a rock that injures either a bystander or police officer.  In another scenario, a protester attends a protest while knowingly or unknowingly infected with COVID-19. The infection spreads to a first responder, who dies as a result. Some respondents were told that those incidents happened at a pro-Trump rally, while others were told they occurred at a Black Lives Matter protest. Respondents then reported their support for various government actions in response to those acts of harm—actions like deploying police clad in riot gear, using the military to control protests, or even passing laws banning future protests by the group in question. 

The survey revealed that self-identified liberals and conservatives were far more likely to support punishment and repression for protestors on the opposite side of the partisan fence—while going easier on their own side. 

“The results speak to the effects of partisan bias in shaping responses to violent or harmful acts, consistent with the notion that membership in ideological ‘tribes’ shapes how people think about each other,” the researchers write. “It was also notable that respondents supported forms of repression that are not legally viable, including the banning of future protests or political action by supporters of a movement (likely a violation of the First Amendment) and criminally punishing an individual for attending a protest while ill (an action that is, although morally questionable, not a crime).”

The researchers also noted that partisan bias was more pronounced for people who identify as strong liberals. While both sides advocated strong criminal punishments for protestors on the other side, conservatives tended not to advocate legal repression such as banning protests, whereas strong liberals strongly supported such measures. 

Taken together, the researchers say, the study provides strong evidence that Americans’ preferences for police repression, legal repression, and punishment of individual protesters is “colored by partisan bias, such that people prefer harsher repressive measures against ideological opponents than ideological allies.”

Shi says she hopes the study will help citizens as well as policymakers to be more aware of their biases. 

“I think it’s important that we use evidence to make policy decisions instead of using our own biases,” she said. “A really important first step is to recognize those biases, then we can start to think about how to address them.”