Revolutions always start slow and local, as protests. They always involve some specific act of injustice, such as the act of self-immolation that kicked off the Arab Spring. There is anger and rage on the part of the population. Let’s say it’s justifiable anger, and comprehensible, valid rage, which is easy to identify because what one feels upon seeing what led to the protests is a sense of empathy and kinship. Like the killing of George Floyd. Nobody watches that video and thinks to themselves “that’s right, that’s okay.”
Then, as was the case in New Haven, peaceful citizens rally in a sign of solidarity, but also to make their collective voice and presence heard. Politicians take protests seriously, whether they do anything about it or not. It takes a lot to get someone to interrupt their routine and endanger themselves by violating laws or ordinances by taking to the street. People don’t rally or protest for no reason. A crowd of 1,000 is hard to put together on a cold winter day when individuals could be inside, or on a warm spring day when they could be enjoying a day off at a park or beach. There are many more reasons not to form up in a group with a bunch of strangers, than to become one with the masses.
What happens next depends a great deal on law enforcement. Sometimes protests turn into riots—if the injustice is sufficiently great, and the numbers of people sufficiently large, there is some looting and burning, carried out both by angry citizens, and a small number of people with more malicious motives. If the police and military are able to contain and absorb that popular fury—nonviolently—and politicians promise to pass laws that will lead to meaningful change, the protests slowly or quickly subside. Widespread employment helps—if one needs to get back to work, if one has a place to go on Monday, a family depending on you for bread, protesting is always going to take a back seat to the practical requirements of one’s normal life.
If the police and military overreact and begin hurting or killing people, protests and riots spread, and become violent. As the police and military contribute bad or negative energy to crowds—which thrive on positive or negative energy—they grow and become more violent themselves.
The great danger of police and military violence is that meeting the protests with bullets, gas, and batons risks killing more protesters. And when that happens, one has a new impetus for protests, a new anger at injustice, a new cause. Each person who is killed or hurt protesting provides fuel for the protests to grow in size, and as the energy becomes increasingly negative. A desire for retribution begins to replace what was initially a call for reform—vengeance takes center stage. Ultimatums are issued.
In Ukraine, in 2013-14, the protests at Maidan square took on a life of their own when the police started shooting protesters. Those unarmed Ukrainian civilians became heroes, and political requests by the crowd became political demands from the people of Ukraine. The brutalization of journalists and students in Kyiv and the killings that followed did far more to turn Maidan into a national movement than the demands they directed at their political administration. Ukrainians were used to being told no, and not getting their way, and having to listen while corrupt oligarchs dictated the terms of their lives. Seeing their children and mouthpieces beaten and murdered was a bridge too far.
Once a sufficient number of protesters have been killed, the protests and riots pass beyond the ability of the state to control them. That is the moment at which they become a revolution. In Ukraine this never actually happened—what happened there was the president, Viktor Yanukovych, scared at the possibility that he would be forced out of power and handed over to an angry mob—forced to face justice—simply fled the country, abdicating his position and abandoning the people he’d sworn to lead. New people came into power, but no lasting political changes were accomplished.
Similar with the Arab Spring—some political changes were made, at least for a time, but when the Muslim Brotherhood won the first legitimate elections held by the state in years, the military stepped in to restore power to its traditional owners.
Great violence followed in the wake of both Ukraine’s “Euromaidan Revolution” and the Arab Spring—violence that continues to this day in Libya and Syria, and also in Ukraine, which lost control over Crimea to Russia and is continuing to fight in the east of their country against Russian-backed separatists.
Protests turn into riots, spread, and at a certain point, can turn into a revolution, which stands a very low chance of actually effecting positive and lasting political change.
At each step of the way, it’s possible to avoid creating the conditions in which protests grow and spread. This depends largely on what is done with the police and the military, and the attitude and actions of a country’s political leadership. Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mobarak, who died recently of old age, stepped down from his position after 11 days of protests in Egypt. Viktor Yanukovych is still in exile somewhere outside Moscow, living off the cash and gold he looted on his way out of Ukraine.
According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump has spent some time hiding in a bunker, and a quick evaluation of his Twitter timeline offers no evidence of a sane and mature leader taking steps to dispel the protests’ energy—rather, he seems hell-bent on creating more problems and blaming others. If he continues with this strategy, which rarely works for a leader in the short run and never, ever leads to stability in the long run—Trump’s current refusal to empathize with the protests or protesters and refusal to attempt to head them off in person, combined with a doubling or tripling down on the use of violence to resolve the problems, will help the protests and riots continue to grow and spread, and America will totter and stumble into an easily avoided revolution from which it will be difficult to extract itself with honor and dignity.