The Walt Whitman
Journal of Psychology
Protesting in the time of Covid-19
Written at Walt Whitman High School
By Claire Sorkin, Jamie Gordon, Riley Sullivan
Photo Credit: JoMatt Mendoza
In response to nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd, members of the Walt Whitman Journal of Psychology conducted research and interviews with local protest organizers to investigate many of the psychological principles we study in our high school psychology classes to answer the question "Why now?"
In light of recent acts of police brutality in the African-American community, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have erupted in places around the country — including Bethesda. On June 2nd, a group of local high school students orchestrated a peaceful protest at the Connie Morella Library that attracted an estimated 1,500 protesters. There are many driving forces of motivation for people who want to protest and, especially in this unique era, lots of concerns. During such a turbulent time, people’s need to belong in a group intensifies which is a driving factor in why so many people want to protest. After conducting interviews with several of the BLM protest organizers, three common psychological explanations arose for what motivated them to protest: efficacy, the catharsis hypothesis, and the social-identity theory.
The efficacy theory describes an individual’s own belief in their ability to change conditions or policies. When it comes to BLM protesting, this theory accounts for a protester’s confidence that their efforts can change the current social climate regarding race relations. The more confident a person is in their belief that protesting can create concrete change, the more likely they are to participate. With large scale demonstrations like protests, it hinges more on group-efficacy, which is the belief that group-related problems can be solved by collective efforts. Protest organizer Nina From Quinonez touched on her belief of collective strength among Generation Z during the BLM protests; “I believe that our generation, Gen Z, really can [create] change because this is amazing. All that we have achieved not only here, but all across the country, not even just the country, but in the world.” Nina’s beliefs reflect many of the other young people who showed up to the Bethesda protest: the belief that their collective self-efficacy collaborative efforts is powerful enough to make real change.
Another dominant theory that explores what motivates people to protest is the emotions-based Catharsis theory. Catharsis refers to the emotional release of built-up discomfort, generally in a socially acceptable manner. In other words, many people participate in protests as a way to release built-up anger and frustration regarding the injustice in America. Anger levels are especially high during this time because people around the country have been forced to quarantine and have been isolated from loved ones for so long. For many Americans, being forced to live in isolation is an unnatural feeling in itself and creates discomfort (Adams, 2020). One organizer, Lekha Kachoria, talked about her dissatisfaction with racial inequalities that prompted her to participate in the protest. Kachoria told us that “the core feelings are just pure frustration of why nothing is done over and over and over again. Something needs to be done and needs to be done right now.” Kachoria’s emotions were the driving force behind her protesting; releasing anger through protesting allowed her to have a more level-headed approach towards the matter. While Kachoria’s catharsis manifested in a peaceful protest, others seek catharsis through a more physical or violent manner, as evident by other, more violent protests around the country. Most protestors, however, share Kachoria’s feelings of frustration with the mistreatment of African-Americans that has spanned centuries, culminating in the recent protests.
Another common response from Bethesda protestors resonated with social-identity theory. The social-identity theory explains motivation to participate in social events as a way to join a larger movement and be perceived as a member of a larger group or someone’s in-group. In-groups are any societal groups that people strongly identify with; in this case, an in-group refers to those who share similar ideas about the BLM movement. Especially now with COVID-19 restrictions, protests are enticing to many as an outlet to reduce feelings of isolation. An anonymous protester noted that he “was apprehensive about being around such a big crowd, but [knew] it is essential to be a part of this movement and support my peers.” During this especially intense time, many turn to their societal in-groups for comfort and feel more obligated to support other members via protesting. Protest organizer Lourdes Russell explained how the movement gained support saying that, “people are seeing their fellow students coming out and showing support, so that motivates them to get involved as well, or that has at least motivated me.” Russell felt even more motivated after seeing other Virginia students, or her in-group, getting involved. In-group attachment intensifies during such turbulent times, which was evident by national involvement and unrest in the BLM movement (Stekelenburg, 2013).
No matter what motivates someone to protest, protesting peacefully is a constitutionally-guaranteed right and can be exercised in many ways. While many are willing to leave the safety of their homes to join the movement, it is completely understandable that others feel uncomfortable doing so. Given this unprecedented time, it is important to realize that there are many peaceful ways to help this important cause besides protesting. We have attached some recommended reading for those who are interested in promoting peaceful change.- From Donating to Volunteering: Here’s How to Support Black Lives Matter, Protesters and Equality Initiatives - Protesting? Here’s How To Help Keep Your Family Safe From COVID-19 When You Go Home - BLM Resources
Adams, T. (2020, June 06). 'Now is the time': London's Black Lives Matter rally looks like a turning point. Retrieved June 17, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/06/now-is-the-time-londons-black-lives-matter-rally-looks-like-a-turning-point
Cooperman, Jeannette. “The Psychology of Protests.”St. Louis Magazine, 26 Sept. 2017, https://www.stlmag.com/news/the-psychology-of-protest/
Leaper, Campbell. “More Similarities than Differences in Contemporary Theories of Social Development?: A Plea for Theory Bridging.”Advances in Child Development and Behavior, JAI, 9 July 2011, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780123864918000098
Stekelenburg, Jacquelien & Klandermans, Bert. (2013). The Social Psychology of Protest. Current Sociology. 61. 886-905. 10.1177/0011392113479314. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258131447_The_Social_Psychology_of_Protest
Vedantam, Shankar. “Researchers Examine The Psychology Of Protest Movements.”NPR, NPR, 18 Apr. 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/04/18/524473948/researchers-examine-the-psychology-of-protest-movements