Public Protest and Police Violence: Moral Disengagement and Its Role in Police Repression of Public Demonstrations in Portugal

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Abstract

In recent years, in Portugal, public demonstrations of movements such as ‘Que se Lixe a Troika: Queremos as NossasVidas de Volta’ and ‘Geração à Rasca’ have led to police repression highly scrutinized by mass media. However, a specific understanding is still lacking as to how police officers and civil society are construing the repression of this kind of event and also as to how moral agency is thereof inhibited. To police officers (as ‘power-holders’) and to civil society in general, this analysis is equally important in understanding the cognitive patterns supporting the resort and appeal to police violence. Drawing upon a qualitative research design developed in Portugal during 2011 and 2013, this paper discusses the processes of moral disengagement in regard to the repression exercised during social demonstrations, considering both the accounts of common citizens (Group 1) and police officers (Group 2). Results and discussion are centered on the main processes of moral disengagement, namely moral justification (behavior locus), displacement of responsibility (agency locus), dehumanization, and blame attribution (recipient locus). If to a certain extent the moral values (e.g., protection, public order) are aligned in both groups to justify violence, their mobilizations seem to emerge in quite different ways when it comes to social protest. Displacement of authority is a usual mechanism among police officers, but it is to a great extent contested by common citizens. Dehumanization and blame attribution emerged also as a major mechanism of moral disengagement mainly among police officers’ group. However, empathy may reconfigure the support of these mechanisms, specifically when it comes to social protest. Strengths and weaknesses of the power of ‘empathy’ toward agency activation are discussed. We conclude with research implications and prospects.

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