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Taking Control or Losing Control? Activist Narratives of Provocation and Collective Violence

Journal article
Authors Mattias Wahlström
Published in Social Movement Studies
Volume 10
Issue 4
Pages 367-385
Publication year 2011
Published at Department of Sociology
Pages 367-385
Language en
Keywords Accounts, collective violence, narrative, protest, protest policing, provocation
Subject categories Sociology, Criminology


This article examines the complex relationship between political agency, responsibility, and collective violence in connection with political protest. Contemporary Danish and Swedish left-wing activist narratives of police provocations at political protest events are analysed to clarify how provocation and its relation to the outbreak of violence are retrospectively constructed in radical milieus. Three ‘provocation plots’ are identified that, respectively, present (1) the interaction as purely a matter of attack and defence, (2) provocation as a cause of anger leading to retaliation, and (3) provocation as a trigger bringing about a redefinition of the situation that then offers an opportunity for violence. Subsequent negotiations among political activists regarding the position of moral high ground revolved around the issue of whether responding to the provocation in each of these cases meant taking or losing control of the situation. Internet discussion forums are highlighted as important arenas for debates among members of protest coalitions and in broader social movement milieus in which the interpretation of protest events and their implications for future protest tactics is negotiated. In the cases considered, storytelling after violent events was used to make sense of, and evaluate, often quite chaotic and ambiguous processes of violent confrontation, suggesting itself as a key to understanding the micro-dynamics of how social movement repertoires of action are maintained and developed.

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