Do Violent Protests Get Results?
If the goal is to change politics, not just vent frustration, messaging is important.
Searching for evidence that “outside agitators” were behind most of the violence surrounding the George Floyd protests, I stumbled on a fascinating interview by Isaac Chotiner in the New Yorker on “How Violent Protests Change Politics.“
His interlocutor was Omar Wasow, a professor of politics at Princeton, who studies protest movements and their effects on politics and elections. He’s also the co-founder of the social network BlackPlanet. Emphases all mine.
How would you summarize your work on the political effects of protest?
I would say that nonviolent protests can be very effective if they are able to get media attention, and that there is a very strong relationship between media coverage and public concern about whatever issues those protesters are raising. But there is a conditional effect of violence, and what that means, in practice, is that groups that are the object of state violence are able to get particularly sympathetic press—and a large amount of media coverage. But that is a very hard strategy to maintain, and what we often see is that, when protesters engage in violence, often in a very understandable response to state repression, that tends to work against their cause and interests, and mobilizes or becomes fodder for the opposition to grow its coalition.
What we observe in the nineteen-sixties is that there was a nontrivial number of white moderates who were open to policies that advanced racial equality, and were also very concerned about order. The needle that civil-rights activists were trying to thread was: How do you advance racial equality, and capture the attention of often indifferent or hostile white moderates outside of the South, and at the same time grow a coalition of allies? And over time the strategy that evolved was one of nonviolent protest, which actively sought to trigger police chiefs like Bull Connor [in Birmingham, Alabama,] to engage in spectacles of violence that attracted national media and would, in the language of the nineteen-sixties, “shock the conscience of the nation.” So it isn’t just nonviolence that is effective, but nonviolence met with state and vigilante brutality that is effective.
The interesting thing to me that came out of this research was that civil-rights leaders were picking Birmingham and Selma specifically because they had police chiefs with hair-trigger tendencies toward violence. So there was this strategic use of violence by the civil-rights movement, but it was to be the object of violence, not the instigators of violence. At the same time, what was very hard about, with that strategy, is that you had images of people observing their kinfolk being brutalized on television, and that helped fire up a more militant wing of the civil-rights movement, which endorsed violence in self-defense and was much less committed to tactics of nonviolence. When we observed a wave of violent protests in the mid- to late sixties, those white moderates who supported the Democratic Party after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defected to the Republican Party in 1968. So, when the state was employing violence and protesters were the targets of that violence, the strategy worked well, and when protesters engaged in violence—whether or not the state was—those voters moved to the law-and-order coalition.
While I am not by any means a specialist in the topic, this is precisely my longstanding understanding, as expressed, for example, in my 2009 post “Protests Don’t Work”
Protests reached their zenith during the civil rights movement of the 1960s when a group of literally disenfranchised people were able to demonstrate their grievance in a very visible way. People dressed in their Sunday best quietly marched, listened to speeches, and questioned why the country wasn’t living up to its creed that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Their dignity contrasted with the brutality with which they were sometimes met and shocked the nation’s conscience.
Wasow’s research into the political impact, at least at the ballot box, offers useful insights as well, both as to how social scientists can effectively study these things and how protestors should craft their message.
What did you find in your research, specifically about the 1968 election?
There has been a debate in social science for a long time about whether there was a backlash to the waves of violent protest in 1967 and 1968. Commonly, people will say “riot,” but I am using “violent protest” and “nonviolent protest” as the two categories. I looked at a hundred and thirty-seven violent protests that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s assassination, in April, 1968. There is a bunch of evidence that protests are sensitive to weather, and when rain happens it is much less likely people engage in protests. And so we should expect that when there is more rainfall there is less likelihood that people will engage in protest, and when there is less rainfall there is more likelihood. So we get a crude natural experiment—it’s as if some places were randomly assigned a violent protest and some were not.
And what I find is that, in the week following King’s assassination, when ninety-five per cent of those violent April protests occurred, if your county was proximate to violent protests, then that county voted six to eight percentage points more toward Nixon in November. But maybe there was something correlated with rainfall driving this result, and so to address the possibility of a confounding factor, like geography, I also looked at rainfall in periods where we should expect no effect of rainfall on voting—e.g., periods before and more than a few days after the assassination. This is called a placebo test. It is only rainfall in the one week after the assassination that predicts this conservative shift in November, and, in the absence of a plausible alternative story for why rainfall in April was predicting voting in November, the most obvious explanation is that the violent protests were the cause. And so we can then claim a causal relationship between violent protests and the shift away from the Democratic coalition.
The interview was published Friday; it’s not clear when it took place. But the Floyd protests were underway and Wasow has some insights:
What protest tactics would you recommend for people concerned about police brutality today? On the one hand, these current protests were already sparked by state violence, so they don’t need to incite more of it. On the other hand, we have had these viral videos of police brutality for years, and it is not clear all that much is changing.
If you are an activist and there is this outrageous incident (like a knee on a neck) and you say, “How can we advance our interests?,” it might be that both violent and nonviolent protests are legitimate—but it still might be more effective to employ nonviolence, if we get everything we would from a violent protest, plus we don’t splinter a coalition that favors change. One puzzle is, if you are an activist, are nonviolent tactics going to get you more of what you want, or are violent tactics? And what I found from the sixties is that nonviolent protest achieved many of the same sorts of outcomes that the more militant activists were fighting for without splintering the Democratic coalition. There was a pro-segregation media at the time, and there were all kinds of state and federal repression—and, despite all of that, the nonviolent wing of the civil-rights movement was really able to move the country from tolerating Jim Crow to breaking Jim Crow.
So I think there is a lot of evidence that nonviolent tactics can be effective. You saw this on the first day in Minneapolis, where the police showed up with an excess of force, and you had these images of children running away and police dressed like stormtroopers. There are a set of narrative scripts in the public mind, and I think we interpret the news through those preëxisting narratives. And so a nonviolent protest where we see state excesses is a very powerful and sympathetic narrative for the cause of fighting police violence. And as soon as the tactics shift to more aggressive violent resistance—and, to be clear, as best I can tell, police were shooting rubber bullets and there was tear gas. It seemed like an excessive police response, and so in reaction protesters escalated as well. That has an unfortunate side effect of muddying the story. Instead of talking about the history of police killings in Minneapolis, we are talking about a store going up in flames, and the focus in reporting tends to shift from a justice frame to a crime frame. And that is an unfortunate thing for a protest movement. It ends up undermining the interests of the advocates.
That’s long been my anecdotal take. It seems commonsensical to me. But it’s possible that both Wasow and I are over-relying on evidence from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s—a mature movement that was reacting to a longstanding crisis and already had widespread sympathy among the majority population.
Chotiner takes an interesting turn with his next question:
Your answers are making me think about the Régis DeBray line that “the Revolution revolutionizes the Counter-Revolution.” Because whether intentional strategy or not, firing rubber bullets and police violence against protests may have the effect of making the protests more violent, and thus hurting the cause.
It’s a great question, and, in cross-national studies, that has definitely been shown to be a strategy. We definitely observe politicians in other countries ginning up ethnic conflict before an election, to try and heighten people’s sense of in-group identification before they vote. The evidence in the United States I have seen points more toward a kind of racialized incompetence, where the police chief in Los Angeles can behave with a certain disregard—I am thinking of the uprising in 1992. [The authorities’] response was so ham-fisted and hands-off that it allowed something to escalate to an epic scale. And I suspect most of what we saw in Minneapolis was not a strategic effort to inflame protesters, but an idiotic and incompetent over-response that also had the effect of inflaming protesters.
And it was an idiotic and incompetent response tinged by race. You don’t see these kinds of overreactions to the armed white militias. So I don’t have evidence about these being strategic efforts. I do think there is a lot of evidence that there are overreactions when the protesters are black, and that this excess of force is deployed in ways that have precisely the opposite effect of what a police chief is intending. Instead of trying to bring order, they create more chaos.
One presumes the interview came before some of President Trump’s tweets that definitely seemed designed to inflame racial tensions. But Chotiner at least anticipated they would come.
Trump has run as a law-and-order candidate, and today repeated the looting-and-shooting comment that was made by the Miami police chief Walter Headley, in 1967. At the same time, it seems like Nixon was fundamentally selling stability, and Trump often tries to destabilize situations. How do you think this will or won’t have political ramifications?
On the first part, I have looked at polling data from the sixties, and the numbers are really surprising. It was something like eighty per cent of Americans said that law and order had broken down. We had King’s assassination, and two Kennedys assassinated, and these waves of violent protests. So it was more than just urban unrest. There was a sense that the social fabric was tearing, and I think Nixon was clearly appealing to voters for whom that was an anxiety. And I also found that, in the 1966 gubernatorial election in California, Democrats who thought Pat Brown, who was the Democratic governor at the time, had handled the Watts riots poorly were hugely less likely to support him. [Ronald Reagan defeated Brown by fifteen percentage points.] So it really was pivotal in the nineteen-sixties.
What’s often hard for people to see is that there are these white moderates who are part of the Democratic coalition as long as they perceive there to be order, but when they perceive there to be too much disorder they shift to the party that has owned the issue of order, which is the Republican Party. For some people, the idea that there are these swing Democratic-minded voters is hard to grasp, but there is pretty strong evidence that in 2016, and in 1968, that was an important and influential niche of voters.
You are absolutely right that Trump, to a lot of people, is an instigator of chaos rather than a restorer of order, so I think that potentially works against him. But if you are this white moderate, and perceive the disorder to be coming from African-Americans in cities, then turning to Trump, even if you see him as a rough character, is appealing: He’s a street fighter, but he is our street fighter. So the real danger for advocates of reform in Minneapolis trying to get better policing, and for those trying to pursue racial justice nationally, is that there are people who are turned off by Trump but who have a strong taste for order, and so if they are more concerned about racial disorder, then Trump is their racial order.
It’s inconceivable to me that people who aren’t already in Trump’s hard-core base would flock to him, especially with an innocuous candidate like Joe Biden rather than a polarizing one like Hillary Clinton as the alternative. But if there is still widespread political violence happening months from now, it seems much more likely.
Yes, essentially, to view Trump as a figure who will bring order, in any rational sense, is to have a racially tinged view of order. The only kind of order he promises—even if he can’t actually deliver it—is an order based on racial issues. This is a guy who cheers on protesters showing up with automatic weapons to state capitols.
That’s right. There was a tweet that said something like, “Who could want four more years of this?” It’s got a sort of Rorschach-like quality. If you are exhausted by Trump’s chaos, you think about who could want four more years of Trump. But it could also be that, if this is how you perceive Democratic governance—letting a police station go up in flames—then who could want four more years of disorder and lawlessness, particularly if you are someone who has a bunch of stereotypes about African-Americans and Democrats in cities.
And so, to your point, I think it is exactly right that there are different kinds of chaos people are weighing in their minds. I might say the pandemic and economic dislocation are my top priorities, but if you are someone who has deep-seated anxieties about an unsettling of the racial hierarchy in America, about an egalitarian society where you might lose some status, or a society where there isn’t enormous state capacity brought to bear on controlling out-groups, then you might say, “I want Trump because he is promising to maintain the racial hierarchy. I want someone who is tough on crime. Those are my top priorities.”
That’s a scary thought because, as we’ve seen, there are a whole lot of Americans in that category.
It’s hard to overemphasize that point.
That said, “Do violent protests get results?” begs the question “Does anything get results?”. It is clear to those paying attention that many of the apparent gains of the civil rights movement 50+ years ago have been lost to a sort of underground Reconstruction, with covert de facto reestablishment of apartheid in law enforcement and other aspects of civil society.
I am both amused and saddened by the voices on the side of “law and order” complaining that some of the protesters aren’t even black. Could there be any clearer indication that those people can’t imagine whites having a stake in promoting racial equality?
Love all these think pieces about how ineffectual protests are.
Odd that we didn’t see them two weeks ago when hundreds of heavily-armed white people descended on state capitols demanding the freedom to spread death wherever they wanted, and right-wing politicians and judges gave in to their demands.
Of course, those patriots never got violent. But then, those patriots were never assaulted by the police when they protested.
And I don’t think it’s because they were armed — because if black protesters showed up with military weapons, the (mostly white) cops would have reacted a little differently.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar does a great job of putting this into perspective.
Read the whole thing, etc. etc.
James, what are your thoughts about police attacking journalists all over the country?
What we are going to see is concentration on the lotting and riots, not on the murder. Iam also going to predict, it has already started, a propaganda effect to blame all of this as a reaction to the lockdown. No need to address the issues in our justice system, it will all be the fault of the lockdowns.
Here’s the thing … focusing on the violent aspects of protests, on the *how* of the protests, is a choice. And it is the choice that white America, institutional America, makes time and time again. It is a way to skate past they *why* of protests and focus on things that feel more tractable, a way to impugn the moral authority of the protest without having to acknowledge doing so. And that choice, along with so many others made by white/institutional America throughout the history of this country, is a foundational reason why there is a recurring need for protests to happen. Until we start making different choices, we shouldn’t expect to have different outcomes.
I am not trying to call out any individuals as directly culpable, rather I’m just profoundly fed up (sick and tired of being sick and tired, to coin a phrase) that we, all of us in this country, have this same conversation over and over yet never seem to learn new lessons from it.
Martin Luther King Jr., “The Other America”:
Whether or not they work is beside the point; they’re the predictable outcome of our public policies. All through this process, the police and officials have repeatedly chosen escalation over de-escalation. Like a man who has spent years dousing his carpetting with gasoline, when the house finally explodes, they bear as much responsibility as the person who actually lit the match.
I like the interview in the OP. I like Jabbar’s piece. Trumps differential in response to white protesters and black protesters is obvious and large.
And not all actions are equal when it comes to getting the attention of human beings, and media. Certain things get more attention. These things show up a LOT in entertainment and even on the news. Human beings are wired to pay more attention to some things than others.
I see protests like this as acts of despair and frustration. Which is understandable. But I’d like to see actual changes made. Christian Cooper was dealing with a different situation, it’s true, but he dealt with it so, so well.
Yes, non-violent protest is more effective than riots. But where is the Central Committee that is to act on that insight?
A reminder that Mpls began as a police riot.
I saw this yesterday and forgot where. It is a great interview and it should be read in its entirety.
Do they get results? Mostly of a nature of giving the absolute minimum of concessions to make the crisis stop–then developing antibodies against future protests. Every protest, therefore, makes future protests, even violent ones, more ineffective at achieving lasting outcomes.
What I’m come to realize recently is this: very few Americans and even fewer black Americans have the training in strategic thinking to understand the tradecraft of attacking a societal pillar. If I’m going to play this game as a team sport I want to play to win. What we have now is akin to the a football game where no one knows what position they are so someone snaps the ball to someone and everyone figures it out.
We could have laid the framework to be in a better place years ago. Because of my training and experience (admittedly of a military flavor), I immediately start from the framework of who needs to die? who needs their income/business cut off? who needs to be sued/exposed? who can be recruited to be a “double agent”?, what are the messaging themes, narratives, target audiences,etc?
The people “leading” the police reform movements don’t appear to do such calculus. Until they do, I’ll continue to play this game solo. It’s gotten me a decent piece down the road from where I was handed the baton by my dad…and I’ll hand it off to my kids in a better place. We’ll keep pushing the rock uphill, and perhaps one day, a King-like post-millenial will come with the abilities to attract the people that know how to do these things (except the who needs to die part) and bring it all together into one symphony.
Until then, I ain’t gonna cry over the police getting a taste of what they’ve been giving out. I’ve survived at least 5 (maybe a couple more) armed interactions with police. Fuck em. At least they’ll be hunkered down for a couple of extra months before they get back to business as usual. This is a nation of laws…there are no laws against how they currently operate. Until that changes…nothing changes.
@Jim Brown 32:
My tendency as well is to armchair quarterback, which has just as much effect as yelling at Tom Brady on TV. This is why the Communist Party was so effective. They knew how to channel discontent. They knew who to target and how. They couldn’t run anything, and their economics was nonsense, but they understood strategy, tactics and discipline. Unfortunately, so do the fascists and we don’t have CP or equivalent, while we have plenty of fascists.
The impossibility of the AA position in this country comes down to numbers and visibility. 13%, heavily concentrated and heavily gerrymandered, is just not enough electoral power to matter much except as an element in a larger coalition. They can vote Democratic and things won’t get worse, but they also won’t get better. By visibility I mean that AA’s can’t blend in as easily as say, Jews or Latinos or gays. They don’t have that option. So, 13%, a weak voter base, and easily identified as the ‘other.’ AA’s have no power without allies and the allies, while sincere, have other issues that often take precedence. And of course violence alienates allies which leaves the AA position weaker still.
I do not know a way to play that hand and win.
@Michael Reynolds: Good observations but there is gambit to play. There are 40 million or so AAs in this country. That’s more than enough to mass strength in a pillar…maybe even 2 pillars. You have to play a different game when you lack numbers. On the military side we worked “by with and through” groups against a common enemy to multiply our ability to project force against said adversary. The tradecraft for civil change follows a similar pattern with a few modifications to subtract lethal targeting.
As it stands, my community burns a lot of human resources outside of law enforcement and banking pillars. I remember the culture shock I experienced when I was bussed to a wealthy white highschool I realized that playing ball or being an aspiring entertainer didn’t have the same status it did at my former highschool. Maybe the numbers are different now but a lot of my generation went for broke for professional sports and Hollywood. Well that got us a good foothold on the labor side of those industries. But now, who the hell can call on Lebron, Jordan, or JayZ to fix problems with law enforcement and access to capital?
We collectively do not understand this. Until we do, we will repeatedly flail around as reactionarys hoping some change will come of demonstrations and athletes \entertainers “using their platform”. As if, the rodeo clowns control the rules of the rodeo.
This is a comical exageration.
Black Americans position in American society is vastly improved since the 1950s and early 1960s, and to qualify American issues as apartheid shows absolutely no sense of the real apartheid.
Lost ground perhaps but to qualify as apartheid is needlesss hyperbole
Yes, but there’s where Wasow muddies the water to my reading. A promise to maintain the racial hierarchy is white supremacist thinking, not the rationale of white moderates who are part of the Democratic coalition as long as they perceive there to be order, but when they perceive there to be too much disorder they shift to the party that has owned the issue of order, which is the Republican Party.
If the “whole lot of Americans in that category” truly think the only way to maintain law & order is to keep African Americans (and Hispanics too) in their “rightful place” at the bottom, then we need to stop being polite about it and call these so-called moderates out for the racists they are.
And if it turns out these “whole lot of Americans” represent the majority in this country, then the country truly is irredeemable.
@Lounsbury: Have any natural protests in the past 30 years actually worked in the US?
The tea party and the open carry freaks have been created, encouraged and promoted by Fox. That’s part of a corporate backed initiative, so I wouldn’t count that.
And now I am at a loss.
Working backwards, looking at social change, we have gay rights and #metoo. With gay rights you had the AIDS activists protesting, but what drove the change was gays coming out of the closet and people discovering that they knew gay people.
Similarly, #metoo wasn’t really affected by protests one way or the other.
America has learned to ignore non-violent protests. From anti war marches before we attacked Iraq during the George W. Bush administration, to the protests in Wisconsin when Scott Walker gutted worker rights, to protests against police brutality in the past — zero change.
Oh, the Brooks Brothers Riot in Florida… that was pretty effective. And really staged.
@Scott F.: I would posit that there are a lot of Americans in this category who not only don’t think are in it but would vehemently deny it. Wasow found a large swath of them among self-professed liberal Democrats in 1972 and even in 2016.
Race is such an incredibly complicated issue in America precisely because it infects damn near everything, including all manner of issues most of us don’t think are about race unless we really dig into it.
@Gustopher: I’ve been arguing for years that protests don’t work unless they’re accompanied by serious political organization. The Tea Party essentially took over the Republican Party and this became effective in a way Occupy Wall Street did not. The ML King-led protests ultimately led to the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, but it took LBJ and a bipartisan Congressional coalition to make it happen.
@Jim Brown 32:
I’m never very hopeful about solutions that start with, ‘First, people need to be smarter.”
I think that’s absolutely right. But, their denialism doesn’t make their thinking about race correct. And their ability to continue to think that their calls for law & order aren’t really demands to maintain racial hierarchy is enabled by the silence of those who know better.
Contra the vast improvements for African Americans @Lounsbury claims, MLK described this precise condition 50+ years ago:
The oppression persists because white privilege has allowed it in the name of order and civility.
@Michael Reynolds: Alas. 🙁 I would add “more moral,” “kinder,” and “less self-centered” to the list, but that may just be my inner-Calvinist-believer-in-an-imaginary-friend talking.
@Michael Reynolds: For sure. Which is why I’m not hopeful. But as surely as night follows day, there will be a generation of AAs that will figure it out. There have been 2 already: Post Reconstruction and Post WWII that got in the driver’s seat and drove the car to a good rest area. They’ll be another.
@Scott F.: To be fair, MLK applied pressure to key lynchpins (pun intended) of the white power structure. That is not happening today so we really can’t call out white moderates for inaction. People have to be led. What ongoing efforts are out there for people to follow other that superficial shows of solidarity?
I got curious and looked at what happened in Minneapolis post Philandro Castille. Not surprisingly….very little of substance. The average person has no idea of where to start to solve this problem…but they will jump on a bandwagon that’s going somewhere.
The time for action is between killings..not reactionary demonstrations in response to them. Who knows how to create a pressurized environment for police unions? Who can engineer the right court cases to get a SC challenge to qualified immunity? Demonstrations should be to call for action and solidarity as you start working against the implements of the status quo…not merely an exercise in “fed up and not going to take it anymore”.
I dont see White silence as a more pressing problem than lack of leadership. I think many Whites are silent because, outside of saying police brutality is wrong (no shit), there isnt much of substance going on to speak up FOR.
@Jim Brown 32: White silence may not be “more pressing than lack of leadership,” but I don’t see it as either/or. Waiting for that leader we don’t now have to show the way is pretty weak tea. We can demand that our current leaders figure it out.
@Jim Brown 32: I’m going to quote this because I think it needs to be said:
@Scott F.: The flip side of that is: Without people that know what they are doing you will far short of your stated outcome. The double flip side of that is: If you have a 5 year plan but support and/or interest peter’s out in 6 months…you also are screwed. This is the primary delima for how to move in an environment that has developed antibodies to your strategy.
There isnt a crowdsourced revolution to date that has achieved a lasting outcome outside of further uncertainty and instability. An outcome which, frankly leaves vulnerable people even more vulnerable. Perhaps this one will be more lucky than good and I’ll be wrong. One can hope. But better on white guilt, shock, or shame never made any black man rich.
@Michael Reynolds: “I’m never very hopeful about solutions that start with, ‘First, people need to be smarter.”
Up there with “assume a can opener.”
Jesus, that’s today’s GOP in a nutshell…
Our original sin comes home to roost again.
If only some smart folks told us that we could have taken measures.
The likelihood that excessive force is seen as evil is a direct result of active resistance.
Protests moved the window.
Does violent policing get results?
I have thought about your reply. I never claimed that the position today was identical to that 60 years ago. That said, I would ask: what are the key characteristics of “the real apartheid” that are absent in current de facto US society? I’m looking for differences of type, not of degree.