Riots And Social Change

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A protester throws a gas canister back at police during clashes in Baltimore, Maryland, April 28, 2015. Photo: Eric Thayer/Reuters/Corbis

The recent spate of protests against police brutality have changed the way the left thinks about rioting. The old liberal idea, which distinguished between peaceful protests (good) and rioting (bad), has given way to a more radical analysis. “Riots work,” insists George Ciccariello-Maher in Salon. “But despite the obviousness of the point, an entire chorus of media, police, and self-appointed community leaders continue to try to convince us otherwise, hammering into our heads a narrative of a nonviolence that has never worked on its own, based on a mythical understanding of the Civil Rights Movement.” Vox’s German Lopez, while acknowledging the downside of random violence, argues, “Riots can lead to real, substantial change.” In Rolling StoneJesse Myerson asserts, “the historical pedigree of property destruction as a tactic of resistance is long and frequently effective.” Darlena Cunha, writing in Time, asks, “Is rioting so wrong?” and proceeds to answer her own question in the negative.

The direct costs of violent protests are fairly self-evident. People who may not have anything to do with the underlying grievances get injured or killed, their livelihoods are impaired, the communities in which the rioting takes place suffer property damage that can linger for decades, and the inevitable police response creates new dangers for innocent bystanders. The pro-rioting (or anti-anti-rioting) argument portrays this as the necessary price of worthwhile social change. Rioting can generate attention among people who might otherwise ignore the underlying conditions that give rise to it.

It is surely the case that some positive social reforms have emerged in response to rioting. Lopez highlights the Kerner Commission and diversity efforts in the Los Angeles Police Department. But the question is not whether rioting ever yields a productive response, but whether it does so in general. Omar Wasow, an assistant professor at the department of politics at Princeton, has published a timely new paper studying this very question. And his answer is clear: Riots on the whole provoke a hostile right-wing response. They generate attention, all right, but the wrong kind.

The 1960s saw two overlapping waves of protest: nonviolent civil-rights demonstrations, and urban rioting. The 1960s also saw the Republican Party crack open the New Deal coalition by, among other things, appealing to public concerns about law and order. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson swept every region of the country except the South running a liberal, pro-civil-rights campaign; in 1968, Richard Nixon won a narrower victory on the basis of social backlash.

Determining just what caused the change in public opinion is obviously tricky. Wasow approaches the problem in different ways. One method he uses is to compare the public’s concern for civil rights and its concern for “social control,” with violent and nonviolent protests. They match up pretty closely:

Wasow has another even more persuasive method. He looks at county-by-county voting and compares it with violent and nonviolent protest activity:

Examining county-level voting patterns, I find that black-led protests in which some violence occurs are associated with a statistically significant decline in Democratic vote-share in the 1964, 1968 and 1972 presidential elections. Black-led nonviolent protests, by contrast, exhibit a statistically significant positive relationship with county-level Democratic vote-share in the same period. Further, I find that in the 1968 presidential election exposure to violent protests caused a decline in Democratic vote-share. Examining counterfactual scenarios in the 1968 election, I estimate that fewer violent protests are associated with a substantially increased likelihood that the Democratic presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, would have beaten the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon. As African Americans were strongly identified with the Democratic party in this time period, my results suggest that, in at least some contexts, political violence by a subordinate group may contribute to a backlash among segments of the dominant group and encourage outcomes directly at odds with the preferences of the protestors.

Wasow finds that nonviolent civil-rights protests did not trigger a national backlash, but that violent protests and looting did. The physical damage inflicted upon poor urban neighborhoods by rioting does not have the compensating virtue of easing the way for more progressive policies; instead, it compounds the damage by promoting a regressive backlash.

The Nixonian law and order backlash drove a wave of repressive criminal-justice policies that carried through for decades with such force that even Democrats like Bill Clinton felt the need to endorse them in order to win elections. That wave has finally receded and created space for sentencing reformsdemilitarization, an emphasis on community policing, and other initiatives that even have bipartisan support. If the violent protests in Ferguson and Baltimore supercede nonviolent protest, Wasow’s research implies that the liberal moment might give way to another reactionary era.

  • rgaura

    Interesting discussion, and I would add that the media presentation of those violent protests had more to do with the backlash than the actual acts of rebellion themselves. I have seen some good analysis of this online. I have not watched mainstream media for many decades, and highly recommend it to the movement members. We need to withdraw any financial support for media, and protect our children from its lying portrayal of reality. I think children lose the ability to see and judge honesty vs lies when they blur their lived reality with the powerful media narratives which disenfranchise most of us. Just look at some of these leaders through a perceptive view, or check their records, and these are people one should never invite into our homes or minds.

  • Mary Wehrheim

    Which is more persuasive: the placard or pitchfork? The suffragettes faced the same dilemma. While the American ladies took to gentile polemical approach at first, the British women went at it with with considerable more grit with firebombs in MP mail boxes, chaining themselves to Parliament gates and hunger strikes while arrested. After years of no success, some American women adopted the more in-your-face British methods. Turns out it is not slogans nor threats that change opinion… but empathy. The newspaper accounts of nasty guards force feeding gentile ladies through their noses evoked great sympathy for them and their cause.

  • Let us not forget that as a writer for aggressively upscale New York Magazine,, Mr. Chait’s perspective is necessarily that of the Ruling Class.

    Hence the subtle but nevertheless implicit race-bating and victim-blaming in his statement:that “The 1960s also saw the Republican Party crack open the New Deal coalition by, among other things, appealing to public concerns about law
    and order.”

    The truth, however, is quite different. The New Deal coalition was not “crack(ed) open” by the Republican Party but rather by the Democrats themselves.

    President Lyndon Johnson’s 180-degree turn in foreign policy immediately following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy led directly to the Southeast Asian (aka “Vietnam”) War.

    In turn — and exactly as the Ruling Class intended — the war destroyed the Working Class solidarity that had created and sustained the New Deal. The war divided the U.S. Working Class — what today we would call the 99 Percent — into two venomously hostile camps: the sneeringly contemptuous draft-exempt elite and the equally embittered draft-bait, cannon-fodder majority of those of us who (because we lacked the money and influence to bribe our way out of the draft), had no choice but to serve.

    Contrary to the (maliciously?) false implications of Mr. Chait’s glib remark, all the non-racial divisions in present-day U.S. politics date from that history-changing divide.

    As to racist hate-mongering by the Republicans, that indeed occurred, but contrary to Mr. Chait’s disingenuous claim, the class warfare implicit in the Vietnam draft had already destroyed the New Deal.

    Subsequent U.S. history makes it obvious what happened next. The Ruling Class deftly manipulated the Vietnam issue into a plethora of profoundly emotional clashes over jobs, firearms, welfare, immigration, education, abortion, sexuality, Christian supremacy,and ultimately the prevalent definitions of patriotism.

    Again exactly as the Ruling Class intends, the resulting hostilities — perpetuated as they are by a media machine more psychologically effective than even Josef Goebbels might have imagined — destroy any future possibility of ever again restoring 99 Percent solidarity.

    (Disclosure: I am not a Vietnam veteran but am a Vietnam-era vet: Regular Army enlistment 1959-1965, three years active duty, overseas service in Korea 1961-1962, honorably discharged after completion of reserve obligation).

  • DHFabian

    No, this isn’t just about police violence. At the heart of the hopelessness is our poverty crisis, dramatically worsened by the policy choices of the past 30 years or so. Incidentally, the majority of very poor are white, most living outside of the major cities. They have no means to organize, no way to be heard.