Why Violent Protests Work

Laura Bassett

The fascist revolution led by Donald Trump hit a crescendo on Monday when the president tear-gassed his own people—peaceful protesters standing outside the White House—to clear a path for himself to take a photo with a Bible in front of a vandalized church.

Earlier in the day, Trump had implored governors across the country to crack down on the riots, “dominate” the protesters and throw them in jail for ten years. He called for the National Guard and the military to squash the uprising. Some of his supporters on the right called the protesters “domestic terrorists” and criticized them for being violent, fully ignoring the act of violence that sparked the protests, in which a police officer brutally knelt on the neck of an unarmed black man until he asphyxiated to death.

In fact, many of the protests have been peaceful, and the police have often stoked violence where it didn’t exist by showing up with military-grade weapons and shooting rubber bullets at demonstrators. Still, as some rioters set fire to police vans and loot stores, a debate is raging as to whether a violent protest is the right way to go about demanding change. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a longtime civil rights leader, called for peace: “To the rioters here in Atlanta and across the country,” he said, “I see you, and I hear you. I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness. Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long. Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote.”

Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, respectfully disagreed with Lewis. “It’s a familiar pattern: to call for peace and calm but direct it in the wrong places,” she told The New Yorker. “Why are we having this conversation about protest and property when a man’s life was extinguished before our eyes?”

“We don’t have time to finger-wag at protesters about property,” she continued. “That can be rebuilt. Target will reopen. The stores will reopen. That’s assured. What is not assured is our safety and real justice.”

I spoke with historian and University of Pennsylvania professor Daniel Q. Gillion, an expert on civil rights protests and the author of The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy, about what history can tell us about the effectiveness of violent vs. nonviolent protests.

GQ: I want to start with a general question: What is your reaction to the rioting going on right now?

Daniel Q. Gillion: My reaction is conflicting. This is something I study, and I realize the potential impact that protests can have. I’m in Philadelphia here. West Philly was looted yesterday, and as I walked past some of those stores, my heart broke for many of those business owners who have struggled. They’re already struggling with the pandemic, but this is a compounded burden put upon them. So I’m really depressed and saddened by that experience. That being said, I am hopeful for what will transpire in the aftermath, that this is a discussion that many people are having. People are very sincere and genuine about engaging with this discussion about racial inequity and police violence. So I’m hopeful for what the future will bring, not only in terms of societal shifts, but also in terms of the political and policy shifts.

There’s a debate right now as to whether violent protest is really effective as a catalyst for political change. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard”—but people even disagree over what he meant by that, since he is seen as an advocate of nonviolence. In your research of protests throughout history, what has been the relative effectiveness of violent vs nonviolent protest?

I’ve studied protest from the 1950s to today, and I’ve looked at this across a host of different issues in which individuals can see change, whether electoral shifts or policies or donations. The reality is that—objectively examining protests—violent protest has a positive impact on political and policy change. Nonviolent protest brings awareness to an issue; violent protest brings urgency to an issue. It forces individuals to pay attention to these important discussions of race relations, but also prompts the international community to join in and say, “Hey, there’s something wrong there.” We see protests breaking out in Berlin and other cities throughout the world right now. So there is a positive, influential aspect of violent protest. Saying that, naturally I don’t condone violence, and I’m not pushing for individuals to engage in unlawful behavior, but if we are objectively examining the influence of protests, we’re being disingenuous to say that violent protest does not bring individuals to the table, that it does not lead to policy change. That simply isn’t true.

Where would you situate this particular moment in history, compared to other historical protests?

One of the most contentious protests we’ve seen that we can relate and compare to what we’re seeing now in 2020 is the Rodney King riots in the 1990s. This is a protest that became very violent, and if you look at the representative for that area, it was Maxine Waters in South Central L.A. When she spoke about these events, she referred to it as “righteous anger,” because she understood the pain individuals were going through. And it led her to engage in more policy actions in the House. Before the riots took place, she was looking at initiatives involving international things, women’s rights— but after this took place, she began focusing on bills dealing with the concerns of protesters. We saw her work on public housing, we saw a neighborhood infrastructure bill pass, we saw an inner city job creation bill she introduced. In addition to that, George Bush had several meetings looking at how he should address this. Later Bush came out and he had no choice but to acknowledge the reality of the times. He said, “In the wake of the L.A. riots, can any one of us argue that we have solved the problem of poverty and racism?” And the answer is no. Every day discussions at the water cooler actually changed because of that.

Oftentimes, when people say “violent protest has no impact,” it’s not because they have empirical evidence. They’re relying on their optimistic notions of seeing King and hearing his rhetoric. And those things are true, that nonviolence can be effective, but the violence can also be effective if you look at the data and follow the protests and see the impact it has on policy.

John Lewis put out a statement pleading with protesters to be peaceful. He obviously fought for civil rights alongside King. What do you make of that?

I lump him in with Andrew Young—both are civil rights leaders who were on the front lines, and for them, nonviolent protest was effective. So they’re speaking from experience. John Lewis has skull fractures from crossing that bridge on Bloody Sunday—he knows what he’s talking about, what worked for him. I think the difference is that the same way his generation had to learn how to overcome the great inequities that they faced in that particular time period—because their strategies were different from the strategies we saw in the 40s and 50s— it’s the same way that this generation has to learn how to address the great inequities they experience. I’m not comparing battle scars here, but each generation has to find its way through this hardship, and that’s what this generation is doing. It’s trying to cope with the despair and madness in a society in which they’re told they’re equal and that they’re on the same footing, on paper we have civil rights laws, but they experience the constant forms of inequity on a daily basis—the harassment, the brutality, the death—and they are fed up and frustrated. It will be the case that the older generation of African Americans who have paved the way, we owe a great deal of debt to them and should listen to what they have to say, but at the end, this generation has to find its own path forward. It may look different, but it will end up at the same destination, which is greater racial progress in America.

The Ferguson riots under Obama in 2014 were pretty violent, similar to what’s happening now. And obviously, six years later we’re still seeing the same kinds of police violence against black people that protesters were responding to then. Would you say that protest was ineffective?

Ferguson is a great example for us to assess activism and policy, because with Ferguson, we didn’t see a massive change in many things. But the point we gotta take from Ferguson is that it fits into a larger narrative. Sometimes we see protests today, and then we wait 24 hours, and see that nothing happened the next day. We say to ourselves, “This is useless, we’re wasting our time.” But the way in which I approach protest influence is through a larger, broader lens. What protest does, especially Ferguson, is it fits in this larger narrative of racial and ethnic minority protests that have pushed back on police brutality throughout the years. So we’re seeing the Ferguson arrests around 2014—what’s the impact it has? It begins to bring awareness and urgency to this issue. Shortly after that, there’s more attention and more interest in Black Lives Matter. There are more protests in 2016, and Black Lives Matter begins to grow in strength. By the time we get to 2020, the reason why George Floyd becomes a protest that bubbles over into the streets and leads to various forms of violence and resonates across the world is because of all the protests that preceded it. George Floyd is not necessarily the catalyst—it’s the crescendo.

It was like this in the ‘60s. Some might have said, “Why didn’t we see some kind of change immediately following the protest in 1961 or ‘62 or ‘63?” Take your pick. But then we see the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and all of a sudden we have the policy change we’re looking for. But it took time.

"George Floyd is not necessarily the catalyst—it’s the crescendo."

Some have argued that rioting throughout history has only resulted in a “law and order” backlash, using the Detroit and Chicago riots in ‘67 and ‘68 in particular as examples of that, because the Nixon Administration followed. Is that a fair assessment?

Those who push back on the violence cite these riots and look at the change in the presidency afterward, they say the law and order campaign was able to be successful as a consequence of the riots. The reality is, it’s simply not true. The rioting was occurring in a couple of cities, and in those cities, it was devastating and heart wrenching. But protest most impacts the people who are looking at it in their backyard—mayors, congressional members. And if you look at 1968, you have a candidate named Abner Mikva running for Congress on a ticket looking to push back against the war and racial inequality, and he was able to ride the wave and get elected in Chicago. That protest had an impact on local electoral returns.

What’s different about those riots from 2020 is that we’re not seeing this in one or two cities, we’re seeing it across the nation. It’s boiling over in so many different cities. What starts out as being a geographically specific effect now can snowball into being a larger national effect. So if you’re a politician running for office at a national level, that should concern you. People will go to the polls and be conscientious of what’s taking place.

Trump today got on a call with governors and told them to crack down on protesters and is threatening to call in the military. Do you think this could be an effective political strategy in responding to a protest?

Will this law and order campaign he has put forth be effective? Absolutely it will. The question is to what degree. We’ve seen in the past Trump has tried to villanize BLM and others who have pushed back against what he stands for. And you will have people who buy into his words. But a recent study I put forth in my book, The Loud Minority, I examine the backlash towards BLM in part led by Trump. When you look at negative perceptions of BLM, I did not find that that was leading them to the polls or affecting whether they vote for a Democrat or Republican. However when you look at the positive support towards Black Lives Matter, it’s highly correlated with individuals voting. They’re more likely to turn out and when they turn out, they vote for the Democratic candidate. More African Americans turned out in 2012 than in 2016, but when you look at the areas where BLM protests took place, we saw increases in black voter turnout even as other areas saw a drop. So the backlash to these protests will not have the electoral outcome people think it will.

And these protests cause a spike in donations to liberal candidates. This is also true for conservative protests—the more protests there are, the more money people donate to conservative candidates and causes. But the current protests are part of a blue wave. If history is any guide, we should see a major change take place in 2020.

Laura Bassett is a GQ columnist.

Donald Trump holding a bible at St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., June 1, 2020.
Donald Trump holding a bible at St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., June 1, 2020.

Trump thinks it's 1968 all over again, when Richard Nixon won on law and order. But the 1992 election may be a better comparison.

Originally Appeared on GQ

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