Jun. 8, 2020 7:30 am

What can protests accomplish?

Research shows collective action really does drive more voting and civic engagement. How successful you believe that can be depends on your view of our society.

That statue of controversial Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo was the focus of protests May 30. The statue was removed days later

(Photo by Jim MacMillan for Generocity)

At their best, protests tend to pair a higher goal with some set of specific tactics to get there.

Often sparked by a precipitating event, collective action is by nature complex. Each person can come for slightly different reasons. None of us are part of a monolith, especially when organizing takes place from people, not from a single entity with a formed mission.

This is where the idle criticism for protesting often comes: What do those protestors even want? They don’t really expect that higher principle to be solved by a big crowd do they? Are they going too far/not far enough?

This is all very true for this current movement.

Sparked by a gruesome video of a white police officer in Minneapolis killing a Black man named George Floyd by kneeling on the man’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, large-scale protests, demonstrations and rallies have broken out across the country — from big cities like Philadelphia to small towns. (Know how to address your coworkers.) Tens of thousands marched Philadelphia’s museum district again on Saturday, prompting one historian to say: “the breadth of the Floyd protests is staggering.”

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These protests, including those led by Black Lives Matter, certainly fulfilled the mix of both grander goal and tactics — from racial equity to a series of immediate steps and responsiveness to systemic racism.

In just the last week of collective action, locally tangible, if small-scale, outcomes have taken place with rare speed:

These are s no doubt tangible outputs, especially for a given week. But like any movement, the first steps are invariably small ones and tactics by some can be called as too conciliatory to that which is the focus of the protest. In this case, that focus is police brutality and the police officers, police union and infrastructure that maintains it.

A trend among some protesters to encourage police officers to kneel alongside them have been described both as an iconic visual of this movement and acts of propaganda. Efforts among some activists to advocate for police reform have been similarly derided as too small scale — especially when compared to progressive political theory around police abolition.

This is very central to understanding collective action, and what protests can accomplish — what constitutes progress and what is, as Dr. King put it, capitulation to “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism”? Your assessment of the success of protest hinges on this.

In Minneapolis, the relationship that city’s liberal Mayor has had with some protest local organizers ended this weekend in jeers when he refused to agree to the complete defunding of the police department, a move that the Minneapolis City Council voted Sunday to explore. Yes, it was quite the weekend in Minnesota.

That a major U.S. city’s government would vote in a special session on Sunday to investigate defunding its police force would be a remarkable outcome for a protest. But as veterans of protest movements often remind, real progress takes time, even in the most radical of moments.

As Saeed Jones wrote Friday: “The past beat us bloody, the present is beating us black and blue then blaming us for the bruises, and the future will either thank us for finally breaking the cycle of trauma or bury even the most basic facts about what happened in unmarked graves.”

Today there is both a very real sense of frustration at a lack of progress by recent years of protest in response to the police killing of unarmed Black men and signs that today is different. One of those signs of progress is exactly because so many more Americans appear to understand that what happened to George Floyd is painfully unremarkable.

In 2019, nearly 1,100 Americans were killed by police — overwhelmingly Black and male — in contrast to 48 police officers who were killed in the line of duty, along with another 41 who died accidentally, according to CNBC. Most Americans do seem to understand this systemic disparity. Last week, more than 60 percent of Americans reported they believed race was a major factor in George Floyd’s death, including more than a third of Republicans.  Even celebrated public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates is hopeful, in comparing the level of sophistication of today’s movement to the one his Philadelphia-born father experienced in 1968.

Years of political protest, including the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, will be credited for that change. It seems near certain that today will be part of a long tradition of periods of collective action, from women’s marches to Gandhi’s Salt March to the storming of the Bastille and beyond.

Not only do we know that collective action works, because of a landmark analysis by economists in 2017, we also better understand precisely why that collective action works. It’s not that protests just show existing opinion to shape elected officials and civic leaders —like shaking Minneapolis City Council to a protest demand. Protests shape collective opinion in real time.

In that 2017 analysis, researchers used weather patterns, which influenced the number of people who attended Tea Party rallies differently across the country, to tease out the political change protest can foment. For every protest attendee, affiliated political candidates gained between 7 and 14 additional votes, as Quartz reported. This finding of protests resulting in real consequences at the voting booth was reconfirmed by another study in 2018.

Numbers matter, then. Political allegiances do too. It’s crucial then that voters by a two-to-one margin are more troubled by the police who killed George Floyd than by violence at some protests. That kind of public perception is both cause and result of protest, and an ingredient in when and how protests are effective.

One reading of the efficacy of today’s political protest is that digital tools are blessing and curse. They allow for a speed of communications that is hard to fathom by historical standards — note the rise and fall of the “black square” in less than 48 hours.

“However, with this speed comes weakness.” writes Zeynep Tufekci in her  2017 book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. Change in human history has often been sparked by decisive moments of revolution but then followed by years of sorting out the messy details. The 1960s are remembered for successive years of protest.

“People sometimes imagine yesterday’s revolutions as planned and carried out by self-conscious revolutionaries, but this has rarely, if ever, been the case,” as Rebecca Spang, a history professor, wrote. “Instead, revolutions are periods in which social actors with different agendas become fused into a more or less stable constellation.”

Moments of collective action, including protest and even revolutions in the United States, France, Russia, Cuba, Haiti and the world over more were just that: days, weeks and months that grew to years of change. Your view of the success of protest, then, will depend on time scale and the outcomes you expect. It is almost always the case that this moment is certainly unfinished.


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