How effective are protests and riots for changing America?

How effective are protests and riots for changing America?
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On a summer night in 1967, the Detroit Police Department set out to raid several after-hours bars. It was not an unusual action — the police often shut down such establishments and, in fact, the final target of the night, the United Community and Civic League, had been closed twice before.  But as officers processed and removed those arrested, a crowd of hundreds assembled outside to watch. It was a neighborhood where racial tensions and antipathy toward the police already were high, and stories of excessive force during the arrest began to circulate.

Someone threw a bottle at a police car, and another person threw a garbage can through a store window. More police officers arrived on the scene, but it was too late — a contingent of fewer than 50 officers faced a crowd of thousands. The most severe riot of the era was under way.

Over the next five days, crowds, fires, looters and gunshots raged through the area. The National Guard, Michigan State Police and U.S. Army were brought in to try to quell the riots. When it was over, 43 people had lost their lives, more than 1,000 were known to be injured, more than  7,000 were arrested, and tens of millions of dollars in damage had been done.  

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Faced with this kind of harm to property and human life, it might be hard to imagine that anyone believed the riot to be a good thing — but they did. Several surveys were conducted in the neighborhood at the epicenter of the activity and consistently found that many, and oftentimes the majority, of black residents believed that the rioting ultimately would be helpful to the cause of equality and would improve the lives of black Americans.  

As I write, cities in the United States — and beyond — have been experiencing a remarkable wave of protest, unrest, rebellion and rioting. Many of those out on the streets have a specific agenda — to get justice for the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But his is not a case occurring in isolation. Protestors want justice for the deaths of a seemingly unending list of black victims of police violence over decades, among them Timothy Thomas in Cincinnati, 2001; Terrance Shurn in Benton Harbor, Mich., 2003; Oscar Grant in Oakland, Calif., 2009; Kimani Gray in New York City, 2013; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., 2014; Eric Garner in New York City 2014; Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C., 2016; Anthony Lamar Smith in St. Louis, 2017; and Brandon Webber in Memphis, 2019. 

These are only some of the deaths that generated protests and built momentum for the eruption we are now observing. Protestors want such deaths to stop; they want an end to what they say is unfair targeting of black people by police; they want black people to be free from the fear of abuse and even death when they encounter police.

But will the protestors get what they want? Will their actions produce, as they hope and believe, the justice they want to see in the world? Sadly, the answer is “Probably not.” In the wake of the upheaval of the 1960s — of which the Detroit riot was only one of hundreds of riots and protests — and unprecedented public attention to the problems thought to be the root cause of the unrest, there was optimism and genuine effort to improve the conditions experienced in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods. But those efforts were short-lived and largely ineffective.  We currently hear promises, commitments to change, a declaration that this unprecedented wave of action will change things, and that the efforts and sacrifices made by victims will not go unanswered. But haven’t we heard that before?  

One truth is that riots raise awareness of social problems. Large protests, and especially riots, produce media and public attention, and the more severe they are, the more attention they get.  If there is destruction of property or harm to people, if the incident lasts more than one day, or if action spreads to multiple cities, it easily can become national and even international news.  Violent protest does, therefore, advertise the cause in a uniquely powerful way. As the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence concluded in the 1960s, “Violence has increasingly become a mode of communication, perhaps the mode of communication, which gets the message through and makes the point.”  

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Riots also extract promises. As part of the attempt to quell riots, local and national political leaders invoke the refrain, “We can do better, and we will.” And indeed, they often try. They form commissions to study the problems, issue reports, and sometimes even allocate resources toward solving the problems. After the “long, hot summer” of 1967, the famed Kerner Commission’s report on the summer riots immediately became a No. 1 bestseller. Its recommendations spurred intervention via the Model Cities program. But the program was underfunded, did not last, and ended up having little impact on its intended targets. Why wasn’t there more traction after that truly extraordinary upheaval?

For one thing, riots and protest don’t just provoke change, they also can provoke and embolden resistance to change. The urban unrest of the 1960s didn’t just produce sympathetic momentum, it also produced the “law and order” rhetoric that helped spur Richard Nixon into the White House in 1968. That kind of rhetoric, as we saw in President Trump’s response to the current protests, provides further justification to some for heavy-handed repression, not expensive remedies for social ills.  

Violent protest also tends to reduce support for its causes among certain people. As violence became a bigger part of the protest repertoire through the 1960s, that limited support weakened further. Riots reduced majority-group support for civil rights, for improving race relations and for improving conditions of life for blacks. Likewise, fewer whites believed that black protest reflected legitimate concerns.

Probably more important, though, is that the pressure from riots and protest peaks only for a short time. Once the rioting slows down, the heat is off. People turn their attention elsewhere and the energy to solve the problem wanes. That short peak of energy is not enough to dismantle a centuries-long problem such as pervasive, persistent racial profiling on police stops, differential incarceration, and the use of deadly force by police. The fact that we can so easily identify incidents going back 50 years and more tells us that we are not making progress.  

While most applaud the decision to charge the officers involved in George Floyd’s death, until there is a stark difference in how we select and train police, a radical reorientation toward the justification for deadly force, a commitment from police officers to stop tolerating such behaviors from each other, and a fundamental change in public oversight over police authority, we are destined to repeat this cycle.  

What we need in these moments of upheaval is to empower a structure that can deploy resources, sustain attention and apply effort to these issues over a longer period of time. It is not enough to pledge to do better; we must construct the apparatus that will help us to actually do that. If we don’t, in a few weeks (or less), someone else will be dead, another protest will break out demanding justice and change, and leaders again will pledge to do … something.  

Daniel J. Myers is provost and chief academic officer and a professor of sociology at the American University in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @myersdanielj.