Thursday, September 03, 2020

Are Riots Counterproductive?


opendemocracy  |  When some of the recent Black Lives Matter protests against the murder of George Floyd ended in riots, the pushback was immediate and predictable: different visions of Martin Luther King’s legacy were fought over, rival interpretations of the Civil Rights Movement were deployed, and contrasting lessons were identified.

There can be no single interpretation of the turbulent 1960s, but there is much we can learn from historical work on this period. In particular, Omar Wasow’ s recent analysis of the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement makes a provocative argument that “nonviolent” protest helped to shape a national conversation which raised the profile of the civil rights agenda and led to electoral gains for the Democrats in the early 1960s.

By contrast, he argues, rioting in US cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King pushed white Americans towards the rhetoric of ‘law and order,’ causing large shifts among white voters towards the Republican Party and helping Richard Nixon to win the 1968 presidential election shortly thereafter.

This is a controversial argument, even costing political analyst David Shor his job when he recently tweeted about Wasow’s thesis and received an angry response from those who saw it as a “tone-deaf” attack on legitimate protest. At the root of this controversy are important questions about whether framing riots as a ‘tactical choice’ is appropriate, who that framing makes responsible for ongoing racial injustice, and what the fact that we’re having this debate says about people’s views of politics and priorities. As King warned in 1968:

“A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?...it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquillity and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

But social movements can’t afford to ignore these arguments completely. The idea that violent protests might be risky is not surprising, since in societies that pride themselves on being ‘peaceful,’ riots violate many taken-for-granted liberal values. Wasow’s rigorous, quantitative analysis gives this argument a historical foundation but it also has obvious resonances for today, at a time when President Trump is running for re-election on a ‘law and order’ platform against the background of street protests in cities like Portland and Kenosha.

However, the implications of Wasow’s arguments are not as straightforward as they might appear. One immediate issue concerns his methodology and the size of the effects he estimates. The models reported in Wasow’s paper don’t include any controls for time, which are normally included in statistical analyses to control for general trends affecting society as a whole, trends we assume would have happened anyway.