Martin Luther King believed in non-violent protests but he knew his opposers and the government believed in violence. It was almost guaranteed that the reaction to peaceful protests would be violent. Dr. King reportedly said that the world would be a witness to how the U.S. treats its young people who were protesting peacefully. In essence, it was the violence of the protests that grabbed the attention of the world.
President John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
Here are five things to know about evidence suggesting that violent protests work and lead to impactful change.
History has proven that violence directed at peaceful protesters can spark change. The protests rocking the country today are living history. Peaceful protests capture greater attention when violence occurs, says Omar Wasow, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University.
“Protests can have a powerful effect on politics,” Wasow told KCRW. “They do that by shaping media coverage. When the media covers these protests, those issues get elevated in the public conversation. That changes public opinion, it changes what members of Congress talk about, and ultimately changes how people vote and what kind of legislation gets passed.”
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What really captures attention, he said, is when nonviolent protesters become the object of state violence.
When violence in 1965 was directed at the peaceful marchers led by Dr. King in Selma, Alabama, the world and U.S. politicians took note. King knew this and used the violent confrontations as part of the civil rights movement’s strategy.
“The civil rights movement … put a focus on state violence by getting segregationists to engage in that kind of violence in front of cameras,” Wasow said.
But the strategy only works when violence is used against peaceful protesters. Take the 1968 riots that broke out in part due to the assassination of Dr. King Jr.
“Nixon was able to win on a law-and-order campaign because in key swing battle states, there were violent protests that moved even just a few percentage points of voters such that Nixon was able to capture the electoral college,” Wasow said. said. “So it really can matter for politics.”
The international protests over racial injustice that were triggered by the police murder of George Floyd are evidence that urgency prompts results.
“Nonviolent protest brings awareness to an issue. Violent protest brings urgency to an issue,” said Daniel Q. Gillion, author of “The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy,” in a GQ interview. “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.”
Gillion is an expert in civil rights protests and a University of Pennsylvania professor.
Concrete changes as a result of the George Floyd protests include defunding of the police by cities across the country. Officials in Washington, D.C. and states including California, Nevada, and Texas are reviewing police reforms, Business Insider reported.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 was passed by the House but has stalled in the Senate. A new database was launched to collect video footage that documents police violence at demonstrations across the country. Several corporations have announced plans to increase diversity in staffing and executive suites. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, for example, stepped down from the company’s board of directors and urged the company to fill his board seat with a Black candidate.
Evidence has shown that when peaceful protesters are seen being attacked or the victims of aggressive policing, more people get curious about the cause — and more people join the cause.
Research by Vanessa Williamson of the Brookings Institution and political scientists Kris-Stella Trump and Katherine Levine Einstein revealed that the number of Black Lives Matter protests in response to police killings of Black civilians has grown from only a few in a handful of cities in 2013 to over 500 protests in nearly 200 cities in 2014, FiveThirtyEight reported. And over the course of 2020, following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, even more people — of various races — have joined the movement.
Protests trigger conversation and debate — not only about the cause of the protesting but also about how to protest. Today, people are questioning whether protests be peaceful, or if more can be achieved through violent protests.
When protesters turn violent the tides tend to turn against them, according to research done by Prof. Wasow. Before he died, longtime civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis urged protesters to be peaceful. This caused a major backlash against Lewis, who marched alongside MLK in the ’60s and had his skull fractured when he protested in Selma.
“We also forget that the violent protests in the 1960s often accomplished more than peaceful protests did. It was rioting that forced Kennedy to finally act on civil rights, not non-violent marching”, Dwayne Wong @DOmowale tweeted.
Activist Bree Newsome Bass@BreeNewsome tweeted, “Y’all quote John Lewis as an example of how to properly protest like white people didn’t blow up the Greyhound Bus during the Freedom Rides. Accept and acknowledge that the problem is white people being racist & not how we protest.”
Jamesbrady12 tweeted, “Lewis, Lawson, Nash, et al had such a bigger vision than trying to win the cold hearts of white people. Shaming the US on the world stage during the height of the Cold War forced concessions from govt. The strategy was leverage, not politeness.”