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Police in riot gear stand in front of the White House on May 31.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

How violent protests against police brutality in the ’60s and ’90s changed public opinion

The backlash to unrest in the ’60s gave the country Richard Nixon, one study found. But we don’t know if that will apply today.

As violent protests against police brutality have roiled the country, so has a debate over the looting and property damage they have left in their wake.

The police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, just months after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, is the latest tragic demonstration that there’s something wrong with how police operate in the US: massive racial disparities in police killings, use of force, arrests, imprisonment, and more.

The police reactions to this year’s protests have in many ways validated the message that law enforcement too often operates with impunity, with viral videos showing police around the country abusing their authority by attacking demonstrators at random, pepper-spraying activists without cause, and in one instance, ramming their vehicle into protesters.

It’s all led to genuine rage against the system, which in several cases over the past year has culminated in a minority of protesters burning down buildings and looting businesses. That’s led to a debate about whether breaking windows and setting fires actually advances protesters’ goals or if the violence could backfire, moving the public against the protests.

A popular sentiment on social media suggests you’re either willing to forgive or overlook the rioting or you’re not really with the protesters. March for Our Lives co-founder Emma González captured the argument in a sarcastic meme earlier this year stating, “I can excuse systematic murder but I draw the line at property damage.”

A related argument positions riots as a natural, necessary part of creating social change. In this view, civil rights and police reforms in the 1960s wouldn’t have been possible without the unrest of the ’60s — some of which was violent. I made a version of this argument in 2015, arguing that riots in the ’60s and ’90s ultimately led to necessary changes in policing, even if the changes didn’t go far enough.

But since then, empirical research has come out persuasively showing that riots in the past have not generally swung public opinion toward the causes they’re rooted in. Particularly with the 1960s riots, the evidence suggests white voters’ negative reactions to these uprisings in Black communities fueled the rise of “tough-on-crime” politicians whose policies perpetuated some of the problems that protesters in the ’60s stood against and that demonstrators today are now protesting.

We don’t know if this research on the 1960s uprisings can be perfectly generalized to protests today, when the circumstances, political climate, and population are different. There are other studies suggesting that, at least in limited circumstances, riots have helped some causes.

But there are concerning signs about the way today’s protests are going. With violence becoming a bigger and bigger part of the news, figures like President Donald Trump can ignore the overall message and cause of the protests and instead focus on calling for “law and order” and the deployment of the National Guard. Some, like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), have called for military deployment in cities hit by riots. Unrest at protests is producing the very attitudes and positions — from “tough on crime” to the literal militarization of policing — that protesters are standing against. All of this was on full display at the 2020 Republican National Convention, which brought up the riots again and again as an example of disorder caused by a Democrat-backed movement.

Perhaps in anticipation of this turn, some activists have warned against violence. Julia Jackson, Jacob Blake’s mother, said the “violence doesn’t reflect my son.” Floyd’s brother, Terrence, in June voiced a similar message to violent protesters: “If I’m not over here messing up my community, then what are you all doing? You all are doing nothing. Because that’s not going to bring my brother back at all.” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who’s sympathetic to the protests, argued that the rioters “are not the people who are interested in helping get justice for George Floyd.” Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, called the violence “needless.”

The anger behind the protests and riots is real. But research from the past suggests the path to meaningful change, particularly for racial justice, is typically more successful through peaceful means.

The anger behind the protests is real and justified

The video of George Floyd’s death is enraging. There’s no context that can adequately explain a police officer putting his knee on a man’s neck until that man — who repeatedly shouts, “I can’t breathe!” — dies. Even other police departments and unions around the US have, in an unusual move, condemned the way Minneapolis police handled the situation.

The video of Jacob Blake’s shooting feels like a repeat of the same kind of tragedy, showing an officer repeatedly shooting Blake in the back. Blake is now reportedly paralyzed from the waist down.

Floyd’s death was the catalyst for this year’s earlier protests, and Blake’s shooting reignited the demonstrations. Both speak to a deeper problem: Police abuse of Black communities is routine in the US. According to the Guardian’s “The Counted” project, as of 2016 Black people were more than twice as likely to be killed by police than white people, at a respective rate of 6.66 per 1 million people versus 2.9 per 1 million people.

The research indicates that this isn’t driven solely by more crime in minority communities, but something else — potentially, racial bias. One 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found, “There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.”

This has been apparent again and again in federal investigation after federal investigation of police departments. The Justice Department’s report on the Baltimore Police Department in 2016 noted when a police shift commander created an arrest form for loitering on public housing, he didn’t even try to hide his racist expectations. In the template, there was no space to fill in gender or race. Instead, that information was automatically filled out: “black male.”

The report found that Black people in Baltimore were much more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts even after controlling for population. One Black man in his mid-50s was stopped 30 times in less than four years — nearly one stop a month — despite never receiving a citation or criminal charge.

“Racially disparate impact is present at every stage of BPD’s enforcement actions, from the initial decision to stop individuals on Baltimore streets to searches, arrests, and uses of force,” the report concluded. “These racial disparities, along with evidence suggesting intentional discrimination, erode the community trust that is critical to effective policing.”

This is not something the Justice Department found solely in Baltimore. It appeared again and again: Whether it’s Baltimore, Cleveland, New Orleans, Ferguson, Missouri, or Chicago, the Justice Department has found horrific constitutional violations in how police use force, how they target minority residents, how they stop and ticket people, and just about every other aspect of policing.

At the same time, police are rarely held accountable for their actions. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 legal actions against police officers accused of misconduct from April 2009 to December 2010. Researcher David Packman, who established the project, found that only 33 percent were convicted, with 36 percent of convicted officers going on to serve prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.

This is what’s fueled the demonstrations, from the peaceful to the violent. These protests are focused on a real issue — one that has gone neglected in the US, even after the rise of Black Lives Matter in 2014. Given this context, it should be no surprise that some are turning to violence to express their fury; as Martin Luther King Jr. often said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Rioting has historically been counterproductive to racial justice causes

The best study I’ve seen on the broader national reaction to protests demonstrates that riots in the past backfired.

The research isn’t unanimous on this point. A 2019 study by Ryan Enos, Aaron Kaufman, and Melissa Sands found that the 1992 Los Angeles riot “caused a marked liberal shift in policy support at the polls.” Specifically, the riot appeared to mobilize some voters — particularly Black voters — who went on to register Democrat and vote the more liberal position on a slew of local school ballot issues. That indicated, the researchers argued, that the riots led to a progressive electoral turn.

But this study was narrow in scope. It focused on the local effects of one riot and looked specifically at education ballot initiatives. The researchers acknowledged that the reaction may be different for a series of riots: “perhaps, while a single riot invokes sympathy, a series of riots provokes backlash.” They also noted the overall national response could differ from the local, which “could affect the overall efficacy of violent protest.”

That’s what other research suggests. A study from Omar Wasow, recently published in the American Political Science Review, found the national backlash to 1960s riots was fierce — overwhelming support for the cause behind the protests.

According to the study, peaceful protests for civil rights and against police abuses in the 1960s tended to build support for Democrats, who in turn backed the civil rights causes of the time. But support for Democrats decreased after violent protests — and subsequently led to a focus on “law-and-order” style politics. (A note on methodology: For the purposes of this article, “violent protest” and “riots” means when protesters became violent. Wasow categorized protests in which demonstrators were peaceful but police or other state actors were not as separate.)

We don’t know how riots may have mobilized certain voters. Maybe the violence swayed some genuine swing voters. Maybe riots made it easier for politicians like Nixon to tap into existing racial resentment that enables punitive policies against minority communities. Maybe people who already harbored racist views were more motivated to vote by riots involving Black and brown Americans. There could be something else going on. But the research does suggest an effect.

To gauge the political impact of violence in the 1960s, Wasow simulated what the 1968 election would have been like if there hadn’t been nearly 140 violent protests immediately following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination — calculating the shift in voting that would have occurred if there weren’t violent protests in the counties exposed to violence.

In more than 7,500 of 10,000 simulations, Democrat Hubert Humphrey, a lead author of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, defeated Republican Richard Nixon, one of the architects of the modern war on drugs and national “tough-on-crime” politics. It’s impossible to say for certain, but that could have prevented some of the exact policing abuses that protesters are now demonstrating against.

The 1960s riots did lead to some positive change. The Kerner Commission in 1968, for example, reviewed the cause of the uprisings and pushed local police reforms, including more active hiring of minority police officers, civilian review boards of cases in which police use force, and residency requirements forcing police to live in the communities they monitor.

“It’s safe to say some changes would have happened a lot more slowly had there not been disruptive protests,” Thomas Sugrue, a historian at New York University who’s also studied the 1960s riots, told me back in 2015.

But Sugrue warned: “Riots cut both ways. They do give a voice to the voiceless, but they can also lead to consequences that those who are challenging the system don’t intend.”

Indeed, many of the Kerner Commission’s reforms were ultimately undone or outweighed by the national “tough-on-crime” politics embraced by Nixon, followed by President Ronald Reagan, and over time doubled down on by other politicians — including some Democrats — who seized on the circumstances and popular sentiment to trumpet the message of “law and order.”

The irony today is that the “law-and-order” and “tough-on-crime” politics from back then helped fuel the police abuses leading to the current demonstrations.

History might not repeat itself, but there’s a big risk

We simply don’t know if Wasow’s findings — which come from, after all, just one study — apply to all riots or the past week’s events. As the Los Angeles riot study suggests, the effects of riots may vary at the local level. Maybe a series of riots has a different effect than a single uprising. Perhaps the public will be more sympathetic if there’s, for example, video evidence of police abuse — as there was in 1992 and there is today. A rapidly diversifying country could also be less sympathetic to police abuses, regardless of how such abuses are protested. Maybe Americans will treat Trump, as the incumbent, differently than Nixon in an open contest.

But one of Wasow’s findings seems increasingly relevant to today’s circumstances.

Wasow found that “events in which protester-initiated violence occurred, irrespective of police response, were much more likely to construct frames that played to dominant group biases and invoke language associated with disorder and social control.” To put it another way, violence at protests tends to take over the public discussion, above the actual cause and message of the demonstrations.

This is reflected in the media coverage of the current protests. While much of the attention on social media has gone to police abuses at the demonstrations, the media has focused a lot on on protesters’ vandalism and arson — with photos of protesters standing in front of burning wreckage all over TV news, after Floyd’s death and now Blake’s shooting.

Wasow’s core insight — that faced with at times violent civil rights protests, Nixon managed to ride a focus on “law-and-order” to victory — also has eerie relevance today.

Under Trump, the Justice Department has already abandoned its oversight of police — halting investigations of local departments and reversing reforms implemented by former President Barack Obama’s administration, which Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (who previously took “tough-on-crime” positions) has promised to bring back should he defeat Trump.

During the current protests, Trump has ignored the overall message of the demonstrations and instead emphasized the need for public safety. In one of many tweets, Trump simply wrote, “LAW & ORDER!” The bulk of his comments have focused on ending protesters’ violence rather than addressing the cause behind the demonstrations, with invocations of the upcoming presidential election.

If that works to get Trump reelected, the protests almost certainly won’t accomplish the policy changes that many movement leaders want. We don’t know if history will repeat itself, but there are signs that it could.

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