Study Says “Extreme” Protest Isn’t Popular (But It Can Still Be Effective)

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Before we get into today’s video, let me just state for the record that black lives matter, police violence in the United States requires radical policy change, and all the ad proceeds from this video will be donated to the Minnesota Freedom Fund. (UPDATE: they’re no longer in need of donations, so instead I’ve made a preliminary donation to Act Blue, which splits the money up to give to various great causes.)

I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but the US has taken 2020 to a whole new, shitty level. Yet another police officer has murdered yet another black man for no reason, and when people peacefully protested, cops around the country responded by running those protesters over with their cars, pulling off their anti-COVID19 masks to better pepper spray their faces, shoving over old men with canes, arresting black business owners for asking the police for help with looters, and throwing flash grenades into peaceful crowds.

And yet still the focus of a lot of media outlets appears to be on looters — people who are using the protests as cover to break into stores and steal a bunch of shit they don’t need. The looters are being conflated with protesters, and in fact a diverse array of people is being lumped into one big bucket that includes graffiti artists, people just trying to get to the store, neo-Nazis, agent provocateurs, and more. It’s a big, messy clusterfuck.

Every time we have any kind of social uprising gain attention, we have a lot of armchair sociologists arguing over what is “right,” what is “lawful,” and what is “effective” about each action taken by each person they feel represents that movement. So I thought it might be helpful to look at some of the research that’s been done examining social movements, violence, and political change.

Just last week, researchers at University of Toronto and Stanford published a paper on this topic titled “The activist’s dilemma: Extreme protest actions reduce popular support for social movements.” It caught my eye because of the vague title: you may immediately think, “Well of course, no one likes extremism.” You’re probably thinking of the looters tearing apart big box stores and mom & pop shops with equal abandon. Looters who hurt and rape and break and steal. Well, heads up: that’s not extreme according to this research. 

Subjects were given stories to read of activists behaving in several different ways: “moderate” protests included Black Lives Matter protesters chanting “Black Lives Matter”. The “extreme” version had the protesters chanting “Pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon,” which the researchers categorize as a “chant that could be viewed as a call for violence against police officers.” That’s it. No destruction, no violence, no raping or looting or killing, just a mean chant. And it’s worth noting that in that study, the researchers did not find that subjects were less willing to support the Black Lives Matter cause after reading the “extreme” version.

They DID say they were slightly less likely to support the movements in the other tests, like one in which the subjects saw a video of protesters either holding signs and chanting outside of a Trump event or gathering together to block traffic going to a Trump event. Blocking traffic was considered “extreme” and people were less likely to join the movement after seeing it. However, it’s worth noting that the video they saw had a reporter specifically saying that the traffic-blocking was dangerous.

In the other scenarios, the difference was an animal rights protester breaking into a factory by sneaking past a guard (moderate) or drugging the guard (extreme). In the last one, it was anti-abortion protesters either holding signs outside a clinic (moderate) or physically preventing doctors and patients from getting into the building (extreme).

You may be able to see one issue I have with this research: “extreme” is a debatable adjective. Is it shouting something mean? Is it stopping someone from getting to a Trump rally? Is it drugging a person? Is it stopping someone from accessing medical care? I happen to see these things along a spectrum, with only the second two being anywhere close to what I’d call “extreme.” I’m sure the researchers understand that, too, but there’s only so much you can convey in a headline, and I’m not sure that “Extreme Protest Actions Reduce Popular Support for Social Movements” really describes what’s happening here. Some protest actions that people identify as very immoral may make a person less likely to join a movement, and in rare circumstances may reduce a person’s support for the cause.

That’s not as eye-catching but it is more in-line with both what this research says and what past studies have shown about real social upheavals. It’s hard to compare one cause to another but scientists can look back at particular trends, and one trend they see again and again is that the general public fucking hates activism — or at least they tell surveyors like these scientists that they hate it and that it makes them less supportive of the causes, even if they end up coming over to the activists’ side anyway. We have loads and loads of data on this from the civil rights movement — back in 1961, 57% of Americans said that sit-ins hurt the cause of those fighting against segregation. By 1963 that number had risen to 60%. By 1964, after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, it was 74%. Three quarters of Americans thought Martin Luther King’s “extreme” tactics were hurting the Civil Rights fight. He was one of the most hated men in America. And yet, the Civil Rights movement succeeded.

And what about activism that even I, degenerate that I am, would consider extreme? Would rioting, looting, burning things down ever actually work? According to researchers at Harvard, NYU, and UC Merced who studied the 1992 LA riots, yes. Rioting worked. It brought about actual, scientifically quantifiable change. The riots started after an all-white jury acquitted four cops who were recorded on video beating the shit out of a black man. 54 people died, the National Guard were deployed, and more than 11,000 people were arrested. In a survey conducted during the riots, 79% of people said the riots were not justified. Yet today, nearly 30 years later, scientists can see that those riots helped “build support for policy by mobilizing supporters.” They found that both white and African American voters “were mobilized to register (to vote), that new registrants tended to affiliate as Democrats, and that voters shifted their policy support toward public schools, net of a general shift in support for education spending. This mobilization appears to have persisted: those mobilized by the riot remained regular participators over a decade later and remained more Democratic than the general population, even after accounting for demographics.”

It’s impossible to say whether any one movement would benefit or be hurt by incorporating more “extreme” activism as defined by the scientists in the recent study — like Martin Luther King’s demonstrations, of which he said “The purpose of … direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” And it’s impossible to say whether any one movement could benefit from violence, like the LA riots. But it is possible to look at our very recent history and note that large social change is about more than what the majority of the general population finds palatable. And it is possible to look at whether or not previous “moderate” protests were effective. Did NFL players kneeling convince white America that police officers should stop killing black men, and/or be held accountable when they do? Were they praised for their peaceful actions, or did 54% of Americans say it was “inappropriate?” 

And maybe we can all understand the problem that arises when your peaceful, moderate activism is deemed inappropriate and is ineffective — where do you go from there?  Kneeling is inappropriate. Disrupting society is “extreme.” What’s next? What else do you have to lose? What research will convince you that your rage is hopeless and therefore not even worth expressing?

It doesn’t matter if you “support” looting a Target. What matters if you have the necessary amount of humanity to understand what’s happening, and the desire to cure the root disease instead of just attacking the symptoms. Please listen to and support black voices during this time. If you still have an income during this fucking dystopia, consider sharing it with the people who need it right now. Agitate for change. Black lives matter. 

Ways you can help:

Support Campaign Zero

Donate to the Minnesota Freedom Fund

Help out the LGBTQ Freedom Fund

Sign petitions and donate to the AACP

Support journalists at the Marshall Project

Find your local protests and join in, or hand out safety masks and bottles of water.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Seeing as the whole nation was founded by a very violent demonstration that turned into a full scale war, and that is generally seen as a Good Thing, I don’t see the difference.

  2. The problem with the discussions about whether riots are “effective” or advisable is that they miss the point.

    People don’t riot because they’ve got some strategy in mind. They’re not rational acts

    Riots are acts of despair. They happen when a population starts to feel powerless, that nothing they can do will improve their situation. And smashing and burning at least give you the feeling that you have some power, even if it’s only the power to destroy. This is what both MLK and Malcolm X were trying to say, though of course the white press (= the MSM) turned it into “they’re agitating for riots.” (Which they’re still doing.)

    And BTW, they do have an effect. I remember the “long hot summer” (1964?) I remember that the white folks started to feel some fear, that maybe the people they’d kept under the bootheel would boil up out of their inner-city prison camps and start rampaging over their manicured lawns in their exclusive (whites-only, and maybe goy-only, too) neighborhoods. I recall an editorial cartoon showing LBJ fearfully painting “soul brother” on the gateposts in front of the White House. Everyone said that the rioting was counterproductive. But we did see some progress on the civil rights front, at least for a while. I think that the white folks started to worry about what might happen if they didn’t do something to mollify “those people.” I think if there hadn’t been those riots, we would have seen absolutely no progress in the last 50 years. We wouldn’t even see lip-service to the idea of racial equality.

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