Atlanta’s African-American mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, appealed to the protestors to stop: “What are you changing by tearing up a city? You’ve lost all credibility now. This is not how we change America. This is not how we change the world.” Martin Luther King’s daughter Bernice King, echoed that sentiment: "The only way we get what we really want is through non-violence."
But is that true? History suggests that disorder may be necessary to force change in a system that is resistant to it. And the system of US policing does seem to be resistant to reform, in spite of all kinds of peaceful methods: videotaping of countless police killings of black men and women; marches and rallies; petitions; commissions; federal investigations and guidelines. According to the New York Times, the Minneapolis police department has had a “long history of accusations of abuse,” yet never bothered to put federal recommendations in place to improve the way it tracks those complaints and removes officers who pose a danger to the public.
I would venture to guess that a solid majority of the American electorate supports the sort of policing reforms that would have got Officer Derek Chauvin fired at some point during the two decades, when he was the subject of “at least 17 misconduct complaints,” preceding the killing of George Floyd .
But it is the “cruel irony” of representative democracy that its “core purpose”—“to allow democratic majorities to realize their claims, however ambitious, in a thoroughly institutionalized fashion”—is “rarely realized in practice.”
Maybe riots and looting are necessary to get the attention of the powers that be.
My favorite political scientist, James C. Scott, argues that change benefiting the least affluent 80 percent of the people rarely happens “unless a sudden and dire crisis catapults the poor into the streets.”
As evidence, he points to the major reform periods in US history—the 1930s and the 1960s—and the “vital role massive disruption and threats to public order played in the process of reform.” There is no doubt in my mind that those reforms—the minimum wage, the right to join a union, voting rights for blacks, among many other things—significantly improved life for the bottom 80 percent, myself included.
But Scott also warns that protest can backfire. “It would be wrong and, in fact dangerous to claim that such large-scale provocations always or even generally lead to major structural reform. They may instead lead to growing repression, the restriction of civil rights, and, in extreme cases, the overthrow of representative democracy.” (Scott, 16-22).
Or they could lead to reforms that do more harm than good. I happen to be reading about protest uprisings in the 13 original US states after the Revolution, the best known of which was Shays’s Rebellion, out in western Massachusetts, where farmers took up arms against a state government they considered to be insufficiently democratic and dominated by moneyed interests whose fiscal and monetary policies were ruinous to agriculture.
The rebellion was put down, and the leaders punished. But pro-farmer candidates swept into office in the next election and enacted policies that provided relief to farmers.
But opponents of the agricultural majority had the final say. They used fear of disorder and anarchy throughout the states—episodes like the “paper money riot” of 1786 in Exeter New Hampshire— to convince enough national leaders to convene a constitutional convention in Philadelphia and draft a new national government that was less democratic and less responsive to the bottom 80 percent than what it replaced. This new system's many checks against majoritarian tyranny has made it astonishingly resistant to the will of the general population—more so, perhaps, than any other democratic government in the world today, according to a study by Alfred Stepan and Juan J. Linz. In fact, in just a few years after this new government was put in place, western farmers in Pennsylvania took up arms in protest against another set of economic policies that they felt were ruining them.
We can never predict how our actions will affect the future.
The western farmer rebellions of the 1780s and 90s, like the recent riots in American cities, were more spontaneous than planned. Is it possible, through more systematic planning and strategizing, to organize protests that create disorder and even “massive disruption” and are more likely to stimulate positive change without triggering a backlash?
In his detailed history of the early years of the Civil Rights movement, Taylor Branch shows how Martin Luther King used the failures of the Albany, Georgia, campaign of 1962 to plan and organize a more successful campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, the following year. “King always had entered popular movements more or less haphazardly,” Branch writes.
Now, since his public stature made anything he did a referendum on his principles, pragmatism demanded that he design his own test. He needed advance planning, training, and mobilization on a specific rather than a general target area. In short, he needed control of a concentrated effort, maximizing both his risk and his chances for spectacular success. To his staff, King announced his resolve to swear off spontaneous rescue missions. "I don’t want to be a fireman anymore" (Branch, 632).Labor organizer Jane McAlevey calls this having a credible plan to win, and in her devastating critique of the contemporary left, she argues that much of its activism is a matter of self-expression, emotional release or virtue signaling rather than well-planned actions likely to bring about a specific result. She contrasts that with the devastating effectiveness of more deliberately planned movements on the right. McAlevey is particular critical of posting on social media as a political act. (Eitan Hersh makes a similar critique of the left.)
But even with all of his elaborate planning in Birmingham, King was not able to exert total control over circumstances and results. As in Albany, Birmingham protests were constantly shadowed by the threat of violence, from white supremacists who opposed his movement, Bull Connor’s police department, and African Americans who were not part of King’s disciplined, non-violent army and who sometimes erupted in riots in response to violence against the peaceful protestors. For example, after white supremacists bombed a black church and the Gaston Motel, where King and other protest leaders were staying during the Birmingham campaign, 2,000 black rioters—one heard chanting “an eye for an eye”—hurled bricks and rocks at cops, broke storefront windows, torched a grocery store, and set a parked car on fire (Branch, 794-5).
In both Albany and Birmingham, King went out of his way to stop the spontaneous violence, which he thought would undermine his movement by turning national opinion against it. In both cities, he went so far as to make a tour of saloons and pool halls, places he thought had been launching pads for the rioters. Branch describes King's “peacemaker’s tour of Albany’s Negro dives”:
They popped into pool halls and beer joints . . . . like space travelers from another planet. “I have brought you the symbol of non-violence," [Ralph] Abernathy announced to startled, surly customers, and King labored to overcome the pompous effect. “I hate to hold up your pool game,” he said. “I used to be a pool shark myself." Loosening his tie and taking a pool cue, King showed them a few of the shots he had learned at Crozer [Theological Seminary]. Over this icebreaker, he told them that bottle-throwing played into the hands of the segregationists. “We don't need guns and ammunition just the power of souls,” he said (Branch, 619; on Birmingham’s pool hall tour: 798, 801).
Yet King later tried to harness the impact of riots to advance his cause. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” he said in a 1967 speech at Stanford University. And he sought to interpret that language for the American public.
What is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.As Scott says, disorder and violence might lead to progress or repression. The experience of rebels in the early American republic suggest it can also lead to “reforms” that make things worse. Rioting in Birmingham and many of America’s cities throughout the sixties may have helped to push Congress and the president toward enacting legislation like the Civil Rights, Voting Rights and Fair Housing Acts. It might also have fostered a growing national obsession with “law and order,” which led to the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and the sort of aggressive policing that got George Floyd killed this week. King certainly tried to influence the nation to choose the former path. “As long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again,” he said, prophetically. “Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention” (emphasis added).
We many never know if King’s non-violent campaigns would have had more or less success if they had not been accompanied by the massive attention-getting riots that occurred in American cities during the “long hot summers” of the 60s. But one of the most hopeful things I’ve heard in the last few months was in an interview with Erica Chenoweth, a scholar who has studied the relative effectiveness of peoples’ movements around the world. She and Maria J. Stephan, studied movements from 1900 to 2006 and concluded that non-violent ones succeeded about half the time, while only 25 percent of movements that used or threatened violence succeeded. The violent campaigns that did succeed took three times longer than non-violent ones. Both violent and non-violent movements created disorder, for sure, but non-violent ones were better at mobilizing more participants, more resistant to state oppression, more flexible in their tactics. And their results were more resistant to later backsliding.
Taylor Branch argues that King’s magnificent “I Have a Dream” speech “planted him as a new founding father.” I agree, but less because, “the emotional command of his oratory gave King the authority to reinterpret the core intuition of democratic justice,” than because he worked out a new element in the American democratic system by which the people could get around the Constitution’s barriers to the popular will (Branch, 887). But the methods he and others developed are not easy or simple to follow. They require courage, persistence, long-term thinking, strategic pragmatism, and an immense willingness to sacrifice. The foot soldiers of King’s army did much more than post selfies of themselves at weekend rallies. They subjected themselves to violent retribution, extended time in southern jails, and dangerous freedom rides, sit-ins, and voter-registration drives. No one should be expected to subject themselves to such rigors, however, in the absence of a “credible plan to win.” A proper education in American history and government should give equal attention to what Branch calls King’s second founding of the American Republic 57 years ago on the mall of the capital as it gives to the first one, at Lexington, Concord, and Philadelphia two centuries ago. And students should learn how to recognize credible strategies for political engagement and victory.
During the current wave of protests, some have speculated that violence has been caused by provocateurs, either of the far left or the far right, who oppose the peaceful protests. Whether that’s the case or not, such speculation comes from a general feeling (which I share) that arson, looting, and vandalism are more likely to undermine than advance the cause of racial justice or reform of policing, and that they are not part of a credible political plan. They are even less likely to have a salutary effect than the sixties riots, because the movement lacks a moral leader of King’s stature who might help the nation interpret the message in the rioting that we have “failed to hear.”
The current disorders may stimulate worthy reform, or a repressive backlash. Only history will tell. But they do show that there is popular energy that can be harnessed to challenge injustice in the status quo. Such energy has succeeded often in history and throughout the world to bring progress, according to Professor Chenoweth, who said that in the process of doing her research, talking with people involved in protests, she has developed “a much greater sense of humility and awe at the way that the human spirit shines through many of these patterns of resistance” (Ezra Klein Podcast @ about 30 minutes).
That, to me, sounds like a cause for hope during these bleak times.
Thanks for reading all the way to the end. This essay is one in a series I've been writing on the role of hope in politics. Here are links to the others: #1; #2; #3; #4; #5; #6; #7
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: American in the King Years, 1954-1963 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).
James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012)
On rebellions in the early Republic, see
Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007).
Leonard Richards, Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).
William Hogeland, The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006)
Also, see Ross Douthat's recent column arguing that violence undermines the impact of non-violent protest.
This critique of the condemnations of protest violence argues that riots reflect a worthwhile expression of "proletarian fury.”