On Thursday night, thousands of people gathered in the streets of Minneapolis, and other cities across the country, to protest the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Outside the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct, the protests turned violent, as people looted businesses, threw projectiles, and set the station house on fire; police in riot gear fired rubber bullets and sprayed tear gas at the crowds. On Friday, Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, was taken into custody by Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder.
I spoke by phone, on Friday afternoon, with Omar Wasow, a professor of politics at Princeton, who studies protest movements and their effects on politics and elections. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed which tactics worked best in the civil-rights era, what violent protests have meant, historically, for Democrats running for office, and whether Donald Trump is a figure of order or disorder.
How would you summarize your work on the political effects of protest?
I would say that nonviolent protests can be very effective if they are able to get media attention, and that there is a very strong relationship between media coverage and public concern about whatever issues those protesters are raising. But there is a conditional effect of violence, and what that means, in practice, is that groups that are the object of state violence are able to get particularly sympathetic press—and a large amount of media coverage. But that is a very hard strategy to maintain, and what we often see is that, when protesters engage in violence, often in a very understandable response to state repression, that tends to work against their cause and interests, and mobilizes or becomes fodder for the opposition to grow its coalition.
What we observe in the nineteen-sixties is that there was a nontrivial number of white moderates who were open to policies that advanced racial equality, and were also very concerned about order. The needle that civil-rights activists were trying to thread was: How do you advance racial equality, and capture the attention of often indifferent or hostile white moderates outside of the South, and at the same time grow a coalition of allies? And over time the strategy that evolved was one of nonviolent protest, which actively sought to trigger police chiefs like Bull Connor [in Birmingham, Alabama,] to engage in spectacles of violence that attracted national media and would, in the language of the nineteen-sixties, “shock the conscience of the nation.” So it isn’t just nonviolence that is effective, but nonviolence met with state and vigilante brutality that is effective.
The interesting thing to me that came out of this research was that…
Read More: How Violent Protests Change Politics