Why Violence Does Not Work for Social Movements

By Fabio Rojas

23 June 2020

The murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, USA, has triggered a large wave of protests against police violence, abuse and racism. However, within otherwise peaceful demonstrations often met by aggressive police tactics  small groups of people (a minority of protesters) have taken police reform protests as an opportunity to commit acts of violence, such as destroying property, looting businesses, and, in some cases, harming those who tried to protect their homes and businesses. Even though such acts of violence are not endorsed by most activists and Black Lives Matter supporters, they do raise important questions about the link between violence and social movement outcomes. Social scientists have long had an interest in such violent acts. There are studies, for example, exploring where riots occur and under what conditions, in which social scientists ask, “Does it matter? Do violent protests get activists what they want?”

The first major study to address this question is a 1975 book by sociologist William Gamson called The Strategy of Social Protest. It was the first systematic analysis of protest tactics that went beyond anecdotes and case studies. Gamson collected information on dozens of social protest groups mentioned in the New York Times and then asked how tactics were linked to the achievement of the movement’s goals. Gamson found that movements using violence were successful because such disruptive tactics attracted attention to a movement and its goals.

In later years, Gamson’s hypothesis was disrupted by sociologists and political scientists. For example, scholars who examined his statistical data, such as Jack Goldstone, believed that he had made errors in the analysis. Another problem has to do with comparison. Gamson compared movements in very different circumstances and those differences were difficult to factor into a statistical analysis.

One solution to these problems is to examine a single issue where there is variation in protest tactics and targets. For example, in my research on Black student activists in the 1960s, I ask, “How do protest tactics correlate with the creation of a Black Studies program at a university?” I focused on academic program creation because it was a popular demand at the time and there was great variation in tactics. At some campuses, there was no protest, while others had a mix of violent and non-violent protest. The main finding, reported in my book From Black Power to Black Studies (2007), is that non-violent protest was more effective than violent protest or doing nothing at all. Looking across the globe, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan’s book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Logic of Nonviolent Conflict has also found that non-violent movements tend to be more successful than violent ones.

The point has been developed further in more recent scholarship. Dr Omar Wasow, for instance, has shown in a new American Political Science Review article that violence can have negative consequences. He found that areas that experienced Black riots in the late 1960s increased their vote for Richard Nixon compared to other similar districts. This electoral outcome was undesirable from the perspective of Civil Rights activists because Nixon had campaigned as the “law and order” candidate who opposed Black protest. Thus, a win for Nixon could be seen as a setback for Black activism. Furthermore, there is evidence that urban riots cause lasting damage to African American communities. A paper in the Journal of Economic History by William J. Collins and Robert Margo shows that property values in areas with riots decreased for decades. The same research group found that riots are associated with long term unemployment in Black neighbourhoods.

A building burns during protests in Minneapolis, May 29, 2020.

In the current context, these findings have sparked much online debate, including critiques of Wasow’s work and a sustained rebuttal by the author of claims that his research “allows people to blame ‘inner-city rioters’ and ignore other causes.” But the overall message of research on violence during protests is coming into focus. Violence, in the form of protests or riots, may receive attention and some policy response, but it comes at great cost. In the case of Black social movements, violent protest has been associated with more repressive administrations and sustained damage to Black communities. More generally, violence allows counter-movement actors (e.g. far right activists) to depict African American activists (e.g. of Black Lives Matter) as unreasonable and not worthy of support. In short: violence does not work for social movements.

Fabio Rojas is a professor of sociology at the Indiana University Bloomington, USA. His book, ‘From Black Power to Black Studies,’ was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2007. He is co-editor (with Rashawn Ray) of ‘Contexts: Sociology for the Public,’ the official magazine of the American Sociological Association, and recently co-authored (with Jelani Ince and Clayton Davis) an Ethnic and Racial Studies journal article exploring how social media users interact with the Black Lives Matter movement by using hashtags. Follow him on Twitter @fabiorojas.

Header image: Protesters in front of the White House, May 30, 2020. Credit: Rosa Pineda CC BY-SA 4.0


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Word on the Street blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Urban Violence Research Network.


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