On Protests and Movements

On Protests and Movements


This is an attempt to integrate a series of shorter, related writings that I’ve published in my newsletter over the last few weeks. Much of it touches on the Black Lives Matter movement, which I wrote about back in 2016, but much of it also applies for any kind of movement or social change.

💫 The Arc of Social Progress

There have been 14 days and nights of protests calling for racial justice and police/criminal justice reform in over 400 cities across the United States, and in dozens more across the world. Curfews have been set and defied, thousands have been arrested including journalists, and hundreds of acts of police brutality have been documented on video.

People are angry at seeing yet another black man murdered in broad daylight while begging to for air and his life by a uniformed officer. They’re angry seeing a white woman threaten black man’s life through a false 911 call. Angry at an incompetent and heartless government response to a global pandemic.

Responding to an infection

When you are infected with a disease like the flu, your body raises its temperature and triggers a fever. It feels awful. Fevers force you to rest, allowing your body to fight the infection and heal.

For a society, protests and riots are the fever. Racism and xenophobia are the disease. Any damage or harm to person and property is awful. But the civil unrest we’re experiencing is important and will continue until we take meaningful actions to address the disease.

How movements work

My friend Tony shared this paper with me: the Movement Action Plan. Originally published in 1986 and updated in the mid 90’s by Bill Moyer, an organizer who worked on MLK’s staff, the ideas hold up very well today.

One key insight is that social movements actually require 3 key stages:

  1. Public awareness of the problem passing 80%
  2. Public opposition to the policies and power structures that are causing the problem passes 50%
  3. Public support for the movements alternate solutions passes 50%

With the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I think we’ve probably reached 1, but we’re not yet at 2. Moyer explicitly points out that it’s easy for activists to get demoralized at their perceived “failure” to achieve results, when really it’s because the process has multiple steps and it can be hard to see where you are.

None of that brings back the lives of those killed or unjustly incarcerated but hopefully it is food for thought as we continue on in this time of pain and anger. We’re starting to fully recognize the problem, but which policies and power structures are we prepared to oppose?

🔨 The Law of the Instrument

For the last few decades, most politicians have wanted to seem “tough on crime” and one of the most concrete ways to do that was to hire more cops and increase funding for police departments and jails. Police have increasingly obtained military caliber weapons like armored convoys, tear gas, targeted sound emitters, riot gear, etc. We’re now experiencing the results of that long standing effort.

You’ve probably heard some version of the law of the instrument. Apparently it was first recorded by American philosopher Abraham Kaplan:

“I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”

Given the violence we’ve seen and read about, it’s not hard to see cops as small boys and hammers as guns and violence. The harassment and violence is a natural manifestation of our overemphasis on policing as a strategy for dealing with any societal issue.

💥 When Aggressive Tactics Backfire

One of the common complaints of any conflict is about who started it and who escalated it. In general, escalation into violence almost never engenders sympathy from the other side and often hurts credibility with “the middle”. That doesn’t mean those tactics aren’t needed in some situations, but their drawbacks should be well understood.

Based on a 5 year study of all 8,000 SWAT deployment in the state of Maryland (which is required to make that data public) one researcher found such deployments actually increase violent crime by 6.5%.

National debates over heavy-handed police tactics, including so-called “militarized” policing, are often framed as a trade-off between civil liberties and public safety … I show that militarized “special weapons and tactics” (SWAT) teams are more often deployed in communities of color, and—contrary to claims by police administrators—provide no detectable benefits in terms of officer safety or violent crime reduction, on average. However, survey experiments suggest that seeing militarized police in news reports erodes opinion toward law enforcement. Taken together, these findings suggest that curtailing militarized policing may be in the interest of both police and citizens.

Full article in PNAS (full article)

The same principle is true on the other side though. After MLK was assassinated, there were 10 days of peaceful protests and violent protests (riots) across the country. A study looked at the 1968 election and found that areas that had violent protest (ie riots) were more likely to vote for Nixon (the conservative and “law and order” candidate.

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.

How Violent Protest Change Politics (NewYorker.com)

💵 How Much Money is Enough?

Here’s the Baltimore City General Fund budget breakdown. Notice anything?

The Los Angeles PD annual budget is $1.8 billion. The NYPD’s budget is even bigger: $5.5B (!!) Meanwhile, fines, fees, and asset foreiture by police are meaningful revenue sources, and often lead police to target black neighborhoods and people.

A thin safety net, an expansive security state: This is the American way. At all levels of government, the country spends roughly double on police, prisons, and courts what it spends on food stamps, welfare, and income supplements. At the federal level, it spends twice as much on the Pentagon as on assistance programs, and eight times as much on defense as on education.

If these figures from The Atlantic seem disproportionate to you, then you probably would agree that police departments need to have their funding reduced.

Some people have called for the wholesale elimination of police departments, which I read as an effort to expand the Overton Window and make larger scale cuts seem more reasonable. But there are fully articulated arguments for how policing could be replaced with other, more humane methods of crime prevention and social protection.

The more mainstream concept here is to redirect funding towards programs that actually eliminate poverty, homelessness, and crime by helping people rather than criminalizing them. What those programs are and how they work is a longer conversation and that’s ok.

DTP is short and sweet as a slogan, and lines up with what we discussed in MC#003 around the Movement Action Plan and how the public first needs to start opposing the current policies (overpolicing) before it can start to support the new alternatives.

👁 Who will watch the watchers?

We’re in a very weird situation where normally protests are about something like Gay Rights, Climate Change, Worker’s Strike, etc and the cops are there to ensure the protesters can exercise their First Amendment Rights. But in this case, the protest is literally about the police and the calls to defund the institution that pays their salaries. Anyone see where this can go wrong?

In The Atlantic (again): The use of force by police cant pacify protests responding to the use of force by police.

This isn’t a case where the cops can present themselves as a disinterested third party simply keeping the peace between the protesters and their targets. They are the targets, not only because police violence is what sparked the protests, but also because the reforms the protesters demand, from ending qualified immunity to abolishing police altogether, will affect those officers.

When the police are criticized for enacting violence on angry or aggressive protesters, a common response is “Well what do you expect someone to do if they’re in your face like that?”

The correct response is “de-escalate” something that teachers, nurses, and mental health professionals do all the time.

But whether it’s a combination of lack of training, a culture of testosterone and aggression, a million Law and Order-style cop shows and movies where a rogue cop takes justice into his own hands, we seem to accept that using force to get the “bad guys” is appropriate.

It made me think of the line “Who will watch the watcher”, from Roman poet Juvenal. Ultimately, some combination of the journalists, citizens clamoring for change, and new political leaders has to take that role.

A member of George HW Bush’s campaign and Justice Dept says that (contrary to the research from earlier in “When Aggressive Tactics Backfire”) the riots were part of Bush’s downfall and perhaps this will hold true for Trump.

🌊 Reaching a Tipping Point

Welp, things are happening. 7 years after the movement began, Black Lives Matter hit a tipping point – driven by a pandemic, the network-effects of social media, long term organizing, and pent up range.

According to Twitter (via NYTimes), there were only 146,000 tweets with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Dec 4, 2014. But on May 28th, more than 8,000,000 BLM tweets were posted. Twitter’s MAU only grew 15% in that same time period.

Over the last two weeks, support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, according to data from Civiqs, an online survey research firm. By a 28-point margin, Civiqs finds that a majority of American voters support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began. (NYTimes)

And here’s a partial excerpt of a great list of actions that have taken place in the last few weeks from The Atlantic:

  • The city council of Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, has vowed to disband the city’s police department.
  • The mayors of New York and Los Angeles—America’s two biggest cities by population—announced plans to cut funding for their police forces.
  • Various cities are set to ban choke holds by police, make all local police shootings subject to review by independent agencies, or reduce police presence at schools.
  • For the first time, Harper’s Bazaar hired a woman of color—Samira Nasr—as its editor in chief.
  • Ella Jones was elected mayor of Ferguson, Missouri; she will be the first black mayor and the first female mayor of the city, which was incorporated in 1894.
  • The commissioner of the National Football League apologized for ignoring the complaints of African American players for years, and said he recognizes their right to protest peacefully
  • NASCAR plans to ban displays of the Confederate flag at its races.
  • U.S. Soccer, the organization overseeing the country’s national soccer teams, repealed a rule that banned players from kneeling during the national anthem.

And we’ve got the NYTime’s Bestseller list for the past week:

It looks like a lot of folks are trying to educate themselves (and others) or at least wanting to signal that they are.

These protests have been costly: people have been hurt, mostly protestors, journalists and bystanders. Businesses have been looted and burned, and police buildings and vehicles have been damaged. Lots of new COVID-19 cases have emerged as well. But despite all this, I’m still ultimately encouraged by the human spirit and the willingness to act, especially given how decentralized the movement has been in terms of singular leaders.

There’s still a great deal of work to be done, but my hope is that we are living up to Churchill’s saying about Americans (which was never officially documented):

Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.

Photo Credit: Doug Turetsky