Protesters across the United States marched on Saturday to once again decry police brutality after the killing of two African-American men by police earlier in the week. The protests were merely the latest and certainly not the last in a line of protest marches in response to deaths of numerous African-Americans during their seemingly innocuous interactions with police. These Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests denounce this ongoing violence and seek to raise awareness amongst the general American public as to the discriminatory and inequitable treatment of African-Americans not only by police throughout the country, but also the perceived continuing mistreatment of African-Americans across many aspects of American society. The BLM movement has been successful in raising awareness and attention to this issue, but it also raises a question: Why protest?
There is little systematic evidence as to how protests matter. Most scholars will agree that protests do matter and do have some effect, but it remains unclear exactly what this effect may be. One thing that is relatively clear is that protests do raise awareness and do increase attention to an issue, at least in the short term. However, this awareness and attention does not matter in and of itself. Exactly do what do protesters wish to draw attention and generate awareness? Amongst whom is awareness and attention generated? What is the nature of this attention and awareness? These are differences with distinction. And general lessons from existing research may tell us that the BLM protests nay in fact do more harm than good.
First, the message of the protest matters. Researchers examined the effect of protests against proposed anti-immigration legislation on those living near the protests along 3 dimensions: political efficacy, political trust and political alienation. What they found was that small marches advocating the position that immigrants assimilate to America and become contributing members of American society increased political efficacy amongst observers while large protests advocating an “anti-America” point of view increased feelings of political alienation and distrust.
Second, tactics matter. Scholars have found that protests involving or resulting in violence are counterproductive to the desired message. Additionally, it does not seem to matter if violence was the intended consequence. Protest violence impedes democratic progress by undercutting popular support for the cause. The result of violence therefore is a continuation of the status quo, if not an increased backlash against that which the protests advocated.
Third, it would appear as though the subject of protests matters. When protests are aimed at particular legislation or specific issues the likelihood of protest success significantly increase. Many attribute this increased probability to the fact that the more specific the grievance the concrete the steps to address it. For example, the immigration protests in 2006 were in response to a specific piece of legislation, which was subsequently rejected by the Senate. Conversely, the Occupy Wall Street protests were seemingly against general financial and economic inequality, which presents to particular, concrete steps to address.
Finally, research on protest movements as well as general research on political attitudes has consistently demonstrated that prior beliefs matter. Individuals are significantly more likely to believe a protest was a success and to have a positive evaluation of the protest subject if they previously identified as “pro-protest”. Evaluations were significantly more likely to be negative if their prior belief was negative. In other words, support for the protest movement and the subject of the movement is in most cases prior to the protest. Similarly, those who actively participate in the protest movement are most likely to be those who were previously politically active, or at least those who associated with others who were politically active.
This accumulation of research indicates that BLM protests may do more harm than good. The protests are unlikely to change many minds, and any change in attitude is most likely fleeting. Any disruptions to local conditions much less violence perceived to be caused by the protest not only generates further bias by those against the movement but also threatens to ostracize those previously neutral to the movement. And a broad focus on African-American inequality and discrimination leaves too much room for interpretation as to the message of the protesters as well as legislative steps to alleviate the grievances. This does not make change impossible, as demonstrated by the protests of the 1960s, but it does potentially make change more difficult.
This is not to say the protests should cease or that the BLM movement is futile. Evidence would suggest otherwise. Protests in Ferguson, Missouri assisted in, if not spurred, the debate on police brutality and the passage of legislation reforming police tactics not only in Ferguson but across the United States. Continuation of the protests and the resulting attention on and awareness of the protests promises to continue this national debate. However, without proper organization and centralization of this movement the risk is that the movement becomes a disparate and incoherent collection of individuals, motives, actions and messages, any one of which could turn opinion against the movement. If the goal of a protest is awareness and attention it must consequently be understood how that awareness is fomented and what type of attention it brings.