The video of the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25 triggered a wave of protests against police brutality and systematic racism in the United States. For over four weeks now, setting aside concerns for their personal safety, in the midst of a global pandemic, hundreds of thousands have marched to support the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM). Protest of disadvantaged groups are infrequent and rarely matter. The BLM protests are different. Why? Their geographical spread, diversity, and their ability to remain peaceful enable a shift in American public opinion, and, therefore, make these protests politically consequential.
The BLM protests have spread to 2,000 cities across all 50 states in America. Such a broad geographical footprint of the protest points to its resonance across a large part of the country. Scholars have suggested that historically American geography has stood in the way of protest politics of disadvantaged groups. Since prominent cities are far apart in this continental country, protest movements through the 19th and the 2th century could not spread across cities in real time, constraining their ability to push for policy change. In explaining the relative ineffectiveness of labour agitations in America as compared to western Europe, Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser, for example, note, “America’s great distances have made it difficult for strikers in industrial areas to impact Washington, DC.” Moreover, police departments fall under the jurisdiction of city governments, localising the politics of anti-police grievance. But, today, the conversation on racial justice and police violence against blacks is a countrywide phenomenon in the US.
Protests of marginalised minority groups need allies to become politically consequential. If these were black-only protests, it would be easy for the Republican and Democratic parties as well as elected leaders to ignore them. African Americans are only 12% of the electorate and 90% of their vote supports the Democratic Party, which can sometimes take their vote for granted. The Republicans ignore, or are openly hostile to the concerns of the community. They have often used the manufactured threat of a violent and entitled black minority to consolidate the majority white vote. This traditional calculus stands disturbed, since the protests have grabbed the sympathy of a section of the white community. The 2020 protests against racial injustice have brought together a rainbow coalition of races and ethnicities. Influential actors, including major corporations, sports leagues, and even the US military, who have pointedly remained silent during previous protests, have spoken strongly in favor of BLM movement. By contrast, in the 1960s the black protesters not entirely, but mostly marched alone. Another striking aspect of BLM protests is the high rates of participation of women across racial backgrounds. Television and social media coverage show substantial presence of women at BLM marches. A racially diverse makeup and higher participation of women amplifies the appeal of the protests. Bluntly put, when white male cops beat, taser, pepper spray, tear gas white women on live television or in viral videos, white middle-class America is not impressed. Whether it is social change or reelection of Donald Trump in November, white middle-class America’s support is crucial to these outcomes.
The sporadic violence and looting that accompanied the first wave of BLM protests has gradually disappeared. Research tells us that peaceful protests draw more supporters, are more likely to attract the sympathy of bystanders, and when met with a harsh response from the State, can rob the security forces of public support. Non-violent protests, then, are far more likely to shift public opinion. By remaining largely peaceful, BLM marches have harnessed the benefits of this tactic. The infamous images of the forceful clearing of peaceful protestors from Lafayette Square in Washington DC by security forces further bolstered the moral legitimacy of BLM movement and drew more people to the protests. By contrast, the National Guard and police units implicated in the operation suffered a loss of credibility.
Police brutality is a political issue in America because BLM movement has made it into one. A recently released Monmouth University poll found that 57% of Americans believe that the police are more likely to use excessive force against African Americans as compared to whites. In 2016, only 34% respondents felt similarly. The shift among the white respondents, from 25% in 2016 to 49% in 2020, is equally striking. Writing in the New York Times, Nate Cohn and Kevin Queali confirm this trend: “Polls show that a majority of Americans believe that the police are more likely to use deadly force against African-Americans, and that there’s a lot of discrimination against black Americans in society. Back in 2013, when Black Lives Matter began, a majority of voters disagreed with all of these statements.” The shift in attitudes is also driving the cleansing of the American public sphere of symbols of racial stereotypes and injustice. Prestigious universities, historical statues, flags, popular food brands, music bands, even iconic films find themselves in the uncomfortable public gaze. Having survived past protests, today, they are disappearing or changing.
Protest movements of marginalised groups are a moment of clarification for an undemocratic society living in a democratic political system. They highlight the gap in the principles and actual practice of democracy. Thanks to social media, today, protests can appear and spread swiftly, but previous experience suggests that durable social change occurs at glacial speed. Protests of the marginalised also produce backlash from privileged groups. In 2020, American politics remains deeply polarised between Republicans and Democrats. The African American community is forced to electorally ally with one side in this conflict, an attribute that adds to their vulnerability. Just because blacks vote, does not necessarily mean that they have a voice in democratic politics. Their protest movements amplify their voice. Through protests, the black community holds its representatives, the democratic process, and society accountable. Slowly, then, these protest movements also nudge society towards social change.
Amit Ahuja teaches political science at University of California-Santa Barbara, and is the author of Mobilizing the Marginalized: Ethnic Parties Without Ethnic Movements
The views expressed are personal