History Shows That Sustained, Disruptive Protests Work

Courtesy of Yes! Magazine

Kevin A. Young

Kevin A. Young teaches history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is a co-author, with Tarun Banerjee and Michael Schwartz, of Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It (Verso, July 2020).

Protesters march against racism and police brutality in Amityville, New York, on July 5, 2020. Photo by Thomas A. Ferrara / Newsday RM / Getty Images

All disruptive social movements are met with stern warnings from people who think they know better. The current movement to “Defund the Police” is no exception.

Thus an editor of the Detroit Free Press professes sympathy for the protesters’ aims but says their “awful slogan” is “alienating” to the public, including to “White people who feel more reassured than threatened” by the police. Other pundits insist that “activists who are demanding radical change” are paving the way for Trump’s reelection: “Defund the Police” is “music to Trump’s ears” because it baits the Democrats into endorsing this presumably unpopular demand.

These critics share an assumption about how change happens: Movements must win over the majority of the public; once they do so, that sentiment soon finds its way into policy changes.  

This argument has several problems. One is that government so frequently disobeys the will of the majority. Statistical analyses that compare public preferences and policy find that the opinions of non-wealthy people “have little or no independent influence on policy.” Having the support of the majority is no guarantee of change, to say the least.

Also problematic is the assumption that radical demands or actions scare away the public. The empirical evidence is mixed, but the 54% support for the recent burning of the Minneapolis police precinct should make us skeptical of conventional wisdom.

But the biggest problem with the We-Must-Persuade-the-Majority argument is that most progressive victories in U.S. history did not enjoy majority support when they were won. In case after case, a radical minority disrupted the functioning of businesses and state institutions, which sought to restore stability by granting concessions and ordering politicians to do the same.

Read the rest of this interesting and illuminating article here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s