By Rich Meagher
As protests continue in Richmond, and throughout the nation, I often hear the same concern from people across the political spectrum: Why can’t protesters remain “peaceful?”
This question makes a certain amount of sense in light of the history of recent, celebrated rights movements. For example, the principle of non-violence was central to the activism of the 20th Century Black civil rights movement. We have all seen powerful images of Black men and women standing up to fire hoses, beatings and worse from law enforcement without retaliation.
But too often, the underlying sentiment behind the demand for “peaceful” protesters is a sense that protesters should be – well, less protesting. Sure, they should march in the streets, but they should not block traffic. They should be organized, and go home when told. They should be well-behaved, even respectable. Gov. Ralph Northam said as much Tuesday when he said Richmond has continued to see nightly conflicts between police and protesters. “After three weeks it is no longer clear what the goals are or a path to achieve them,” he said. “These nightly conflicts cannot continue indefinitely. … I just encourage Virginians as we move forward to keep their protests … peaceful … and not break the law.”
The demand for this kind of “peaceful” protest misunderstands the very nature of what scholars call contentious politics. For this mode of behavior, defiance and confrontation are essential.
I was fortunate enough to study at the City University of New York with one of the foremost scholars of social movements, Frances Fox Piven. Her theory, developed through decades of collaboration with the late Columbia professor Richard Cloward, is that movements gain power through disruption.
People without access to traditional means of power can still develop political leverage through what Piven calls “networks of interdependence.” For example, most workers have less money and connections than their bosses and company owners; but the owners still depend on workers to come to work. When workers strike, slowdown, or develop some other form of collective action, they disrupt the interdependent relationships required by stable, day-to-day functioning of the business. Owners — and the society as a whole — may be inconvenienced enough by this disruption to provide concessions like higher wages or health benefits.
Disruptive action becomes more difficult when the interdependent relationships are not concentrated in institutions like workplaces. Still, they operate the same way in society as a whole. So when groups of citizens take to the streets, they are disrupting the normal flow of citizen behavior.
They march down streets typically reserved for vehicles; they chant and make ungodly amounts of noise; they may deface property. They may be anything but “peaceful;” in many ways, that’s the whole point of movement politics. Defiance of the normal rules becomes necessary for conveying the movement’s message to authority, because normal politics — voting, writing letters, etc. — have not worked.
The idea that only “peaceful” movement action is somehow allowed has taken hold in American culture over the past few decades. Protest actions have been legitimized as a form of political behavior, but really only when such action has been tamed by authorities. Marches are celebrated — if they are granted official permits and organizers follow strict guidelines. Protesters are lauded — unless they spray graffiti or otherwise damage property. Some governments even set up “designated protest zones” during events like national political conventions to corral and contain activists and remove even the slightest hint of disruption.
But truly organic collective action, like the nationwide movement that has grown since the death of George Floyd last month, cannot be tamed in this manner. Whether it should and where the line should be drawn on what constitutes acceptable protest are debates unfolding in cities across the country now, including Richmond.
I would argue that the historical record has shown that “respectable” or “peaceful” protest rarely produces any kind of observable policy change. Large, organized events like the 1995 Million Man March or the 2017 Women’s March were important shows of support for Black civil rights and feminism, respectively; but it is hard to identify any immediate changes in law or government that resulted. By contrast, huge victories for labor during the early 20th Century followed decades of disruptive action that often resembled a political uprising. For collective action to translate into policy, disruptive action may be required to demand actual attention from political elites. One might note how recently Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Northam have embraced the removal of Confederate statues; the recent street protests clearly accelerated the timeline of these otherwise cautious elected officials.
Of course, this kind of collective action is inherently dangerous — to authorities who stand in the way, to property on disputed ground, to business owners victimized by looters, even to bystanders. But the most risk of all is borne by the protesters themselves. They expose themselves to arrest, condemnation from family and friends and loss of income when exposed as lawbreakers. Most of all, they expose themselves to the full force of the state. It is exactly this kind of violence that we’ve seen used on protesters here in Richmond over the past few weeks, as well as in other cities across America.
It is important to recognize the circumstances that bring people to the streets. Before the great rights movements of the 1960s, scholars often characterized protests as a kind of mass insanity. Today we know instead that most protesters are making rational decisions. They have decided that the tremendous costs of disruptive action are outweighed by the terrible injustices of the current political moment.
The idea that people should forego such disruption in order to “peacefully” make claims and “work through the system” are not, as many well-intentioned observers think, reasonable correctives to irrationally angry people. This kind of respectable politics has been dismissed, not because it isn’t preferred but because it simply has not worked. Protesters in Richmond and elsewhere have a clear message: as long as Black Americans continue to be disproportionately killed by police, we cannot let politics go on as normal.
We need to listen.
Rich Meagher is the author of Local Politics Matters (forthcoming from Lantern Books), and is associate professor of Political Science at Randolph-Macon College.