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What Protests Can (And Can’t) Do

UPDATE (August 27, 2020, 3:00 p.m.): We originally published this article earlier this year, amid protests against police brutality. In light of the shooting of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, this week, we’ve decided to recirculate the article.

For two weeks now, the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, has gripped the nation, sparking nationwide protests calling for justice and changes to the criminal justice system. But this latest wave of demonstrations isn’t an isolated event. It’s part of a much larger movement, often grouped under the umbrella of Black Lives Matter, which has protested police killings and police misconduct since the early 2010s, after the shootings of Trayvon Martin in Florida and Michael Brown in Missouri.

In fact, research by Vanessa Williamson of the Brookings Institution and political scientists Kris-Stella Trump and Katherine Levine Einstein shows that the number of Black Lives Matter protests1 in response to police killings of black civilians has grown from only a few in a handful of cities in 2013 to over 500 protests in nearly 200 cities in 2014.

But what effect do these protests have?

Political science, it turns out, actually has a lot to say about protests, even though it’s really hard to pinpoint what makes one protest effective and another not. Broadly speaking, though, there are four main ways the literature tries to evaluate a protest:

  1. Did it raise awareness?
  2. Did public opinion change?
  3. Were there institutional changes as a result?
  4. Were there electoral consequences, either intended or unintended?

First, protests, at their most basic level, raise awareness about issues that might not yet be in the mainstream. This might not sound all that important, but research by political scientist Deva Woodly of The New School shows that protest movements can fundamentally alter the way we talk — and think — about a specific issue.

[Related: How The Protests Against Police Brutality Could Shape Electoral Politics]

Examining the protest movements around the fight for marriage equality from 1994 to 2004, Woodly found that these movements succeeded in fostering a “common sense” of understanding around an issue by tapping into people’s sense of equality, relying on phrases like “love” and “regular people.”2 And in the case of the protests around Floyd’s death, that might mean changing how Americans talk and think about the disparate impact policing has on black communities and communities of color.

We don’t know yet how language around criminal justice and policing reform will change as a result of these protests, but there is some evidence that such shifts might be underway. Using Google Trends data comparing Google search behavior prior to and after May 25 — the day Floyd was killed — it does seem as if more individuals are interrogating racism in their own lives, with searches like “am I racist” nearly tripling. Phrases like “abolish police,” “defund police” and “police abolition” — concepts that have been central to the Black Lives Matter movement but less mainstream when discussing police reform — have also seen sharp upticks in interest.

What this tells us is that these protests are, in some way, raising awareness: People are seeking, or at least googling, more information.

In addition to increasing awareness of an issue, social movements can also change public attitudes toward it. This, of course, is hard to measure. But in at least some of the initial polling on Floyd’s death and the protests, we can see that public opinion is coalescing. An overwhelming majority of Americans, for instance, say that Floyd’s death was wrong and the police officers involved should be held accountable. Opinion around the protests is much murkier, even if most Americans are sympathetic to those protesting.

[Related: How Americans Feel About George Floyd’s Death And The Protests]

In studying how social movements change public opinion, Taeku Lee of the University of California, Berkeley found that protests can play a large part. His analysis of the civil rights movement in the 1960s found that though the protests weren’t initially popular, sentiment among nonsouthern white Americans moved from a sense of apathy to one of moral outrage. And in my own research of the civil rights protests, I found evidence of less racism and more support for affirmative action among white people from counties that had peaceful protests.

[Related: Trump’s Use Of Tear Gas To Break Up A Protest Undermined Three Core Values Of American Democracy]

However, peaceful protests in other contexts — such as the anti-Vietnam War movement, the environmental movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement — have been less effective in moving public opinion. For instance, concern about the environment has stayed relatively stable despite growing activism. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why these protests haven’t been as effective, but it’s important to remember that media coverage can go a long way in influencing how the public thinks about different protests.

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Protests, then and now

One big unknown is whether media coverage of the violence associated with some of the current protests might end up undermining support for the broader movement. A recent study by Princeton University political scientist Omar Wasow suggests that could happen. In his examination of protests during the civil rights movement, he found that areas that saw violent protests reported an increase in President Richard Nixon’s vote share in the 1968 election. (Nixon campaigned heavily on a “law and order” message that some argued was a coded racist message to white America.)

Wasow’s study fits into a broader consensus that nonviolent protests tend to yield outcomes that achieve a movement’s goals better than violent protests do. But there is some research that pushes back on this. For instance, another recent study by political scientists Ryan Enos, Aaron Kaufman and Melissa Sands found that the 1992 Los Angeles uprising — a violent reaction to the acquittal of four police officers caught on camera beating Rodney King, a black man — didn’t spark a backlash. Instead, they found that the protests may have led to an increase in support for funding local public schools. Similarly, the Black Lives Matter protests following the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police officers seemed to have led to decreased racial resentment among white Americans — especially among younger people — even though there was violence associated with some of the protests.

[Related: De-escalation Keeps Protesters And Police Safer. Departments Respond With Force Anyway.]

One important thing to remember here is that minority-led protests historically tend to draw more of a police presence than predominantly white protests, and the police are often more likely to use force against minority-led protests. So in many instances, the violence we may associate with these protests isn’t because these protests are inherently more violent; it’s because they draw more intense police contact to begin with. So if the research from the 1992 uprising and recent Black Lives Matter protests is any indication, it’s possible that violence in some protests may not entirely upend a movement’s goals.

There does seem to be some consensus in the literature that many protests are successful in spurring institutional change, at least at the federal level. As University of Pennsylvania political scientist Daniel Gillion has found, protests have tended to push legislators to vote more in line with protesters’ goals. The legislation that emerged from the civil rights movement is one such example, but Gillion also argues that the protests in 1968 pushed legislators to pass bills improving public housing infrastructure. Similarly, researchers Maneesh Arora, Davin Phoenix, and Archie Delshad, then of the University of California, Irvine, found that after the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests, state governments proposed and passed more bills aimed at addressing police accountability. And political scientists Logan Dancey and Jasmine Masand, then both of Wesleyan University, found that in Congress, black legislators engaged with online discussions of race and policing more frequently than their white colleagues.

Protests don’t just impact legislation. Megan Ming Francis, a political scientist at the University of Washington, has written extensively about how protests and civil rights organizations like the NAACP have effectively applied political pressure to the courts. For instance, Francis describes how the NAACP simultaneously fought to change public opinion at the grassroots level while also bringing lawsuits to combat lynching, segregation and Jim Crow-era laws in the courts.

More broadly, this research underscores all the ways in which protests are often viewed as a political resource that allows marginalized groups to amplify their voices when traditional methods, such as voting, might not adequately represent their preferences.

And finally, though protests may often be thought of as a last resort, they can also have important downstream consequences for elections. Wasow’s work and my own research shows that large, peaceful protests during the civil rights movement actually helped Democratic presidential candidates — a finding that Gillion and Stanford’s Sarah Soule have observed in more recent protests as well.

But of course, as we also know from Wasow’s research, protests can have unintended consequences — i.e., more violent protests corresponding with an uptick in Nixon’s presidential vote share — so it’s not entirely clear what effect these protests will have on the general election. On the one hand, they could mobilize the Republican base — although there are reasons why this might not be the case.

[Related: If Republicans Are Ever Going To Turn On Trump, This Might Be The Moment]

If the party tries to meet protesters’ demands, the protests could also mobilize the Democratic base. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and others seem to have begun to take action, although it’s still unclear where the conversation around police reform may head next.

However, it’s also possible that the effects of these protests will be minimal come November. It’s still too early to know what institutional changes or electoral consequences might result, but whether there will be an effect — including substantive legal action at the local, state and federal levels — is a real question.


  1. Defined as in-person public gatherings held in the U.S.

  2. By contrast, Woodly found in that same time period that the economic framing of the living wage movement — “hard-working people are entitled to make a living wage” — ultimately undermined the campaign by invoking language around entitlements and free markets.

Shom Mazumder is a social scientist and fellow at Data for Progress. His writings focus on the role of race and class in American politics as well as the future of the American left.