Why nonviolent protests are smarter, even/especially today

One of the less useful of the recent media tempests involved a report about the fate  of David Shor, a somewhat lefty data analyst.

Shor had tweeted a summary of a paper by Princeton scholar Omar Wasow.  Wasow argued that his research on 12 years of Black-led protests, particularly in election years, moved public opinion in a progressive direction, whereas those marked by violence to property and persons moved the needle toward support for reactionaries, helping bring Nixon, Reagan et al to power. In his own words:

Evaluating black-led protests between 1960 and 1972, I find nonviolent activism, particularly when met with state or vigilante repression, drove media coverage, framing, Congressional speech and public opinion on civil rights. Counties proximate to nonviolent protests saw presidential Democratic vote share among whites increase 1.3-1.6%.

Protester-initiated violence, by contrast, helped move news agendas, frames, elite discourse and public concern toward “social control.” In 1968 . . . I find violent protests likely caused a 1.6-7.9% shift among whites towards Republicans and tipped the election.

Shor’s tweet provoked a storm of online denunciation of its purported racism, and in a few days Shor was fired from his job at Civis Analytics, a Chicago-based “data science software and consultancy company,“ for somewhat lefty clients.

The incident was cited by writer Jonathan Chait as an example of the illiberal tendencies of some left-liberals, and fodder for his article, “The Still-Vital Case for Liberalism in a Radical Age.”

I mention it not to rehash the cliched debate about cancel culture. Instead, I want to say a few things about Omar Wasow’s overall thesis, that violence in protests helps reactionary politics, while nonviolent direct action boosts progressives.

First, I strongly agree with Wasow’s main point. My conviction is not based on academic research, though; it comes out of fifty-plus years of surviving the ’60s and their aftermath, under the heels of Nixon, Reagan, two Bushes, and the Orange Menace.

Oh—and second, if it’s not permitted for a lefty progressive to say such a thing, so shoot me. Though that would be a waste of ammunition, given my age and retired status.

Third, and most important, there are others who also agree with Wasow, and are acting vigorously on that conviction, but with very different and anti-progressive ends in view. Also with far more clout than I’ll ever have.

A vivid glimpse of that reality is what moved me to write this post. It came in the latest edition of “The Righting,” an email newsletter that brings “Top news headlines from the Far Right for the rest of us.”

The rightwing media this letter aggregates rant about many issues and topics.

Yet the current issue is essentially focused on just one: how violent protests are terrorism unleashed, that are burning up the cities, threatening the country. They must be stopped, and only harsh repression by their preferred leader can save us.

Looking this over, and remembering the Shor & Wasow hoo-haw, it suddenly hit me: the far right totally believes both of them: they’re convinced violent protests can move the needle.

And they’re desperate to move the needle. All the credible polls are showing Trump lagging Biden, many by huge numbers. Some foolish pundits are already announcing that it’s all over, and trotting out their pet names for a Biden cabinet.

But it’s not over yet. And every urban nightscape that is lit up with flames and resounds with gunfire presents a chance for them to stop the Trumpist slide. Maybe their only chance. Will the violent protests give it to them?

Americans are not overall a radical, or even radical-leaning people. They want some peace, quiet, a real crusade against the pandemic, a way for families out of the new depression, open and SAFE schools, and action on police misconduct and the racism behind it.

Violence in the cities threatens the positive momentum that has been built up on all these matters since George Floyd’s murder. And putting up with or excusing it is no better. Here I am following the words and example of those who have been most honored this month: C. T. Vivian, John Lewis, and both Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King.

This appeal is particularly aimed at “my people,” the liberal Quakers and those of similar outlook, who have largely stuck with this heritage during my lifetime, I know it’s tempting to rationalize or give into the rage that’s loose. The sight of unidentified federal stormtroopers snatching mostly peaceful protesters off the streets is enough to send most of us over the edge.

But resist that impulse, Friends. As the old freedom song says, “keep your eyes on the prize.” Advocate for, plan, and carry out protests and actions that are strictly nonviolent.

It’s not only safer. It’s both strategically and tactically smarter. And the stakes could hardly be higher. If Americans become desperate for safety, many can be persuaded they will only get that from the right, and they can and will turn that way — it’s happened often before.

The far right knows this. So they are all out for the opposite to happen. Don’t fall into the trap.

If you approve of this post, please pass it on.

7 thoughts on “Why nonviolent protests are smarter, even/especially today”

  1. Many of these current protesters are nothing like the early SNCC sit-in leaders, nothing like Bayard Rustin, John Lewis, etc. They refused to retaliate even when verbally and physically attacked. I remember at least one of them had a lit cigarette burned into that protester’s back.

    I’m morally discouraged hearing the current ones tell me how violence is justified, how attacking police ((such as the 49 hurt in Chicago) is good, etc. They say obscene the police, abolish the police and so forth.

    Even though I am to the left of Bernie Sanders–wrestled with whether or not to vote for him in 2016–reading many news accounts from multiple sources and myself arguing against the promotion of violence by current activists does lead me on some days such as this last month to wonder what has happened to MLK’s and Rustin’s emphasis upon nonviolence in speech and actions.

    1. Daniel, there were challenges to King & Lewis from within the movement when I first came on the scene, and while the vocabulary has evolved, the issues are much the same. Thanks for standing up for the discipline.

      1. Chuck, Thanks for writing these articles for nonviolence. I didn’t know that some leaders were supporting violence back then in the early 60’s but I have since read that Bayard Rustin was the one who convinced Martin to be completely nonviolent. Before that Martin had kept a gun in his house. A dangerous call to not even have a gun, considering that his home was firebombed, but like Martin said, peace is the means to get to peace and justice.

        1. Daniel, in Selma, there were those in the movement who insisted they were only “tactically” nonviolent, and were willing to take up arms for the revolution, or some black nationalist version thereof. Others were various kinds of Marxists, for whom again, nonviolence was tactical, and “the revolution” would likely be violent (even though for some its arrival was as far away in the future as the Second Coming for most Christians, and these theoretical revolutionaries were as concerned about their pensions and Social security as any petit-bourgeois).
          Then there were new pop-up domestic guerilla types, such as the SDS Weathermen(& women), and some of them got seriously into violent/terrorist action, at least for a time. An excellent, chilling case study of this phenomenon is “Diana: The Making of a Terrorist,” by Thomas Powers, published in 1971; hard to find, though. The Wikipedia entry for her is helpful tho: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diana_Oughton .She had Quaker connections, as you’ll see.

          1. Wow! And, of course, those for violence came out and dominated the late 60’s and 70’s, Stokely, H. Rap Brown, etc.

            Tragic. I was a dedicated member of S.D.S. at the University of Nebraska in 1965. We were all for nonviolence and democratic change (as the explicit name states). But like SNCC all of that changed in 67 or so. And now here we are again:-(

          2. Like My Man Said: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” — Ecclesiastes 1:9

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