Consequences and Causes of Riots

Are the protests for George Floyd likely helping or hurting the movement?

Posted Jun 03, 2020

Although individuals and organizations commonly praise Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his non-aggressive approach to protest, that is based on today’s perspective. Back in 1966, when White Americans were asked what they thought of MLK's civil demonstrations (e.g., sitting in White-only sections; his marches through cities), 85% of people thought it would ‘hurt’ (vs. ‘help’) the advancement of African Americans’ civil rights.

Similarly, to many people today, the current protests and riots against police brutality toward minorities are perceived as counterproductive to attaining public support.

And according to recent psychological research, that perception is correct.

Published in social psychology’s most prestigious journal, researchers found that more extreme types of protests (e.g., vandalism, obstructing roadways) produced less support for the cause than more moderate types of protest (e.g., marching with signs).

As one example, the researchers had participants read a news report about a Black Lives Matter protest that either (1) made aggressive chants against the police (extreme protest), or (2) made chants against racism (moderate protest). Afterward, participants reported that the extreme (vs. moderate) protest was more immoral, which reduced participants’ identification with and support for the movement.

In other words, more extreme protests can indeed hurt the public’s opinion of the movement.

But that’s not quite the full story.

Further in the article, the researchers find that extreme (vs. moderate) protests primarily hurt the public opinion of those who do not already agree with the movement itself.

Perceptions of the Movement

Whether you are a liberal or a conservative, you are more likely to support actions that align with your political attitudes.

For example, in regard to protests, the researchers from earlier found that conservatives (vs. liberals) tended to be more opposed to extreme Black Lives Matter protests; however, liberals (vs. conservatives) tended to be more opposed to extreme anti-abortion protests.

These findings highlight how our own opinions toward the movement itself can determine whether or not we are supportive of extreme protests. For example, if you strongly oppose gun regulation laws, you would probably be more tolerant or even supportive of extreme protests in opposition to those laws.

Indeed, other research highlights how a person’s identification with a movement can impact their perceptions about the protest’s ultimate goals.

That is, when people do not identify with a movement, they see moderate protests as “promoting social equality.” However, when protests become extreme, these same people now view the protest as trying to “attack their oppressor.” In other words, how you identify with the movement itself shifts how you view both the overall appropriateness of a protest as well as the motivations behind the protest.

So, do you believe Black Americans experience a disproportionate amount of police brutality? And if so, how negatively do you feel you toward such instances of violence? Your answers to these questions likely influence how you perceive the protests and riots today.

Black Lives Matter (Too)

For many White Americans, the treatment of Black Americans (by the police or otherwise) is better than Black Americans claim it to be. Of course, unless you or a close loved one is Black, you will witness fewer racist encounters, leading you to think things are really not that bad.

But facts and statistics indicate otherwise. Black Americans – be it in job applications, insurance claims, interactions with the police, etc. – experience persistent discrimination to this day.

However, just as your perceptions of a movement can shape your perceptions of the relevant protest, so, too, can your perception of the world shape how you perceive the movement. That is, people who think Black Americans do not face a meaningful amount of discrimination might be inclined to interpret “Black Lives Matter” as “Other Lives Matter Less.”

Instead, what the movement wants to convey is that Black lives matter, too.

For example, if you said the rainforest matters, it doesn’t mean you think “other forests matter less.” You’re simply acknowledging that rainforests have been suffering more than other types of forests, and so we need to give them special attention right now.

Thus, with police brutality, these protests are asserting that police brutality is always bad no matter your race, but it is happening at a disproportionate rate to Black Americans.

Again, though, if you don’t believe the facts and statistics supporting the inequal treatment of Black Americans by the police (i.e., you believe Blacks and Whites are treated fairly equally), you would be inclined to believe that the Black Lives Matter movement itself is inappropriate.

And as we saw above, how you identify with the movement in turn influences how you view the protests.

Causes and Consequences

Although many don’t realize it, Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “A riot is a language of the unheard.”

Over the past years, to peacefully protest police brutality against minorities, Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem, Black Lives Matter organized peaceful marches, Black Americans voted for politicians who were supposed to improve the situation. And what happened in response to these “moderate” forms of protest? Those involved faced outrage, hate, death threats, and more.

And the issues with police brutality? Those didn’t change a whole lot, either.

As much as people might want to believe that the current protests are unfounded, riots don’t materialize out of nowhere. They are the last resort of those who have continued to be ignored while their rights have continued to be trampled.

In fact, a large meta-analysis of protesting behavior found that the single best predictor of their emergence are feelings of injustice.

So, while I do not condone violence or looting, I can understand the extremity of the protests today – and why they could feel necessary for real change.

That is, even though I began this post talking about how extreme protests can be ineffective at generating broader public support, the same researchers who demonstrated that point also discussed how extreme protests can actually be effective in making change happen.

Extreme protests not only get more media attention (which spreads greater awareness), but they also apply pressure to the people who can actually change things. Even with a majority of public support, real policy change only happens when the people with power (i.e., big corporations, high-level politicians) actually push for it.

Now, obviously no one wants such change to have to come down to a riot — nor am I asserting that this is the way to achieve change — but I do hope that after reading this post, people take some time to really consider the positions and motivations of those taking to the streets as well as those watching it unfold from home.

In the end, we should all want to do whatever we can to attain a society with the greatest safety and equality for all.

References

Feinberg, M., Willer, R., & Kovacheff, C. (2020). The activist’s dilemma: Extreme protest actions reduce popular support for social movements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Teixeira, C. P., Spears, R., & Yzerbyt, V. Y. (2019). Is Martin Luther King or Malcom X the more acceptable face of protest? High-status groups’ reactions to low-status groups’ collective action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

van Zomeren, M., Postmes, T., & Spears, R. (2008). Toward an integrative social identity model of collective action: A quantitative research synthesis of three socio-psychological perspectives. Psychological Bulletin, 134(4), 504.