The recent spate of protests against police brutality have changed the way the left thinks about rioting. The old liberal idea, which distinguished between peaceful protests (good) and rioting (bad), has given way to a more radical analysis. “Riots work,” insists George Ciccariello-Maher in Salon. “But despite the obviousness of the point, an entire chorus of media, police, and self-appointed community leaders continue to try to convince us otherwise, hammering into our heads a narrative of a nonviolence that has never worked on its own, based on a mythical understanding of the Civil Rights Movement.” Vox’s German Lopez, while acknowledging the downside of random violence, argues, “Riots can lead to real, substantial change.” In Rolling Stone, Jesse Myerson asserts, “the historical pedigree of property destruction as a tactic of resistance is long and frequently effective.” Darlena Cunha, writing in Time, asks, “Is rioting so wrong?” and proceeds to answer her own question in the negative.
The direct costs of violent protests are fairly self-evident. People who may not have anything to do with the underlying grievances get injured or killed, their livelihoods are impaired, the communities in which the rioting takes place suffer property damage that can linger for decades, and the inevitable police response creates new dangers for innocent bystanders. The pro-rioting (or anti-anti-rioting) argument portrays this as the necessary price of worthwhile social change. Rioting can generate attention among people who might otherwise ignore the underlying conditions that give rise to it.
It is surely the case that some positive social reforms have emerged in response to rioting. Lopez highlights the Kerner Commission and diversity efforts in the Los Angeles Police Department. But the question is not whether rioting ever yields a productive response, but whether it does so in general. Omar Wasow, an assistant professor at the department of politics at Princeton, has published a timely new paper studying this very question. And his answer is clear: Riots on the whole provoke a hostile right-wing response. They generate attention, all right, but the wrong kind.
The 1960s saw two overlapping waves of protest: nonviolent civil-rights demonstrations, and urban rioting. The 1960s also saw the Republican Party crack open the New Deal coalition by, among other things, appealing to public concerns about law and order. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson swept every region of the country except the South running a liberal, pro-civil-rights campaign; in 1968, Richard Nixon won a narrower victory on the basis of social backlash.