Americans don’t like protests. But protests may work anyway.

August 25

Thousands of demonstrators peacefully march past a memorial Aug. 14 at the site where Michael Brown was fatally shot in Ferguson, Mo. (Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)

We have long known that Americans support First Amendment freedoms in the abstract, but often not when it comes to specific cases. While they may support the right to protest, they do not necessarily like protests or protesters.

The public’s response to the protests in Ferguson, Mo., is therefore unsurprising:

Fifty-nine percent of Americans — including 67 percent of whites but just 43 percent of blacks — think the protesters’ actions have gone too far, according to a new CBS News/New York Times poll… Fewer Americans are critical of the police response in Ferguson: 32 percent think the Ferguson police went too far in their response to the protests. But there are stark racial divisions on this measure. Half of blacks think the police went too far, while just 27 percent of whites agree. Instead, more whites (36 percent) think the police response was about right.

This fits a long-standing pattern. As shown in the data that Benjamin Page and I assembled on these pages of The Rational Public, the American public has traditionally responded unfavorably to protesters seen as disruptive, even if nonviolent. The majority of Americans felt this way toward the Freedom Riders in the Civil Rights Movement and toward civil right protesters and demonstrators in general. The same was true for the Vietnam antiwar movement and student protests on college campuses. The public clearly supported the Chicago police over the protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and they favored the police and the National Guard responses to disturbances in colleges and high schools. And a majority of women as well as men, no less, objected to the protests by the women’s movement.

Other historical public opinion data provide more insight. Although most Americans support the right to protest in general, they prefer other means of achieving political goals — notably, the ballot box.  When asked in an October 1983 Louis Harris & Associates survey about “the most effective way blacks in this country can achieve a better break for themselves — take to the streets in protest, or register and vote in larger numbers to increase their political power, or just be patient and hope things get better for them?” only 1 percent said protest, while 85 percent said register and vote.

Moreover, the distinction between violent and nonviolent protests makes an enormous difference to the American public. A typical result comes from a February 1981 ABC News/Washington Post poll, in which 71 percent of whites and 51 percent of blacks agreed that “violent protest is never justified in the United States as a way for a group to accomplish its goals.” In a January 1986 ABC News/Washington Post Poll, 57 percent agreed that “violent protest” was never justified. In a February 1988 Gallup/Newsweek poll, 68 percent said nonviolent protests “help blacks,” and 79 percent said violent protests “hurt blacks.” This suggests that the violence that has occurred in Ferguson has mattered to many Americans.

If Americans dislike protests so much, can protesters positively affect public opinion and government actions? The effects of protests are not direct or simple, but they more than lend justification for such actions — though this does not call for violence on the part of the protesters. In The Political Power of Protest, Daniel Gillion shows that protests put and keep issues on the political agenda. That is how the civil rights, Vietnam War and women’s movement protests ultimately had their effects: Political leaders and voters paid attention to the issues raised, which eventually led to political and legal change.

Ferguson nicely illustrates all of this evidence.  The American public overall may dislike the protesters, especially if they perceive protests as violent. But this may not matter.  They — and political leaders — can’t duck the issues being raised.

Robert Shapiro is a professor of political science at Columbia University.

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