The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who protests determines how police respond

Police stand watch Aug. 13 as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown  in Ferguson, Mo. Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer Saturday. Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, is experiencing its fourth day of violent protests since the killing. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Earlier today, I asked about a recent post referring to the protests in Ferguson, Mo., as riots: Why were they called riots and not protests? (Vox has since changed the language in the post from “riots” to “protests.”) Veteran journalist Howard French gave a brief reply:

Is it literally that black and white?

Political scientists Christian Davenport and David Armstrong along with colleague Sarah Soule studied how the race of protesters affect how police respond to protest events in their paper, “Protesting While Black? The Differential Policing of American Activism, 1960 to 1990” (see ungated version here). In their research of more than 15,000 protest events that took place in the United States between 1960 and 1990, they find that:

… when compared with other groups, African American protesters are more likely to draw police presence and that once police are present they are more likely to make arrests, use force and violence, and use force and violence in combination with arrests at African American protest events.

What constitutes a protest event? The Davenport et al. study drew data from daily editions of the New York Times and included a wide range of protest events: rallies, demonstrations, marches, vigils, picketing, civil disobedience, ceremonial events, motorcades, dramaturgical demonstrations, symbolic displays, riots, mob violence and attacks. To be included, the protest events had to have three characteristics:  

  1. There had to be more than one participant at the event (e.g., uncoordinated hunger strikes or acts of self-immolation were excluded).
  2. Participants at an event had to have articulated a claim, whether a grievance against or an expression of support for a target.
  3. The event had to have happened in the public sphere or have been open to the public.

What is an “African American protest?” The authors coded a protest as an “African American protest” when at least some of the participants at an event were African American. (Because the authors used newspaper articles as their data source, they were unable to compute a ratio of African American to white protesters at any given event.) From 1960 to 1990, 25 percent of the protest events studied by the authors had African American participants.

How do the authors measure police response? The authors go beyond simply capturing police presence to include analysis of arrests and use of force by police. In their data, they found that police were present at about 38 percent of protest events. At events where police were present, police did nothing at 33 percent of the events, made arrests at 34 percent, used force or violence at 25 percent, and used force/violence in conjunction with arrests at 8 percent of protest events.

The figure below from the study shows the difference in police presence when protests were coded as “African American” or not (over time). In general, African American protest events were more likely to be policed. Even when controlling for other factors that might lead to police presence (e.g., protester use of violence and property damage; protests targeting the government; presence of counter-demonstrators), African American protest events were still more likely to draw police presence (see Table 1 in the paper).

Perhaps even more relevant to the current events in Ferguson, Mo., are the findings from the study on the actions police engage in when at protests. Again, when controlling for a host of other factors that would affect how police respond, the authors found that once police arrive at a protest event with African Americans present, “they are more likely to make arrests, to use force/violence, and to use force/violence in conjunction with arrests than they are to do nothing, although only the last of these outcomes is significantly more likely” (see Tables 2 and 3 in the paper).

It’s important to note that the study also shows that the effect — what the authors call “Protesting While Black” — has varied over time. Their study suggested that the impact of “Protesting While Black” was historically bounded to the earlier period, prior to the enactment of civil rights legislation.

Before folks get comfortable with the idea that perhaps things are better now than they were in the ’60s, I’ll leave you with a bit from one of the authors’ concluding paragraphs:

… our findings suggest that different racial groups experienced the right to protest freely unevenly across the 1960 to 1990 period. As a result, the concerns expressed by African American protesters (who in our period of inquiry may have turned to protest because they did not have equal access to institutional political channels) may have gone unaddressed. This could have led members of the African American community to simply stop protesting (as Figure 1 suggests). In summary, our findings imply that in many years, white protesters enjoyed a greater privilege of protest, and thus greater access to democratic institutions, than did African American citizen/protesters.

I am curious to learn whether there has been any extension of the work done by Davenport and colleagues to include the past 25 years.


HT to Laura Seay on the Davenport, Soule, and Armstrong study.