France is reeling from the “yellow vest” protests. Sparked by opposition to fuel taxes and named after the safety vests that French truck drivers are required to carry, the protests have led to demands for rolling back fuel taxes, increasing the minimum wage, raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and other policy changes that redistribute wealth downward.

In the meantime, the protests have caused millions of dollars in property damage and at least three deaths.

Can such violent protest create support for the policy changes that protesters demand? Our recent research suggests the answer may be yes.

How we did our research

There is a popular narrative in the United States, supported by some academic research, that violent protest causes a “backlash”: Not only does the public refuse to support the protesters, but it changes its preferences to oppose the protesters’ demands. In the United States, the assumption is that the series of violent protests by the predominantly African American urban poor in the 1960s caused a backlash at the ballot box and helped elected the “law and order” candidate Richard Nixon and other conservative politicians.

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Our research challenges this assumption. We used unique data from before and after the 1992 Los Angeles riot to examine how violent protests may influence public opinion and voting behavior. The “Rodney King riot,” sparked when four white police officers who had been caught on camera beating a black motorist were acquitted of the crime, was one of the most violent protests in U.S. history. The riot  left 54 dead, caused thousands of injuries and arrests and cost more than $1 billion in property damage.

The riots caused widespread fear and raised racial tensions among Angelenos as they watched the violence on their television go virtually unchecked for days in predominantly black neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles, even spilling outside the initial areas of rioting. The riot raised many questions about race relations and the social conditions of poor black neighborhoods in L.A.

Based on the American experience in the 1960s, one might assume that the 1992 riot led to a conservative backlash whereby Angelenos, especially white Angelenos, would turn against the rioters at the polls.

We were able to test this assumption because in June 1992, just a few weeks after the riot, California held an election in which Angelenos voted on, among other things, new funding for public schools. Public schools in Los Angeles, like those in most large U.S. cities, largely serve racial minorities. Research has shown that public support for these schools is often tied to attitudes about race. There is reason to suspect that the riots, which stoked racial anxieties, would affect willingness to support the public schools.

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The riot affected support for school funding

Remarkably, it appears that the riots increased support for spending to improve the schools. We examined vote returns from just after the riot and found that support for spending on public schools increased over previous years.

At the same time, voters did not increase support for other education-related ballot measures, suggesting that the riot itself had increased support for the public schools serving the communities of the rioters. Moreover, we looked at where this support came from. It appears that voters in the parts of Los Angeles closest to the riots were the ones who most increased their support for the schools. Voters in the rest of California, also asked to vote on spending for schools, did not increase their support.

This makes us more certain that the riot was what caused nearby L.A. voters to change their support.

What can we learn from this?

We looked at records of who voted in 1992 and of who registered to vote in the wake of the riot. Unprecedented numbers of Angelenos, especially black Angelenos, registered to vote immediately after the riot — with most registering as Democrats — and then went to the polls.

It seems that the riot changed local support for policy by mobilizing new voters, both white and black.

Why were these voters mobilized? It could be that some citizens feared more violence if they didn’t do something to improve conditions for residents of places like South Central L.A. It could also be that the rioters’ extreme behavior — risking arrest, injury or death — helped convince voters that the conditions in some parts of L.A. were really bad, which motivated them to try to fix those problems.

The riot may have influenced local politics for more than a decade. We tracked the voters who registered after the riot. They were still politically active more than 15 years later, perhaps indicating that the liberal shift caused by the riot was permanent.

Our research suggests that violent protests like the French yellow vest protests may actually be effective political tools. The common assumption that riots lead to backlash may be mistaken. Of course, many more places than L.A. and Paris see violent protests, which have occurred in places as different from Paris as Ferguson, Mo. The lessons from the 1992 riots may reach far.

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We have to be cautious, given all the differences between 2018 France and 1992 Los Angeles, in linking the lessons across time and place. But the yellow vest protesters may have already swayed politicians, with French President Emmanuel Macron suspending a planned fuel tax increase perhaps because some opinion polls show a strong majority of the French public supports the protesters.

We understand that there are difficult ethical questions about violent protests, which are important but are outside of the scope of our research. Some people see rioting as a justifiable activity, choosing to call the events like those in Los Angeles “uprisings” rather than riots and seeing them as needed action by people without political voice. Whatever they are called, these actions have tragic consequences, often for innocent people. We do not intend to make a statement on the morality of rioting. Our research aims simply at better understanding the political consequences of these dramatic events.

Ryan D. Enos (@ryandenos) is professor of government at Harvard University and author of “The Space Between Us: Social Geography and Politics” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Aaron R. Kaufman (@aaronrkaufman) is a PhD candidate in the department of government at Harvard University. 

Melissa L. Sands (@melissaleesands) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Merced.