Since the police killing of George Floyd in May, record-breaking nationwide protests have persuaded many Americans to support police reform. But public officials’ responses have varied dramatically. The most consequential difference has been between (mainly Democratic or nonpartisan) leaders from cities, many of whom have made concessions or promised reforms, and (mainly Republican) national officials, who threaten to “dominate” the “battle space” in the streets with overwhelming force. Even in the past few days, leaders have exchanged barbs over federal paramilitary agents’ deployment to U.S. cities.

What shapes such different responses by public leaders? In examining how civil rights protests achieve policy change in America, we often overlook where protests occur — whether in a city or more rural areas. In my recent book, I examine how representatives of cities and other kinds of places bring their urban and rural perspectives to the national conversation in Congress. I find that political structures of urban and rural areas shape how officials discuss and handle civil rights demands. Cities and rural areas foster dramatically different views of how to achieve what some leaders call “law and order.”

Place matters for protest response

Place-specific responses to U.S. civil rights protests have a long history. For most of the 19th century, confrontations over race occurred mainly in the rural South and on the frontier, where most nonwhite people lived. The typical response to civil rights claims was violence: quashing rebellions by enslaved Southerners, using terrorism to enforce Jim Crow laws and forcibly displacing Native Americans. As political scientist Paul Frymer’s recent landmark analysis of U.S. territorial expansion shows, the U.S. government explicitly managed westward expansion as a massive exercise in rural, racial crowd control: States weren’t admitted to the union without first securing the settlement of enough white men to quell resistance by force of arms.

This violent approach was effective in part because it took place in rural spaces, where protesters are fewer and more spread out, therefore easier to dominate. In many rural areas, this continued into the 20th century. In Congress in the 1930s, Rep. Hatton Sumners (D-Tex.) nostalgically referenced the frontier spirit, defending lynching as “an American institution … [that] protected life and property, at least in a way, and made those sections of the country … very safe.”

As many more black Americans moved to cities, officials developed an “urban” approach to race relations. When riots erupted in several cities, including Detroit and New York in 1943, city leaders realized outright racial repression could harm healthy city functioning. Over time, city leaders began to make concessions and reforms, like police oversight boards and local fair employment commissions. These institutions never truly transformed the systems, prompting later rounds of protest. But from the city leadership’s perspective, these concessions helped restore order during social unrest, rather than making things worse.

Accommodation in the city’s interest

Why did these city leaders develop this less overtly repressive approach toward civil rights protests? After all, this approach emerged while most cities’ populations were still overwhelmingly white (usually around 10 percent black in the 1940s) and didn’t particularly support civil rights. And U.S. cities were so segregated that even after the initial waves of the Great Migration, almost no city council members and House representatives had any black constituents at all.

City leaders recognized they were, to quote Clarence Anderson of the Detroit Fair Employment Practices Council, “sitting on a powder keg,” and city life would break down if government did not respond to protesters’ demands. So they applied a lesson learned in the previous generation, when ongoing labor strife threatened production. Their eventual (but not initial) response then was to work with unions and enact local labor regulations, while resisting more sweeping programs for economic transformation. City leaders pursued an essentially conservative idea of the “city’s interest,” maintaining social peace to protect trade, production and capitalism. They learned concessions can make the powder keg less likely to explode.

In cities, protests and violent responses can both pose major threats. Urban density means thousands of people can appear together to show commitment to a cause and coordinate action. Somewhat paradoxically, less overt forms of racial control like segregation can make protests harder to repress by concentrating communities with shared grievances. In rural areas, protesters’ numbers are limited by sparse settlement. But city protests can overwhelm repressive capacity. Even the most aggressive police tactics are unable to arrest tens of thousands of people at once, and even the most authoritarian governments hesitate to unleash large-scale violence in their own productive centers. With so many people around, aggressive response tactics may prolong and intensify protests, as we are seeing in Portland.

Of course, violent repression is used in U.S. cities, even as I write. But city life makes it more likely both that protests will occur and that even reluctant authorities will offer incremental concessions to defuse the crisis.

Protests work in several ways. First, they inform leaders about grievances and change public opinion. But they are also tools of rawer power politics. When they succeed, these protests convince officials and other powerful figures — including those who may never see the dignity of black lives as a priority — that keeping the city peaceful and productive can be better achieved by responding than by repressing.

This helps explain why the United States’ most explicit calls for repression come from rural leaders who have no experience governing cities and from national figures whose own interests are detached from — or even at odds with — the cities’. This even operates in explicitly authoritarian countries, prompting some scholars to argue cities actually help cause democracy.

We might therefore consider the striking similarities between confrontations in cities like Seattle and Hong Kong, in contrast to those in rural areas like Standing Rock and Xinjiang. Across democratic and authoritarian regimes, we can find commonalities on how protests play out. Because even in a democracy, responses to rights claims by racial minorities are often authoritarian, and the terrain where resistance and repression meet is part of what makes protests work.

Thomas Ogorzalek (@TKOpolitics) is the co-director of the Chicago Democracy Project, an assistant professor of political science and urban studies at Northwestern University, and the author of “The Cities on the Hill: How Urban Institutions Transformed National Politics” (Oxford University Press, 2018)