Omar Wasow is a researcher who works in a world of charts and data. But his analytical reserve cracked after watching a video of George Floyd dying while being arrested by police.
“I cried,” says Wasow, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. “I’m not without deep empathy for people’s anger. I feel that anger.”
His emotions, though, soon turned to unease when he saw some protests over Floyd’s death spiral into violence. It all seemed like a replay of the 1960s race riots, which he believes tipped the 1968 presidential election to Richard Nixon, who ran as a law-and-order candidate.
Wasow says his research shows that violent, black-led protests in the 1960s reduced white support for civil rights. And he says recent violence at the George Floyd protests could shift more white voters to Trump in November.
“It might be moral. It might be just,” he says of the violence. “But it’s not strategic.”
Protesters have captured the attention of the world over the past week. But there’s a difference between getting attention and getting change. How can people translate the energy unleashed by the protests into transformative action?
This question and others have sparked a vigorous debate among people like Wasow and other thought leaders in the black community.
The debate has gone in some startling directions and challenged some long-held assumptions. Black leaders are clashing about tactics, history and even shared heroes. And lurking underneath much of these discussions is a growing sense of despair.
Some are arguing nonviolent protest has not worked for black people
There can’t be a racially charged protest without someone quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose acts of nonviolent resistance drove much of the civil rights movement.
As some of the recent protests turned violent, King became a shadow commentator. Critics of the violence quoted King’s take on a notorious racist politician of his era: “Every time a riot develops, it helps George Wallace.”
Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights icon, released a recent statement saying he could relate to protesters’ anger and despair, but that they should be “constructive, not destructive.”
President Obama also has condemned the violence that broke out at some protests. So has Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who said last week that demonstrators who burned cars and defaced buildings betrayed the legacy of the civil rights movement. True change comes when people “show up at the polls,” she said.
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But some black intellectual leaders are offering a different – and startling – view of what has worked for black protesters in the past.
“But the fact of history is non-violent protest has not been successful for blk Americans,” Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with the New York Times, said in a much-debated Twitter thread.
“The Civil Rights Movement was not non-violent,” she wrote, adding she believes black protesters courted violence by whites as a strategy.
“Peaceful protest did not bring about the great civil rights legislation of the 1960s,” she added. “Black people being firebombed, water-hosed, lynched, bitten by dogs, beaten to a pulp by police trying to march across a bridge is what brought the changes. Violence.”
Others, though, say nonviolent protests were vital to the success of the movement.
“How are you telling me that the Montgomery Bus Boycott – 381 days of people walking miles to work – that it didn’t break the back of bus segregation?” says Wasow, the Princeton political scientist.
“Selma, the March on Washington, the lunch counter sit-ins – that didn’t work?” he adds. “The civil rights movement broke Jim Crow. That is an unbelievable accomplishment and it did it primarily through nonviolent means.”
One can also cite a more recent example. Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest against police brutality spread throughout sports and beyond and helped transform the debate about racism in law enforcement.
Some argue we shouldn’t apply MLK’s teachings to today’s black youth
Melanye Price has a message for people invoking King and nonviolence to condemn recent protesters – stop it.
They forget that 1960s activists endured arduous nonviolent training, says Price, a professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University.
Turning the other cheek to violence is “not instinctual,” says Price, author of “The Race Whisperer: Barack Obama and the Political Uses of Race.” She says critics talk about black people as if “nonviolence was genetically implanted in us.”
“People are using Martin Luther King as a weapon against them (today’s protesters). If King were alive today, we don’t know where he would be,” she says. “To use this cultural icon to be a hammer against these kids is completely unfair. Of course, these kids are not going to have good control of their emotions.”
NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar agrees, saying that the current protests are the only way some marginalized Americans feel like they can be heard.
“They don’t get the political power or the financial power to change the circumstances, so what are they going to do? The rioting is the voices of people who have no voice,” he told CNN.
“I just remember seeing a sign that someone held up in Minneapolis that said, ‘Can you hear us now?”’ Jabbar said. “I think that’s a very poignant statement.”
Some wonder whether white allies are hurting the cause
Many in the black community have long believed that blacks need white allies to help them succeed in the fight for equality. Whites have joined civil rights groups and died alongside black activists. Any movement for social and racial justice needed to appeal beyond blacks, many thought.
Some are challenging that thinking now.
Law enforcement officials have said the George Floyd protests have attracted white agitators, including armed, anti-government extremists and white supremacists who infiltrated demonstrations in Minneapolis.
Then there’s Stacey Patton, a black commentator who has wondered aloud whether the heavy white presence at the protests represents an act of solidarity or is merely “performative.”
“Are they trying to prove their wokeness and that they are not racist?” she asked in a recent opinion column in the Washington Post. “How are angry and traumatized black folks supposed to tell the difference between sincere white allies and those whose commitment begins and ends with the charade of performative solidarity?”
Some argue violent protests will help Trump get re-elected
Some scholars believe images of black protesters choosing violence will spark a white backlash that will propel Trump to a second term. There’s research to suggest these fears are not unfounded.
Wasow, the Princeton professor, published a research paper that examined the impact of media coverage of violent protests that followed King’s 1968 assassination in places like Illinois, Ohio and New Jersey. He examined more than 275,000 newspaper headlines to see how media framing of the protests shaped public opinion.
Polls showed that nonviolent protests increased white support for civil rights, while violent protests did just the opposite, he says.
That shift was enough to hand the White house to Nixon, who had pitched his campaign to the “silent majority” of Americans who were not out in the streets.
Wasow believes images of black protesters burning buildings and looting stores reinforced a preexisting narrative in American history about black people being inherently criminal.
“That is a story about black people that the media has been telling for hundreds of years,” he says. “That script is readily available to the American public, to news reporters, and it’s an easy groove for the media to slip into.”
That script is so ingrained in the American psyche that even peaceful protests for racial justice provoke white anxiety, other research suggests.
Another scholar said in a recent research paper that Trump’s vocal support for police during his presidential campaign in 2016 helped gain him the support of white voters who were anxious about the social changes being proposed by Black Lives Matter protesters.
While many Black Lives Matter protests were peaceful, others turned violent, especially after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.
New images of black protesters looting and burning buildings could trigger anxiety among white voters who are already uneasy about the changing demographics in America, says Kevin Drakulich, the paper’s lead researcher and an associate professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston.
“That tends to fit with their views of resisting those changes on the basis of black Americans not being deserving,” he says. “It’s proof in their minds of their undeserving nature.”
Some wonder if protests will ever change anything
The videos of black people dying at the hands of law enforcement keep coming. And how these people were acting before they died doesn’t seem to matter, says Price, the political scientist at Prairie View A&M.
“What we’ve learned from the George Floyd video is that when you’re compliant, when you’re not causing trouble, when you have good control of your emotions – you still die,” she says.
Price also alluded to other recent incidents, including the fatal Ahmaud Arbery shooting and the death of Breonna Taylor, a Louisville EMT who was shot while she was sleeping during a police raid of her home.
“If there’s violence, there’s racism. If there’s peaceful protests, it’s there. It’s there if you’re sleeping in your bed. It comes to meet you wherever you are,” Price says. “Yes, we could try to outsmart racists, but also racists could be less racist.”
But as people in the black community debate how to navigate the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, they received one hopeful sign this week.
Ferguson, Missouri, where Brown’s death set off weeks of protests, just elected its first black mayor.
Her name is Ella Jones, and she got her start by running for city council during the 2014 unrest.
The Ferguson protests got attention. But they did more than that.
Jones is what true change looks like.