Q&A — Sociologist Edwin Amenta and political scientist Christian Davenport
Historically, the road to reform has often begun with protesters taking to the streets. A sociologist and a political scientist take stock of whether today’s activism will lead to actual change.
By Ramin Skibba
In the months since widespread protests erupted around the United States after the killing of George Floyd, some things have already changed. Police officers involved in the Minneapolis man’s death were charged in the murder case. Many police agencies have moved to ban or restrict the kind of neck hold used on Floyd. Statues of Confederate soldiers and others associated with racist pasts have been toppled or removed in many cities.
A raft of police reform policy measures have been proposed in most states, and activists have pushed city councils to reduce police departments’ budgets and shift resources toward other programs. The protesters, led by Black Lives Matter (BLM) and other national and local groups in reaction to Floyd’s death and those of other Black Americans, have achieved some initial reforms and successes.
Will there be deeper, lasting change? The BLM protests have seen tens of millions of Americans taking to the streets to protest the deaths, dwarfing the size of earlier waves of protest in the US. Americans’ support for BLM grew by at least 24 percent immediately after Floyd’s death in May, according to a June survey by the Pew Research Center. Support has dipped in the ensuing months, and tracking by the online survey research firm Civiqs also shows a countertrend of growing opposition.
Nevertheless, as the cases wend their way through the legal system, demonstrators have kept the pressure on. And as the activism shifts to meeting rooms and campaign offices, it’s unclear if the movement will have lasting impact, be it on rethinking the role of police, reforming the criminal justice system or critically scrutinizing the portrayal of police on television.
To delve deeper into these questions, Knowable Magazine turned to two leading social movement researchers: sociologist Edwin Amenta of the University of California, Irvine, and Christian Davenport, a political scientist at the University of Michigan. Amenta and Davenport and their coauthors explored the impacts of social movements in the 2019 issues of the Annual Review of Sociology and the Annual Review of Political Science, respectively.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s unique or surprising about these protests?
Amenta: It’s interesting that they have been so widespread and long-lasting. Often you’ll see a really big protest like the Women’s March in 2017, but it’s over by the next day. Here, the protests have kept rolling for a long time in a lot of places and on a very large scale. They have been able to sustain attention longer than protests tend to do.
Often, protests won’t get very favorable media coverage or at least not substantive coverage when they’re targeting police. But here you have widespread protests against police brutality, and then the police exhibited this sort of brutality during the demonstrations. That has helped change public opinion. The protesters have done some things that often discredit protests, like looting and some vandalism, but that has been overshadowed by the police response.
Davenport: I think what has stuck out a bit is the somewhat complex and occasionally underdeveloped nature of the protestors’ diagnosis of what they think is wrong and their prognosis for how to fix it. Part of the reason is that there are so many organizations involved in the protests. People speak of a Black Lives Matter movement as if it’s one thing, as opposed to a constellation of loosely created institutions. When you try to tease apart what the different parts are talking about and what, if anything, is revealed about an underlying critique and what should be fixed, the picture isn’t clear. But the fragmented nature of the response is normal. They are trying to address the vagaries of global capitalism and its limitations, the source of economic inequality and how that relates to political inequality, and how all of this relates back to the coercive power of the state. None of this is easy.
Do you see significant similarities or differences with other modern US movements?
Davenport: I see similarities with Occupy Wall Street, which grappled with the difficulties of capitalism. The kind of incoherence that was present with Occupy is also found here.
Amenta: Yes, Occupy Wall Street was more diffuse in its demands, but it was similarly long-lasting. The current protests also followed Occupy toward the encampment strategy. The protesters camped out in New York City Hall, demanding change. They’ll also need to ally with various political leaders and maybe also come up with some organizational force to keep the pressure on.
We saw with the protests over gun violence following mass shootings that there is very little possibility of reform at the national level if Republicans control any part of the government, as when President Obama tried it after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. After the one at Parkland in 2018, there was zero chance, despite massive protests, given Republican control of Congress. But police reform is mostly a local matter, and in various cities it is politically more plausible to enact at least some reforms.
Are there past movements that offer clear lessons for today?
Amenta: The civil rights and Black Panther movements of the 1960s. They also were pressing for police reform, but that was a later part of the agenda and one that didn’t get acted on very much. It’s kind of the closest model. You also had LGBTQ rights, called “gay rights” at the time, pressing for change in bigger cities like San Francisco and New York. For the passage of civil and voting rights legislation, you had to have a lot of other things going on, including a fairly sympathetic president and Democratic Congress, and a shift in public opinion.
Davenport: The Civil and Voting Rights acts were significant pieces of legislation that helped dismantle the artifice of the racism that existed up until that point. At the same time, they represent a betrayal of the movement’s original intent. There’s a great book by Carol Anderson called Eyes Off the Prize, which talks about how it was originally a human rights movement. Their whole discussion about political and economic equality got turned into voting rights. The effort [to diagnose major problems and propose fixes] morphed into something the political establishment was willing to deliver.
Also, something that looked at the time to be a failure might be a success in retrospect. There was a small group, the Republic of New Africa (RNA), that I wrote about in my book How Social Movements Die. This Detroit group wanted a democratic socialist society, and the government to pay reparations. They wanted to secede, take over five states in the Deep South and get Black folks to move there. The group gets decimated. They end up in shootouts with police, many members go to jail, and some up and quit.
A small group goes to Jackson, Mississippi. One of their leaders, Chokwe Lumumba, becomes mayor and effectively enacts what the RNA set out to do — create economic cooperatives and an economically just and politically efficacious community — but without the secession. Many might not see this as being a success, but in a sense, it was an enactment of what the group said they wanted to do.
New political leaders who have made racial justice part of their campaigns, like Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush, Democratic nominees from congressional districts in New York and Missouri, respectively, will likely soon join Congress. What might be their impact?
Amenta: It’s valuable to have people running for office directly behind an issue that a movement is pressing for. If they come to office and Democrats are in charge, you could see national legislation after a “blue wave” election, which is sort of a necessary condition for the major political change that these movements are seeking.
The Tea Party was big and then intervened in primaries, and then a bunch of their candidates got elected. Then, when you saw debates over the budget, they were an important faction. A lot of movements that are highly successful have this legislative contingent backing them, because then they can continue to exert leverage on legislative processes.
Davenport: This is an international comparison, but look at the African National Congress in South Africa, as they went from civil war and activism to being politicians. And in Poland, members of Solidarity went into government and tried to maintain their activism. I don’t think that either case revealed successes, as the transitions were not really able to address the problems that were most deeply entrenched. Also, it is hard to go from subversion and rebellion to governance — these are different skill sets. Let us not forget that these individual politicians will not be in government alone. They will be joined by individuals who do not care for their ideas, lobbyists who will actively be working against them and watchdog groups who will be doing all that they can to discredit them.
How can social scientists study the political and cultural impacts of social movements?
Davenport: There’s a rather large literature on the efficacy of social movements and their outcomes. Some people look at public opinion polls to see if there’s a shift. Some look at policy creation and law creation. Was there a law created after the movement, or was there a discussion in Congress or allocations of resources that have been changed by the movement’s presence? These are the standard metrics that people use. There are important measurement issues, though: short- and long-term influences as well as unintended consequences that were not initially considered.
Amenta: There are two main ways. One is to identify outcomes of interest to the movement and its constituents — anything from how their constituents are referred to in the news to whether a program aiding their constituents comes under consideration and passes. Then you have to determine whether the movement or its actions add to the explanation, taking into account the usual influences over media coverage or policy adoption. Another way is to examine movement presence or protests and look to see if it affects, say, voting behavior or political opinions.
What kinds of political impacts could come out of the BLM movement? People are talking about reducing and reallocating police budgets, stopping delivery of military equipment to police, and ending immunity for officers.
Davenport: If those things happened, they could be outcomes attributed to the social movement. But are we under the belief that the police were, and are, engaging in violent behavior because they have some crazy machine gun developed by the military? This focus on militarization seems like a sideshow. The reason the police are going to use military weapons is because they have been trained to use them, not because they’re available. It seems like there isn’t a clear vision of what we’re building towards.
Amenta: It’s an interesting situation now that budgets are being cut everywhere. Black Lives Matter is trying to reduce police budgets and reapportion them, and it might be an easier situation now that cities are cash-strapped and need to make cuts. Places such as Oakland, California, and Camden, New Jersey, where there is a long-standing police-reform movement, might be more likely to see changes.
What could influence the movement’s possible cultural impacts?
Amenta: I think the dismantling of statues is an important thing, and so is Mississippi taking the Confederate battle flag out of its state flag. The statues really do say who should be memorialized by society. I think provoking this public conversation across the news media, fractured as it is, is a valuable thing. Educating the public can lead to change.
In our Annual Reviews article, we noticed that sometimes, if you can change the way people measure things, you can get reform. For example, one thing law enforcement doesn’t keep good track of is the number of people dying or injured by police or in police custody. In Oakland, when they reformed the police department to start recording the number of people killed by the police, the number of killings per year dropped on average. If you can enforce accountability, then you can get those numbers down or eliminate them.
It seems like we’re in a moment of flux, where people are open to new ideas and taking a closer look at their own assumptions and institutions. What will determine how long this moment lasts?
Amenta: Some institutions might be more amenable to reform than others. Often, universities can be leaders in this. I can imagine students demanding changes in their university police departments. Universities are also rethinking hiring policies and curricula. I think you have to get principles placed into the policies of institutions — have them written into what they’re doing. That is key. I think it’s hard to be out in the streets for a long time.
Davenport: In social movement research, there’s a concept called “biographical availability.” It means having people who are not tethered to capital and responsibility. The more the biographical availability, the higher the likelihood of activism or movement. This usually applies to youth, but it could be unemployed people or just people sitting around. Covid has created a large number of biographically available individuals. In many respects, I think the movement’s attention span will be intimately connected with what happens with Covid.
One thing that siphons off some folks is the complexity of the issues involved. Movements are not places to work out complex ideas. That’s dialogue, reflection, reading, conversing, working through proposals, and that’s not for most people. The grind that is a social movement’s process of diagnosing problems and proposing fixes will systematically chew away at this. I think we’re approaching a countdown to compassion fatigue. As of now, people are moved and they will take some action. But they like to know that what they’re doing will result in something. So to the degree to which that answer is not forthcoming, they’re going to tune out and move on to something else.
Ramin Skibba is an astrophysicist turned science writer and freelance journalist, based in San Diego. You can find him at raminskibba.net and on Twitter at @raminskibba.