Do protests matter? Study says it’s complicated

Washington, DC—Recent protests in the U.S. over police brutality have attracted much global attention, but many scholars have found that protest alone is not sufficient to bring about policy change. Others have found that protests have a limited impact, such as on media attention or influencing Congressional hearings.

So, can protest actually bring about desired outcomes? A recent study by Susan Olzak, Emerita Professor of Sociology at Stanford University, that appears in the December 2021 issue of American Sociological Review seeks to answer this question.

Research has shown that since the 1980s, changes in policing may have had the consequence that racial minorities are more likely to be stopped, questioned, or arrested by police and more likely to experience police violence, thus contributing to the deterioration of police-minority relations.

Historically, one of the key demands to end police violence has included calls for increased police accountability by instituting civilian review board (CRBs).

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On June 3, 2020, demonstrators in Los Angeles, California, once again take to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd while he was in police custody. Floyd died on May 25, 2020. Floyd’s death was caused by former Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin, who sat on his neck for 9 minutes and 26 seconds. Photo credit: Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

The authority of these boards ranges enormously across cities—from making recommendations to the police chief to firing police officers—and demands for more independent and authoritative CRBs to help improve police accountability have been endorsed by policy analysts, activists, and ordinary citizens currently engaging in protest across the U.S., including Black Lives Matter and Campaign Zero.

To find out what real impact protest has on policy change and police behaviors, Olzak used information on racial composition, household income, violent crime, residential segregation, and other factors characterizing 170 cities (with populations greater than 100,000).

She first designed an event-history dataset to examine the effect of prior protests on the rate of founding a CRB, focusing on the years 1990–2018. The author’s data sources also included reports of protest against police brutality from thousands of local newspapers, which allowed the author to determine whether a given protest focused on a local event or issue, a national or general issue, or an event taking place in another city.

In addition to examining whether protest led to establishing a CRB, the author compared the effects of protest and CRB presence on counts of officer-involved fatalities by race and ethnicity, controlling for a number of possible confounding factors.

The author argued that there are three key mechanisms by which protest facilitates change: signaling, community empowerment, and threats to elites in power. First, protest demonstrates the salience of a movement’s issue and expands awareness that an issue is a social problem requiring a solution.

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© Dennis J Freeman/News4usonline -Black Lives Matter (Los Angeles) holds a march and rally in downtown Long Beach, California on Sunday, May 31, 2020. The protest was held to bring attention to police violence in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody. Thousands of demonstrators showed up for the event.

Secondly, protest empowers residents in disadvantaged communities and raises a sense of community cohesion. Together, these two outcomes raise costs and exert pressure on elites to make concessions in the form of establishing a CRB and/or restraining police use of force.

Olzak writes:

“Because protest threatens to raise political and material costs to elites, protest increases the chance that elites will make concessions to protesters’ demands. Furthermore, a high volume of protest raises the visibility and recognition of protester demands, amplifying these costs. This implies that concessions by elites to protester demands will be more likely during peak cycles of protest.” 

The author analyzed whether protest is systematically related to two types of concessions: establishing a CRB and lowering fatalities of minorities.

So, does protest matter? The author ultimately found that protests influence cities to establish more powerful citizen oversight boards and that they lower fatalities in minority communities. Furthermore, activism targeted to local concerns has a greater chance of success in reducing fatalities of minorities.

But Olzak’s research reminds us that CRBs and other police reforms are no panacea. Fewer than half the 170 cities studied had a CRB by the end of 2018, and most have limited powers.

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Well over a thousand people gathered in downtown Des Moines, joining other protests around the country demanding justice over the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Phil Roeder courtesy of Flickr

The author suggests that these programs are “under institutionalized, lacking support from police departments and leadership by elites in many cities.” Exploring whether the implementation of these reforms has had a discernible effect on other measures of minority-police relations is a natural next step for future research and may help to increase the legitimacy, and consequently increase the adoption of, such programs and reforms.

The author concludes that “if the adoption of more effective policies restricting the use of force by the police were more widespread, it might be the case that the public (and perhaps also police) would endorse these programs in their own communities. Such acceptance could potentially diminish the high levels of conflict and mistrust that currently exist between minority populations and the police.”

Featured Image Caption: Protestors confront the Secret Service in front of the Old Executive Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue on May 30, 2020. Lafayette Park and access to the White House had been barricaded. Protestors were there on the second day of DC protests against the police brutality in the death of George Floyd. However, after days of taunts from the President, the protest had featured strong anti-Trump chants. Photo credit: Geoff Livingston