Peaceful protests capture greater attention when violence occurs, says political professor

Do protests spark change? Yes, says Omar Wasow, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. He studies how protests during the civil rights movement shape public opinion.

“Protests can have a powerful effect on politics,” he says. “They do that by shaping media coverage. When the media covers these protests, those issues get elevated in the public conversation. That changes public opinion, it changes what members of Congress talk about, and ultimately changes how people vote and what kind of legislation gets passed.”

Historically, Wasow says nonviolent protests are often perceived as “normal politics” and are not dramatic enough to attract the amount of media attention needed to create change.

What really captures the attention of the nation, he says, is when nonviolent protesters become the object of state violence.

He says civil rights activists strategically chose to peacefully march in Selma, Alabama and protest in Birmingham, Alabama in 1965 because they knew it would provoke violent confrontations.

“The civil rights movement ... put a focus on state violence by getting segregationists to engage in that kind of violence in front of cameras.”

If protesters turn to violence, however, Wasow says the underlying message can get lost. The media coverage shifts from civil rights to crime and disorder. He points to the 1968 riots that broke out in part by the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr.

“Nixon was able to win on a law and order campaign because in key swing battle states, there were violent protests that moved even just a few percentage points of voters such that Nixon was able to capture the electoral college,” he says. “So it really can matter for politics.”

Wasow says if narratives of crime and looting continue to take center stage in today’s media, it could undermine America’s ability to focus on criminal justice reform.

“There’s an element of chaos that is not rooted in the core justice questions that African American activists have been fighting for for decades, and that really complicates the story.”

President Trump took cues from Nixon in 2016, and Wasow says he will once again run as the “law and order” candidate. 

“At the same time, Trump is often perceived as an instigator of chaos … so it may be that some voters who are concerned about racial equality and disorder think Biden is a safer bet.”

— Written by Kathryn Barnes, produced by Nihar Patel