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The Cops Can Be Defeated — But Not by Taking Obama’s Advice

Barack Obama recently lectured protesters about the need to move past protesting and focus on electing Democrats. The former president misunderstands the power of protest, which is not just to “raise awareness,” but to actually disrupt the institutions that control policy and force them to make concessions.

President Barack Obama honors the 2013 National Association of Police Organizations TOP COPS award winners in a ceremony at the White House on May 11, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images)

The United States is witnessing its most disruptive nationwide rebellion since 1968, sparked by the police lynching of George Floyd but fueled by endemic police racism and the state’s more general failure to protect the population, especially black and brown people, from violence, disease, and poverty. As usual, a parade of experts has emerged to instruct rowdy protesters on the proper way of achieving change.

Former president Barack Obama has joined the chorus in a video and statement on “How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change.” While proclaiming his sympathy for protesters’ rage, he urges them to stop damaging property and to redirect their rage into elections.

“The point of protest is to raise public awareness,” Obama argues, but change “only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.” Unfortunately, voter turnout in local elections for mayor, county executives, and prosecutors “is usually pitifully low, especially among young people.” In other words, angry youth need to cut out the foolishness and get serious about electoral campaigns.

There is no small irony in Obama counseling antiracist activists on strategy. After all, his eight years in the presidency delivered only paltry progressive reform, for black people or anyone else. The explosive growth of antiracist movements during the Obama years reflected in part the ineffectual response to racist violence by his administration and by local black officials in places like Baltimore, as well as Obama’s record deportation of immigrants. The current uprising is a rejection of, among other things, the Obama-Biden wing of the Democratic Party, and of the notion that putting “black faces in high places” will end black oppression.

Obama’s point isn’t entirely wrong: electing a different mayor or district attorney, and pressuring them, can result in improvements to policy. But what his argument obscures is that protest can do much more than just “raise public awareness.” By causing sustained disruption to business and other elite institutions, protest can itself force major changes in policy.

During times like this, analysts often look to the urban rebellions of the mid-to-late 1960s for insights about the impacts of “riots” and other unruly protest. Yet the early 1960s also hold vital lessons for today’s movement against police violence. The Southern movement against Jim Crow succeeded not just through moral appeals to whites, but by inflicting massive disruption on the one percent. In so doing, it brought to heel the police and the rest of the white supremacist power structure.

No Damn Fools: Birmingham, 1963

The most iconic confrontation of the civil rights era was in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Despite their total political disenfranchisement, black organizers defeated — if only partially — a rampaging police force and other segments of the white elite. Soon after, the Kennedy administration introduced civil rights legislation in Congress.

The familiar narrative about Birmingham is that disciplined nonviolence was met with vicious police repression, which shocked the nation — that is, Northern whites — and led the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to force desegregation on the white South. The moral of the story is clear: protesters must be angels, and must win over the majority of the public if they hope to succeed.

The true story of Birmingham is very different. As sociologist Aldon Morris argued in his classic 1984 book The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement and in a 1993 article in the American Sociological Review, the success of the movement stemmed from its own ingenuity and resilience: namely, its ability to sustain its disruption of the South in the face of racist repression. Subsequent analysts have expanded on Morris’s insight.

The disruption of downtown business was the key element of the organizers’ strategy. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and his group in Birmingham had pioneered this approach locally, and Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) built on it when they came to town in early 1963. Wyatt Walker, a close adviser to King, said that “we decided we would concentrate on the ebb and flow of the money downtown.” SCLC leaders had spent months researching business targets in the city before they launched the boycott and street actions on April 3.

The conscious goal of the organizers was to create a split in the white power structure. If they could undermine the profits of white businesses, the business leaders would then compel the politicians, police, and judicial system to grant concessions to the movement in the hope of restoring order. According to Birmingham organizer Abraham Woods, “We had the pressure on [the merchants] in order that they might pressure the city.” The local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee argued that if the business elite “chose to act to change things in Birmingham, things would change.”

The strategy worked beautifully. Demonstrators occupied downtown businesses, forcing them to close. Marches blocked the streets, so the shuttered businesses couldn’t get deliveries. Merchants lost not only black customers but also many white customers, who were deterred from venturing downtown in the midst of black protests. Retailers lost an average of $750,000 a week, according to Time magazine.

After five weeks, business leaders publicly agreed to desegregate lunch counters, restrooms, and other public accommodations, and to rein in the city’s brutal police force, which had infamously deployed dogs and fire hoses against demonstrators. Only after the May 7 agreement between Birmingham businesses and the movement did the Kennedy administration take tangible action, deploying the National Guard to protect protesters and a month later proposing what would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Economic disruption and the failure of repression had induced a change of opinion among business elites, both nationally and locally. Morris concludes that “Northern capitalists who owned businesses in Birmingham” urged settlement “because the boycott and political crisis ensured that profits would cease until a solution was reached.” Of the local business leaders, the most willing to concede were “merchants, industrialists, corporation and bank presidents, [and] prominent insurance and real-estate men,” reported movement negotiator Vincent Harding.

Real estate mogul Sidney Smyer, head of Birmingham’s chamber of commerce, personified business’s change of position. Smyer led the business faction that negotiated with the movement and then forced local law enforcement and politicians to cease the violent repression. He stressed the need to promote “a good image” of Birmingham as a site for investment. Describing his colleagues’ decision to yield, he said “it was a dollar-and-cents thing. If we’re going to have a good business in Birmingham, we better change our way of living.”

Smyer was no antiracist. He had helped organize Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat candidacy for president and had attended rallies of the white supremacist Citizens’ Council in the 1950s. In 1963 he told the press he was “still a segregationist.” But he was “not a damn fool.” Giving in to the movement had become the lesser-evil option.

The victorious strategy in Birmingham inspired organizers throughout the South, who continued their use of economic disruption through the rest of the 1960s. Boycotts often succeeded where other tactics had failed.

In Greenwood, Mississippi, local organizers’ victories came only after they started their boycott of business. According to historian Charles Payne, “most Greenwood activists feel strongly that the immediate cause of real change, change that they could feel in their daily lives, came in response to economic pressure.” In Birmingham itself, organizers would revive boycotts in the late 1960s in response to police murders of black residents.

Again and again, local movements created splits among white elites, honing in on subtle fault lines and breaking them open. Specifically, inflicting disruption on economic elites proved the best way to confront racist police and politicians. As King said after the Birmingham victory, “the political power structure listens to the economic power structure.” 

Sustaining Disruption

The central lesson of Birmingham is that sustained, targeted disruption of the “economic power structure” can help to restrain even the most reactionary and violent agents of the state. Recent movement victories confirm this lesson.

In 2011, Arizona’s Republican-controlled legislature rejected five anti-immigrant bills because corporate executives had complained that consumers were boycotting Arizona businesses in response to the state’s 2010 legislation legalizing racial profiling. State laws that violate LGBT rights have incurred similar backlash. North Carolina’s notorious 2016 “bathroom bill” ignited a “broad-based boycott” of the state, with the result that “the legislation has since been revoked,” notes the business press. Some of today’s black organizers have targeted businesses as a way to target politicians and police.

Boycotts and strikes have not been widely attempted by recent movements against police violence, but with enough organizational will, they could generate powerful disruption. Business leaders have already complained of losses due to the George Floyd protests and have hurried to express their “solidarity,” which suggests both their immediate PR concerns and their fear of longer-term disruption (on top of pandemic-related disruption).

Much discussion of the current rebellions has focused on whether particular actions by protesters are justified. The conventional wisdom among liberals is that any sort of “violence” — which they define expansively to include attacks on inanimate police cars and window panes — is strategically detrimental to a movement. It invites repression, it alienates supporters, and so on. Obama exhorts us, If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.”

Obama’s hypocrisy aside (drones, deportations, oil pipelines . . .), does his argument hold water? If we assess the impacts of riots, the empirical evidence is decidedly mixed. Low-level violence and property destruction can have diverse consequences depending on the context. At times they can be part of the disruption that forces political concessions.

Riots often result in more violent repression, but they can also force the government to prosecute killer cops and to spend more money on social welfare programs. Though they might invite a reactionary backlash in public opinion and election outcomes, at other times they shift opinion and elections in positive directions, as the 1992 LA riots apparently did. (After several days of rioting in response to George Floyd’s murder, a majority of the US public continued to support the protests and even the burning of the Minneapolis police precinct.)

Riots may also increase movement recruitment rather than scaring people away. In a forthcoming statistical study in the journal Theory in Action, sociologist Benjamin Case finds that “riots do not demobilize movements; in the aggregate they are associated with increased mobilization,” including increased protest of the “nonviolent” variety. Other recent research finds that low-level, “unarmed collective violence” — smashing windows, throwing Molotovs — may help bring down repressive regimes.

Not even the black organizers in the South were completely nonviolent, as demonstrated in Charles Cobb Jr’s book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. Many carried arms for protection. Martin Luther King Jr himself kept guns in his Montgomery home, “just for self-defense,” as he told a visitor. Southern activists seldom used their guns, but they considered them important for deterring white terror. They understood that it’s sustained, targeted disruption — which requires a capacity to survive your opponent’s terrorism — that allows a movement to win.

This history suggests that even movements that are primarily nonviolent are seldom entirely so. Being armed, destroying property, or other low-level acts of violence may sometimes enhance a movement’s capacity for disruption. At other times, the risks may outweigh the benefits. Organizers will make choices accordingly.

That’s only one part of the strategy, though. One lesson of the 1960s is that organizers should avoid the temptation to get too bogged down in moral debates over riots and other low-level “violence.” Like the strategists in Birmingham, they should focus on how to inflict maximal disruption on the “economic power structure” while also minimizing risks to the movement.

Riots may play a constructive role in that disruption, though they are typically less powerful, and less sustainable, than the organized disruption of boycotts and strikes. These latter tactics will require combative, antiracist labor and community organizations.

Proposals for the demilitarization, defunding, and abolition of the police are vitally important. But achieving real, durable change depends on neutralizing the political power of law enforcement agencies. The black-led movements of the 1960s have much to teach us for that fight. Unfortunately, the key lessons are often ignored — especially by Barack Obama.