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Why the Time to Stop Racialized Police Violence Is Now


Outraged public opinion can produce meaningful social change.

But this does not happen very often.

The opportunities for people in the streets to make a difference are limited openings, once-in-a-lifetime affairs.

The anti-police violence demonstrators have such a moment now.

If they dilly-dally, compromise or lose focus, that moment will go away.

Who knows when it will reappear?

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Why does public outrage generally not stop outrageous things from happening?

1. Public opinion is fickle. The public becomes interested in one issue. Then it becomes old. Then the public becomes interested in a different issue. Then that issue becomes old. Extreme social outrage can get people into the streets. But they do not stay in the streets. This essentially means that most authorities can afford to wait out most scandals. The people fill the street but then the people go home. The newspapers demand action. But then the newspapers demand action on some other issue. Time favors the authorities. Inertia rules.

2. Small powerful single-interest groups do not go away. They follow their single interest for years and years. They put their resources into getting people elected. Politicians get support only if they cater to the interest of these one-focus groups. Who knows what the public will want in six months? However, what the National Rifle Association wants, or what the Wall Street Banks want is clear. Their lobbyists have staying power.

3. Wealthy special interests are particularly capable of fending off public outrage. Their cash helps to win elections. But more importantly, they argue – often correctly – that what they need is essential to economic growth. Politicians get very cowardly about advocating policies that might increase unemployment.

4. Rioters rarely create enough public disorder for the government to actually fear it is going to be overthrown. To misquote Josef Stalin, but not by much, “Public Opinion Has No Military Divisions.”

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So how does public outrage actually change social policy for the better?

There is one answer for subordinate nations and another answer for wealthy countries like the United States.

Subordinate nations are often sufficiently weak that they can be overthrown by an outraged public. The Iranian Revolution is an obvious example. So is the fall of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

More common however is for the outraged public to make alliances with stronger powers such as Britain or the United States, and for the foreign power to use geopolitical pressure to make the weaker nation institute reforms. Britain dedicated itself to abolishing slavery worldwide. 

Abolitionists in most nations would have failed if it were not for British support. Feminists in many nations could count on help from the United States – at least during the Presidential administrations when a feminist was in power.

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However, no foreign power is going to come to the aid of people demonstrating for the end of police violence against blacks. So what does the road to victory look like in wealthy nations?

Success is wealthy nations is generally driven by persistent non-stop agitation by the public combined with indifference or weak resistance by the opposition. What matters is that mobilization rates for the outraged public are high and that they do not face sustained dedicated opposition by powerful elites. Woman’s suffrage would be a good example. The campaign for women’s suffrage was long and sustained with lots of mobilization in many cities There was no economic or political interest who would particularly suffer any loss from having women the vote. (Note that after women’s suffrage was granted, the same people who had been rich before continued to be rich. The same political parties and city hall patronage machines that had been in power continued to be in power. The country did not turn either more left-wing or more right-wing.) Since no one had a strong motivation to defeat the women, as long as the women’s movement did not burn out, they were the strongest and most motivated players at the table.

The anti-police-violence movement looks very similar to the women’s suffrage movement.

1. Mobilization rates are unusually high for an American protest. Mobilization may be fickle and not reliable in the long term. However, it is extremely high right now.

2. There is no countervailing special interest group strong enough to mobilize governments to wait out the protest. Neither large corporations and Wall Street banks become any richer from having police shoot unarmed blacks. The National Rifle Association receives no benefits from out-of-control police violence. The only group that stands to lose from police reform are police unions. Police unions can be formidable forces in municipal politics. They have little influence at the state level and no influence at the federal level.

3. Reforming the police has little effect on overall white privilege. Whites can be expected to vigorously resist any significant societal change that threatens white advantages in access to higher incomes, good jobs and educational opportunities. Much of the history of educational policy in the United States in the last fifty years has been continued attempts to maintain superior white access to high quality schools through fights over district boundaries, attempts to create elite white magnets and gifted programs, and vigorous defense of property taxation as the basis for school funding. Whites receive no particular economic advantage from police violence.

4. Crime rates are at relatively low levels giving whites very little interest in state repressions.

Items two through four mean that the latent societal resistance to police reform is relatively low. The movement draws further strength from item 5.

5. General frustration by Democrats, Liberals and Independents with President Trump gives many state and local governments a strong incentive to implement reforms that Trump would hate as part of building a coalition to win the November 2020 election. Outrage about the handling of the pandemic, the handling of immigration, the handling of environmental issues makes many people in the center and on the left willing to support ANY mobilization that looks like it will bring out voters and increase the chance of removing Trump from office. Right now, the anti-police-violence mobilization is the biggest and most effective political organization out there.

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So right now, the mobilization against police violence has massive participation, no real motivated or organized opposition outside of the police unions, and a wide variety of allies outside of the cause from every other policy current in progressive or centrist politics. This is a winning coalition . . .

…. so long as the movement does not atrophy over time.

Sadly, atrophy is the rule rather than the exception in mass mobilizations.

Time is on the side of the authorities. This is why most mobilizations against police violence have had almost no effect. The rioters or the demonstrators go home. The police are still there.

The pressure will certainly have to continue through to November.

To make sure electoral promises are kept, the pressure will need to continue after January as well.

For More Information

The definitive guide to the relationship between outraged public opinion and social change is Peter Stearns magisterial Global Outrage: Impact of World Opinion on Contemporary History (2005). That volume has many, many stories of authorities successfully waiting out a temporary surge in public outrage that dissipated too soon.

The Stearns is also the source of the Stalin quote. The actual correct quote is “World Opinion has No Military Divisions.”

Within quantitative sociology, the best work on the role of public opinion in changing policy comes from Paul Burstein. He shows that when legislators actually receive highly one-sided constituent mail showing strong mobilized public opinion about particular interests, they actually listen to what their voters are saying and vote in line with the views of their district. According to Burstein, the reason that elites dominate Washington politics to the extent they do is not that congressmen don’t listen to public opinion, but that on most issues, the public is either indifferent or divided. When there is no clear guidance coming from the electorate, lobbyists rule. See his 2014 American Public Opinion, Advocacy and Policy in Congress: What the American Public Wants and What It Gets.

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