The George Floyd protests are sparking a surprising debate in black America

“I cried,” says Wasow, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. “I’m not without deep empathy for people’s anger. I feel that anger.”

His emotions, though, soon turned to unease when that he saw some protests over Floyd’s death spiral in to violence. It all appeared like a replay of the 1960s race riots, which he believes tipped the 1968 presidential election to Richard Nixon, who ran as a law-and-order candidate.

Wasow says his research implies that violent, black-led protests in the 1960s reduced white support for civil rights. And that he says recent violence at the George Floyd protests could shift more white voters to Trump in November.

“It might be moral. It might be just,” that he says of the violence. “But it’s not strategic.”

Protesters have captured the eye of around the world the past week. But there is a huge difference between getting attention and getting change. How can people translate the energy unleashed by the protests in to transformative action?

This question yet others have sparked a vigorous debate among people like Wasow as well as other thought leaders in the black community.

The debate moved in some startling guidelines and challenged some long-held assumptions. Black leaders are clashing about tactics, history and even shared heroes. And lurking underneath much of these discussions is a growing sense of despair.

Some are arguing nonviolent protest has not worked for black people

There can’t be a racially charged protest without someone quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose acts of nonviolent resistance drove much of the civil rights movement.

As a few of the recent protests turned violent, King became a shadow commentator. Critics of the violence quoted King’s take on a notorious racist politician of his era: “Every time a riot develops, it helps George Wallace.”
Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights icon, released a recent statement saying he could relate to protesters’ anger and despair, but that they ought to be “constructive, not destructive.”
President Obama also has condemned the violence that broke out at some protests. So has Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who said last week that demonstrators who burned cars and defaced buildings betrayed the legacy of the civil rights movement. True change comes when people “show up at the polls,” she said.

But some black intellectual leaders are offering a different — and startling — view of what has worked for black protesters in yesteryear.

“But the fact of history is non-violent protest has not been successful for blk Americans,” Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with the New York Times, said in a much-debated Twitter thread.

“The Civil Rights Movement was not non-violent,” she wrote, adding she believes black protesters courted violence by whites as a strategy.

“Peaceful protest did not bring about the great civil rights legislation of the 1960s,” she added. “Black people being firebombed, water-hosed, lynched, bitten by dogs, beaten to a pulp by police trying to march across a bridge is what brought the changes. Violence.”

Others, though, say nonviolent protests were vital to the success of the movement.

“How are you telling me that the Montgomery Bus Boycott — 381 days of people walking miles to work — that it didn’t break the back of bus segregation?” says Wasow, the Princeton political scientist.

“Selma, the March on Washington, the lunch counter sit-ins — that didn’t work?” he adds. “The civil rights movement broke Jim Crow. That is an unbelievable accomplishment and it did it primarily through nonviolent means.”

One can also cite a newer example. Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest against police brutality spread throughout sports and beyond and helped transform the debate about racism in law enforcement.

Some argue we shouldn’t apply MLK’s teachings to today’s black youth

Melanye Price has a message for folks invoking King and nonviolence to condemn recent protesters — stop it.

They forget that 1960s activists endured arduous nonviolent training, says Price, a professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University.

Turning the other check always to violence is “not instinctual,” says Price, author of “The Race Whisperer: Barack Obama and the Political Uses of Race.” She says critics discuss black people as if “nonviolence was genetically implanted in us.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington in 1963.

“People are using Martin Luther King as a weapon against them (today’s protesters). If King were alive today, we don’t know where he would be,” she says. “To use this cultural icon to be a hammer against these kids is completely unfair. Of course, these kids are not going to have good control of their emotions.”

NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar agrees, saying that the present protests are the only way some marginalized Americans feel like they may be heard.

“They don’t get the political power or the financial power to change the circumstances, so what are they going to do? The rioting is the voices of people who have no voice,” he told CNN.

“I just remember seeing a sign that someone held up in Minneapolis that said, ‘Can you hear us now?”’ Jabbar said. “I think that’s a very poignant statement.”

Some wonder whether white allies are hurting the cause

Many in the black community have long believed that blacks need white allies to help them succeed in the fight for equality. Whites have joined civil rights groups and died alongside black activists. Any movement for social and racial justice needed to appeal beyond blacks, many thought.

Some are challenging that thinking now.

Protesters against police brutality march through Brooklyn on June 3 in New York City.
Law enforcement officials have said the George Floyd protests have attracted white agitators, including armed, anti-government extremists and white supremacists who infiltrated demonstrations in Minneapolis.

Then there is Stacey Patton, a black commentator who has wondered aloud perhaps the heavy white presence at the protests represents an act of solidarity or is merely “performative.”

“Are they trying to prove their wokeness and that they are not racist?” she asked in a recent opinion column in the Washington Post. “How are angry and traumatized black folks supposed to tell the difference between sincere white allies and those whose commitment begins and ends with the charade of performative solidarity?”

Some argue violent protests may help Trump get re-elected

Some scholars believe images of black protesters choosing violence will spark a white backlash that may propel Trump to a second term. There’s research to suggest these fears are maybe not unfounded.

Wasow, the Princeton professor, published a research paper that examined the impact of media coverage of violent protests that followed King’s 1968 assassination in places like Illinois, Ohio and New Jersey. He examined a lot more than 275,000 newspaper headlines to observe media framing of the protests shaped public opinion. Polls showed that nonviolent protests increased white support for civil rights, while violent protests did just the opposite, that he says.
A soldier stands guard in Washington near buildings that were destroyed in the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968.
That shift was enough at hand the White house to Nixon, who had pitched his campaign to the “silent majority” of Americans who were maybe not out in the streets.

Wasow believes pictures of black protesters burning buildings and looting stores reinforced a preexisting narrative in American history about black people being inherently criminal.

“That is a story about black people that the media has been telling for hundreds of years,” that he says. “That script is readily available to the American public, to news reporters, and it’s an easy groove for the media to slip into.”

That script is so ingrained in the American psyche that even peaceful protests for racial justice provoke white anxiety, other research suggests.

Another scholar said in a recent research paper that Trump’s vocal support for police throughout his presidential campaign in 2016 helped gain him the support of white voters who have been anxious in regards to the social changes being proposed by Black Lives Matter protesters.
Demonstrators raise their arms as they protest the shooting death of Michael Brown on August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.

While many Black Lives Matter protests were peaceful, the others turned violent, especially after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

New pictures of black protesters looting and burning buildings could trigger anxiety among white voters who are already uneasy in regards to the changing demographics in America, says Kevin Drakulich, the paper’s lead researcher and an associate professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston.

“That tends to fit with their views of resisting those changes on the basis of black Americans not being deserving,” that he says. “It’s proof in their minds of their undeserving nature.”

Some wonder if protests will ever change anything

The videos of black people dying as a result of law enforcement keep coming. And how these individuals were acting before they died does not seem to matter, says Price, the political scientist at Prairie View A&M.

“What we’ve learned from the George Floyd video is that when you’re compliant, when you’re not causing trouble, when you have good control of your emotions — you still die,” she says.

Price also alluded to other recent incidents, including the fatal Ahmaud Arbery shooting and the death of Breonna Taylor, a Louisville EMT who was shot while she was sleeping during a police raid of her home.
George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, from left.

“If there’s violence, there’s racism. If there’s peaceful protests, it’s there. It’s there if you’re sleeping in your bed. It comes to meet you wherever you are,” Price says. “Yes, we could try to outsmart racists, but also racists could be less racist.”

But as people in the black community debate just how to navigate the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, they received one hopeful sign this week.

Ferguson, Missouri, where Brown’s death set off weeks of protests, just elected its first black mayor.

Her name is Ella Jones, and she got her start by running for city council throughout the 2014 unrest.

The Ferguson protests got attention. But they did a lot more than that.

Jones is what true change appears like.

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