Expert Commentary

Protests, waves of collective action and policing in the United States: Key research ideas

In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we review research on the nature of social movements, "waves" of protests and activism cycles, as well as police response.

As a wave of street protests has swept across the United States in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner of Staten Island, N.Y. and Tamir Rice of Cleveland, Ohio, as well as in response to the subsequent legal actions, participants, critics and commentators have sought to make sense of this nascent movement.

While these mass actions are only loosely coordinated, the symbolic tools and actions of these protests quickly became synchronized: Hashtags such as #ThisStopsToday have become memes, while battle cries of “I can’t breathe!” and “Black lives matter!” reverberated through crowds in cities far apart. Many protesters have adopted the now-iconic “hands up” posture and participated in civil disobedience through dramatic “die-ins,” or orchestrated takeovers of public spaces and streets.

Historical analogies

Is this coordination a sign of a budding movement around issues of racial injustice, community-police relations and other related problems? Questions about sustainability and the ability to keep up pressure have already surfaced. Scholars of the Civil Rights Movement — the gold standard of American protest actions — often point out that it took years to build, beginning in the 1950s and into the mid-1960s.

By contrast, the Occupy Wall Street movement dissipated after a period of highly visible activism, and despite all of the euphoria over the Arab Spring in 2011, in retrospect that movement also looks relatively short-lived (and its democratic goals unrealized). In both cases, news media often neglected to ask larger questions about movement goals and infrastructure, and focused either on spectacle or novel aspects such as the use of social media for collective action. Researchers in this area advise news media reporters to ask organizers what the next steps are beyond a given set of demonstrations and initial actions, in addition to what are the “actionable metrics,” as opposed to “vanity metrics.” How will protesters measure success in the future? Ask, for example, “Who are the decision makers who can give you what you want, and what actions are going to convince them to give it to you?”

A set of 2013 papers in the Sociological Quarterly looks at the Occupy movement and explores how its lack of centralization and structure affected its overall operations, while a wealth of scholarship on the Arab Spring continues to be published.

What are some of the deeper insights and ideas that can help put in perspective fledgling protest movements? What do we know about the trends and dynamics of protests and the resistance they frequently confront? What powerful forces might work in opposition? It is worth keeping in mind that there is a massive research literature associated with social movement theory and contentious politics that can help contextualize new activism; and there has been ample study of how information and communications technologies and the Internet generally are amplifying and helping to enable collective action.

Waves and traits of protests

Foundational researchers in this field include Sidney Tarrow of Cornell, Douglas McAdam of Stanford, and the late Charles Tilly. The three scholars identified and framed some of the causal mechanisms and patterns that recur across a range of what they call “contentious politics.” Their 2001 book Dynamics of Contention is a touchstone work in the field. Scholars have identified certain patterns among “waves of collective action” and the dynamics of “protest cycles” have received substantial attention from researchers. Other major academic voices include Marshall Ganz of the Harvard Kennedy School, who teaches courses on organizing tactics and methods; and William Gamson of Boston College, whose long career of research has also focused on media dynamics and movements.

In a 2014 study, “Practicing the Art of Dissent: Toward a Typology of Protest Activity in the United States,” Thomas N. Ratliff of Arkansas State University and Lori L. Hall of Virginia Tech examine nearly 2,500 protest events as reported through media accounts between 2006 and 2009. They classify these into categories of activity: “(1) literal symbolic, aesthetic, and sensory; (2) movement in space; (3) solemnity and the sacred; (4) civil disobedience; (5) institutional and conventional activity; and (6) collective violence and threats.” They conclude that “literal symbolic, aesthetic, and sensory activity permeates contemporary protest events — indeed, they are the visible majority of all activities.” They note the high degree of nonviolence of these activities as a whole, “a fact that should be noted by police officers across the country as well as those who might criticize or revile protesters offhand with stereotypes derived from misperceptions of what activities actually constitute social protest.”

Ferguson, Mo. (Wikimedia)
Ferguson, Mo. (Wikimedia)

Many protests follow a script authored by movement leaders, but in some cases unpredictable events unfold. A 2014 paper in the American Sociological Review, “Protest on the Fly: Toward a Theory of Spontaneity in the Dynamics of Protest and Social Movements,” by David A. Snowa and Dana M. Moss of the University of California, Irvine, revisits exactly how and when protest movements shift in direction. They find that “spontaneous collective actions can occur at various points in the career of protests and social movements, because the precipitating conditions with which spontaneity is most likely to be associated are not clustered at any single point in the career of these collective phenomena. Our illustrative cases demonstrate that spontaneous actions occurred at various points in these events, including after the disruption of a negotiated script, with the dissolution of the script, with the occurrence of non-scripted square-offs in the beginning of an event, during the dispersion process, and as a sideshow to the main event.”

Classic and new movement views

A 2005 paper “Scholarship on Social Movement Organizations: Classic Views and Emerging Trends,” published in Mobilization — an important journal in this field, along with Social Movement Studies — provides a synthesis of much of the canonical literature in this area. Authors Beth Schaefer Caniglia of Oklahoma State University and JoAnn Carmin of MIT note: “Early views of social movements suggested that protest and other types of disruptive action were irrational or used only by marginalized members of society…. The emergence of resource mobilization offered an alternative perspective by arguing that collective action is a rational response that only can occur when adequate resources are available…. A critical contribution provided by this perspective was that social movements rely upon and are composed of formal organizations. In the civil rights movement, for example, churches provided important forums for organizing … while in the women’s movement, the networks that were formed among participants in the New Left … and the civil rights movement … served as a basis for mobilization.”

For more on the changing nature of organizing in the digital age, see “The Logic of Connective Action: Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics,” a 2012 paper published in Information, Communication & Society by Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg. “Individuals are relating differently to organized politics, and many organizations are finding they must engage people differently: they are developing relationships to publics as affiliates rather than members, and offering them personal options in ways to engage and express themselves,” the authors argue. “This includes greater choice over contributing content, and introduces micro-organizational resources in terms of personal networks, content creation, and technology development skills. Collective action based on exclusive collective identifications and strongly tied networks continues to play a role in this political landscape, but this has become joined by, interspersed with, and in some cases supplanted by personalized collective action formations in which digital media become integral organizational parts.”

Another paper by Bennett, “The Personalization of Politics: Political Identity, Social Media and Changing Patterns of Participation,” in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, proposes a framework for better understanding the current generation of digitally enabled mass protests. Also of interest is “What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson: Net Neutrality, Algorithmic Filtering and Ferguson,” an article on Medium by Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, currently a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center. And in an article for the Washington Post, “#HashtagActivismMatters: Some Experts See Online-to-IRL Change in Police Protests,” Philip Howard of the University of Washington analyzes how social media has been featured prominently in the recent protests (see the Digital Activism Research Project.)

Protest policing and patterns of control

In a 2011 paper published in the Annual Review of Sociology, “Political Repression: Iron Fists, Velvet Gloves, and Diffuse Control,” Jennifer Earl of the University of California, Santa Barbara, looks at trends in research around the initiation and sustaining of protests and tactics used to stop open dissent. While some studies have shown that tactics of surveillance can put pressure on groups, and acts of state-sponsored repression can quell protests, there is also significant research indicating that repression can backfire and lead to escalation. Earl writes that since the 1990s, scholars such as John D. McCarthy of Pennsylvania State University and Clark McPhail of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign have identified the following patterns in on-the-street treatment of protesters: “Two primary models of protest policing have existed in the United States (and other Western nations) since the 1950s: escalated force and negotiated management. Escalated force is a primarily force-based and confrontational model of protest policing that was popular in the 1960s and early 1970s. The negotiated management approach is a permit- and negotiation-based model that became popular, eventually eclipsing escalated management, in the mid-1970s.”

Patrick F. Gillham of the University of Idaho and John A. Noakes of Arcadia University have argued that a new phase of protest policing is now at work, what they call “strategic incapacitation,” which is “characterized by a range of tactical innovations aimed at temporarily incapacitating transgressive protesters, including the establishment of extensive no-protest zones, the increased use of less-lethal weapons, the strategic use of arrests, and a reinvigoration of surveillance and infiltration of movement organizations. This shift in police tactics during protests is consistent with broader changes in the ideological underpinnings of crime control, including an emphasis on risk management and the prevention of (rather than reaction to) crime and disorder.”

Further, the State University of New York’s Mike King has argued that in the context of the Occupy Oakland movement, tactics of negotiated management were used as an instrument of repression, blurring the lines with theories of strategic incapacitation.

In a 2011 paper in Comparative Political Studies, Donatella della Porta of European University Institute and Tarrow of Cornell look at protest movements around the world and find interesting parallels between the evolution of protester and police tactics: “Changes in both protester and police practice that we found during the cycle of transnational global justice counter-summits suggest that interactive social learning was occurring both within protester and police communities as well as across the two communities.”


Keywords: popular protests, Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring

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