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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Why the Violent Unrest After the Breonna Taylor Decision Only Sabotages Progress

An abundance of research shows that violent protest only undermines a cause in the eyes of the public.

Image by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

Racial unrest and violent protest gripped major American cities once again Wednesday night. This time, the outrage erupted after the state of Kentucky announced that two of the Louisville police officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor will face no charges and one will face charges for endangering her neighbors. Taylor was tragically killed during a police search gone wrong after a gunfight broke out between her boyfriend and the police.

Let’s be clear: Breonna Taylor should absolutely be alive today. Setting aside the complicated legal questions and increasingly murky circumstances surrounding the police shooting itself, she did not deserve to die. The anger and emotional pain over her death is eminently understandable—but violence is not.

And violent is the only way to describe the protests and riots that broke out Wednesday night. Unrest began in Louisville, but also erupted in cities such as Portland, Washington, DC, and Seattle.

In Louisville, nearly 100 people were arrested after protests descended into a riot as arson, looting, and violence broke out. Windows were shattered, several local businesses were looted, and multiple fires were started. But worst of all, two police officers were reportedly shot during the violent unrest. They are both in stable condition and a suspect has been arrested.

Meanwhile, similar violence broke out in many other riot-torn cities.

In Portland, for example, another violent agitator attempted to murder several police officers. Video captured at the scene shows someone deliberately throwing a molotov cocktail into a crowd of police officers, which then erupts in flames.

In Seattle, video shows a police officer being mobbed and attacked, with one rioter hitting him in the head with a metal baseball bat.

These are just a few examples from an explosively violent night of unrest. And they come in the broader context of the months of violent protest since George Floyd’s tragic death in late May that has seen more than 24 people die and wrought economic devastation on many urban minority communities.

This kind of violent protest only sabotages true progress toward the kind of reforms that will limit tragedies like Taylor’s death. Reforms such as banning “no-knock” warrants could help prevent these kinds of tragedies in the future. And reforming the civil liability shield known as “qualified immunity” would allow more true victims of police brutality to obtain justice and increase accountability.

But we won’t achieve these reforms—or any reform—by demonizing and attacking innocent police officers or participating in or condoning violent protest. Time and time again, research has shown that violent protest only undermines a cause in the eyes of the public.

Here’s how FEE’s Jon Miltimore summed up new research on this trend:

New research published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests the popularity of social reform movements suffers when movements use “extreme protest actions,” which tend to alienate neutral observers and even supporters of a given cause. Study leaders conducted six experiments involving 3,399 participants to measure how people responded to a variety of social causes, from Black Lives Matter movement to anti-abortion groups.

“[Researchers] found that more extreme behaviors—such as the use of inflammatory rhetoric, blocking traffic, and vandalism—consistently resulted in reduced support for social movements,” writes Eric W. Dolan, the founder of PsyPost, a psychology and neuroscience news website.

In fact, we’ve seen this trend play out in real-time in recent months.

Support for the Black Lives Matter movement hit a peak in June, immediately after the death of George Floyd, when protests remained peaceful and a bipartisan consensus for reform began to emerge. Yet after rioting and looting broke out over the summer, support markedly declined.

“Public support for the Black Lives Matter movement has declined,” Pew Research reports. “A majority of U.S. adults (55%) now express at least some support for the movement, down from 67% in June amid nationwide demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd. The share who say they strongly support the movement stands at 29%, down from 38% three months ago.”

So, let’s be clear about one thing. The bad-faith agitators who are taking to the streets and engaging in violent unrest and vandalism are not fighting for justice. They are sabotaging progress toward meaningful criminal justice reform and dishonoring Breonna Taylor’s memory.

Why would leaders and organizations supposedly dedicated to opposing police brutality be so committed to such a clearly counterproductive strategy? Maybe it’s because their true priorities lie elsewhere.