HOW TO UNDERSTAND PROTEST

Ernesto Castañeda
8 min readJun 7, 2020

By Ernesto Castañeda and Daniel Jenks*

June 7, 2020

Protest on June 1, 2020, in Richmond, Virginia in front of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, which the Governor has announced will be removed soon © Ed Holten

In all fifty states and numerous countries, protesters are demonstrating against racialized police brutality. In one of the latest recorded incidents, on May 25, 2020, a police officer in Minnesota knelt on Mr. George Floyd’s neck, for over eight minutes while he pleaded for his life, ultimately unable to breathe. Three officers watched on, doing nothing. However, this is not the first time that we have seen protests over the murder of unarmed African Americans by police forces in the United States. The murders of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Eric Garner, and 12-year old Tamir Rice, to name a few, have all similarly sparked outrage and protests across the country.

The disturbing murder of George Floyd, as recorded by many onlookers, is impossible to forget. Cellphone videos have documented calls to the police by white women seeing black people in what sociologist Elijah Anderson calls “the white space,” with threats of violence by engaging police. In addition to other recent police murders — those of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have made many of us feel impotent, sad, and overwhelmed. Many have taken to the streets to express their solidarity and to feel a degree of agency. Media coverage of these racist incidents has overwhelmed the public along with powerful images of massive marches, vigils, and gatherings calling for change. We have also seen images of looting and glass breaking in the night, exponentiated by some in an effort to curve the conversation away from the issues that the protesters are calling to light. It is vital that we stay focused and prioritize these issues, and further consider how protests affect change. Below, we provide some sociological terms mainly developed by Charles Tilly to help make sense of these protests as a part of a continuing social movement and to look toward a more equal and prosperous future.

Protest at the base of Lee’s statue in Richmond June 1, 2020 © Jonathan Brooks

CATEGORICAL INEQUALITY: Inequality between groups demarcated by racialized, gendered, or classed categories. While inequality is primarily organized at a group level, we experience inequality between individuals, e.g., we compare ourselves with those who have more than we do. This may be why some white people deny the existence of white privilege. It is easier to see the difference between you and me than it is to see the full picture. Time and time again, studies show that certain groups such as white people or men hold more privilege than their non-white or female counterparts. Categorical groups such as women, transgender individuals, African-Americans, and Native-Americans have historically held less wealth and political power than white men, for instance. Categorical inequality is exhibited when structural instances of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, nativism, xenophobia, ableism, and other types of oppression are observed. Privilege or exclusion accumulate at the intersections of these categories; for example, black women have been more stigmatized than white women. Categorical inequality, then, is a useful concept because it reminds us that societies often stigmatize and exclude individuals because of their perceived membership in a group with little political power and thus a low-status. The fight against categorical inequality has historically been fought through contentious politics.

CONTENTIOUS POLITICS: An umbrella term that includes protests, marches, social movements, rallies, and sit-ins, but also rebellions and revolutions. Those engaged in contentious politics may utilize civil disobedience and peaceful protest, or disruptive means. They are collective performances that publicly demand the continuation or expansion of rights and benefits for certain groups. Contentious politics most often address state and local power holders while simultaneously engaging the broader public for empathy and support. Historically, they impinge on the accumulation and hoarding of resources by the most wealthy and powerful. Therefore, they are resisted by those in power, and the state often uses violence to suppress the voices and demands of citizens engaging with contentious politics. Those in power send police and the military to protect an unequal status quo — we saw this process play out in Washington, D.C. this week. While protests continued to grow and occur in the city each day, even after mandated curfews, Trump sent in the military and national guard against the wishes of the D.C. government. Other states are mobilizing their national guards against their own citizens. Police are used as a tool to break up and divide protests, signaling that those with power oppose significant changes to the status quo.

Protest in front of the White House, June 6, 2020 © Ernesto Castañeda

LEGALITY/ILLEGALITY: That something is legal does not mean that it is moral and vice versa. For decades, slavery was legal, emancipation illegal. Until 1967 miscegenation (mixed marriage) was illegal in 16 states. Japanese citizens were placed in immoral internment camps during World War II, a practice that was perfectly legal, and in fact, carried out by the government. This is continued today with asylum seekers of all ages put in camps. Some inequality is legislated as Apartheid was in South Africa, but segregation can also occur with real state practices and racist practices even if they are technically illegal for violating anti-discrimination laws in the books but rarely enforced. Contentious politics are indeed contentious because they call for changes in laws and practices in a way that goes against the interest of those at the very top of society. Historically, the law protects the property rights of the very rich. This is apparent in responses to riots throughout the country, where governments and police are more organized to protect the property of businesses rather than the lives of African Americans.

LEGITIMATE/ILLEGITIMATE VIOLENCE: Whether it comes from state agents or civilian groups, violence is the same. Analytically, it is crucial not to start assuming that those in power have the legal and moral monopoly over violence. At the same time, it is also vital not to idealize armed rebels, and to find out if particular groups may be engaged in violent acts — such as some who identify under the “boogaloo” designation and have been documented going to protests to incite violence for racist purposes.

Nonetheless, the American, Haitian, and French revolutions were possible when large numbers of civilians fought, by all means, possible against those in power who were excluding large percentages of the population in political decisions and economic opportunities. Historically, it is also the case that revolutions have been co-opted by opportunistic groups that set themselves as the new elites. The line between legitimate and illegitimate violence is not as clear as the government would like us to think. What is clear is that violence stemming from social movements is often a result of years of state violence perpetrated against categorical groups.

Protest in front of the White House on June 6, 2020 © Ernesto Castañeda

SOCIAL MOVEMENTS: Social movements appeared as such around the mid-1700s. They are large-scale mobilizations by categorical groups exploited and excluded. Movements do not need to have leaders to be so, nor do they have to get legislation passed in their names to be a movement — though often the end goal is lasting change through legislation or other means. Movements are long-lasting, and they aim for the public display of numbers, unity, commitment, as well as to be taken seriously and supported by people as full citizens. Early examples of social movements include those by religious minorities demanding political equality and the women’s suffrage movement. There is a decades-long movement for immigrant rights that have not yet been granted. Black Lives Matter is indeed a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement, whose demands are still to be fulfilled. Many times it has taken breaking the law and engaging in civil disobedience to bring about serious change. The current movement for Black Lives Matter has already started to bear fruit — there is a bipartisan push for demilitarizing the police in Congress, Los Angeles has moved to lower the funds allocated to the police department, the Minneapolis City Council has started discussions on how to rethink policing in their city. Furthermore, thousands around the country are having conversations about how government funding that goes to police and incarceration could be used for other, more productive purposes, as well as about structural and institutional racism, the criminal justice system, and community development.

Protest next to the White House June 6, 2020 © Ernesto Castañeda

DEMOCRATIZATION: This point is perhaps the most important and represents a summation of the previously listed concepts. According to Charles Tilly, democracy should be thought of as a process with various levels rather than a binary label of democratic or non-democratic. Tilly theorized that democratization increased with the integration of trust networks (sets of interpersonal connections where people are willing to share resources and help one another) into public politics, the insulation of public politics from categorical inequalities (discussed above), and decreasing the influence of ‘power centers’ (such as clans and warlords, but in a modern context maybe multinational corporations and billionaire families) in public politics. It could also happen in reverse.

Applying this framework to the current movement, the United States will become more democratic once its democracy equally includes all people living within it, inclusive of groups previously excluded. Thinking of this broadly, these could be African Americans, undocumented immigrants, or poor rural folks. Democratization does not increase with superficial, lip service inclusion by politicians. Instead, real inclusion where individuals of that group feel heard as a group, and changes are made to ensure they have a real chance at achieving health, economic stability, and wellbeing. Making civil rights a reality and not only a set of discretionally enforced laws would be a way for the United States to become more democratic. Democratization will increase when being white is not a pre-requisite to being broadly treated with respect and have a fair shot at economic success. Furthermore, these changes would not make the average person less wealthy nor decrease the value of their citizenship. On the contrary, as civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer noted: “We cannot be truly free, until everyone is free.”

Protest at the brand new Black Lives Matter Plaza on 16th St. in DC June 6, 2020 © Ernesto Castañeda

These points are discussed more carefully and at length in the books:

Social Movements 1768–2018 by Charles Tilly, Ernesto Castañeda, Lesley J. Wood. Routledge 2020.

Collective Violence, Contentious Politics, and Social Change: A Charles Tilly Reader by Ernesto Castañeda, Cathy Lisa Schneider. Routledge 2017.

*Department of Sociology, American University

Published under Creative Commons, you are free to republish this article both online and in print as long as you do not edit the piece, ensure that you attribute the authors, mention their institutional affiliation and credit photographers for images used.

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Ernesto Castañeda

Ernesto Castañeda is the author of “A Place to Call Home” and “Building Walls.”