A lot of people experience a sense of visceral joy when someone they hate gets punched in the face. But there's a body of social science research that suggests they won't like the long-term public policy results.
Over inauguration weekend, a member of the black bloc—a group of masked anti-Trump insurrectionaries—punched white nationalist leader Richard Spencer in the face on the streets of Washington, D.C. Elsewhere, black bloc members smashed the windows of a local Starbucks and Bank of America, even though neither company could be properly characterized as pro-Trump. (Starbucks' CEO endorsed Clinton, and Bank of America gave Clinton more money than Trump.) They set a limousine on fire, even though the limousine belonged to a Muslim immigrant.
When it comes to enacting social change, are broken windows and displaced limousine drivers merely the cost of doing business? No. In fact, violent and destructive protesting is less efficient than nonviolent protesting, according to the research.
"Why Civil Resistance Works," a study written by Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, found that nonviolent tactics were much more effective than violent tactics. Researchers surveyed anti-governmental resistance movements in the 20th century in a variety of countries: nonviolent means achieved their aims 53 percent of the time, while the violent means worked only 26 percent of the time.
"Whereas governments easily justify violent counterattacks against armed insurgents, regime violence against nonviolent movements is more likely to backfire against the regime," wrote the authors. "Potentially sympathetic publics perceive violent militants as having maximalist or extremist goals beyond accommodation, but they perceive nonviolent resistance groups as less extreme, thereby enhancing their appeal and facilitating the extraction of concessions through bargaining."
Another study, by Princeton University Assistant Professor of Politics Omar Wasow, found that violent extremist movements in the United States in the 1960s and '70s inspired a conservative backlash that helped elect Richard Nixon to the presidency. Nonviolent protests, on the other hand, did not provoke a backlash.
"In the 1960s, black-led protests that escalate to violence cause increased conservatism in white voters who live nearby," Wasow wrote in an email to Reason. "Conversely, I find that proximity to black-led nonviolent protests, particularly those in which the state engages in brutal repression, are associated with increased liberalism among white voters."
The science isn't exactly settled: Wasow said other scholars have found that violent protests occasionally prompt the government to implement favorable social policies as a means of de-escalating the violence.
"If the recent modest amount of protest-related property damage remains an outlying event, I'd expect very little effect," wrote Wasow.
Still, violent tactics—such as those displayed against Spencer—run a risk of provoking a conservative counter-reaction. Historically, authority figures have known this. When President Nixon was informed by an aide that campus violence was expected to increase in the coming year, his response was, "Good!" Nixon understood what too many leftists do not: Violent resistance is often the health of the state.
Consider Natasha Lennard, who writes in The Nation:
You may have seen it, it's a meme now, set to backing tracks of Bruce Springsteen, New Order, even a song from Hamilton. The punch, landed by a masked protester on Inauguration Day, lends itself perfectly to a beat. Spencer, who states that America belongs to white men, was in the midst of telling an Australian TV crew in DC that he was not a neo-Nazi, while pointing to his neo-Nazi Pepe the Frog lapel pin. A black-clad figure then jumps into frame, deus ex machina, with a perfectly placed right hook to Spencer's face. The alt-right poster boy stumbles away, and his anonymous attacker bounds out of sight in an instant. I don't know who threw the punch, but I know by his unofficial uniform that this was a member of our black bloc that day. And anyone enjoying the Nazi-bashing clip (and many are) should know that they're watching anti-fascist bloc tactics par excellence—pure kinetic beauty. If you want to thank Spencer's puncher, thank the black bloc.
Lennard isn't just proud of her group's aggression toward Spencer—she's thrilled about the burning limousine, the broken windows, the property damage, and all the rest:
The black bloc I joined met at Logan Circle, some two miles north of the inauguration parade route. We peered through bandanas to find friends. We gathered in bloc formation behind wood-enforced banners, filled the street, and began to march. The bloc takes care to stay together, move together, and blend together. Within minutes, bottle rockets were shooting skyward and bricks were flying through bank windows. You don't know who does what in a bloc, you don't look to find out. If bodies run out of formation to take a rock to a Starbucks window, they melt back to the bloc in as many seconds. Bodies reconciled, kinetic beauty. If that sounds to you like a precondition for mob violence, you're right. But this is only a problem if you think there are no righteous mobs, or that windows feel pain, or that counter-violence (like punching Richard Spencer) is never valid.
Windows don't feel pain—but the people who work at Starbucks, do. The owner of the limousine—who says insurance won't cover the damages—feels pain. And punching Spencer isn't okay, unless he tried to punch you first. (I suspect Spencer understands that violence usually creates sympathy for the victim rather than the perpetrator, which is why he doesn't ever engage in violence himself.)
Lennard probably wouldn't agree with that. It sounds like she enjoys property destruction for its own sake. If she doesn't buy in to the central conceit of modern society—that everyone is deserving of equal rights and a violence-free existence—fine.
But she also makes another claim: that her brand of resistance is tactically sound. Indeed, she compares the "black bloc" actions taken on Saturday to the Women's March, as if these were equally valid ways of advancing human progress:
To talk with any romance for the black bloc risks falling into the worst tropes of bombastic revolutionary writing. We don't don black masks and become instant revolutionary subjects. We don't necessarily achieve more with property damage than a larger, more subdued rally achieves. In every case, the standard of achievement depends on the aims of the action, and all of us are far from creating the rupture we want to see in the world. One broken window, or a hundred, is not victory. But nor is over half a million people rallying on the National Mall. Both gain potency only if they are perceived as a threat by those in and around power. And neither action will appear threatening unless followed up again and again with unrelenting force, in a multitude of directions. You don't have to choose between pink hat and black mask; each of us can wear both. You don't have to fight neo-Nazis in the street, but you should support those who do.
Emphasis added, because this is wrong, I suspect. Lennard's kind of protesting just isn't a threat to those in power. It's a threat to those who want to undermine the people in power.
Nothing drives people into the arms of someone like Trump quite like property destruction. Nothing undermines public support for a policy when that policy's backers resort to violence. Trump ran on a platform of restoring law and order to society, and he won.
The Women's March, on the other hand, was a great example of a legitimate threat to those in power. Despite some issues regarding participation, the march largely went off without a hitch—a powerful testament to Trump's popularity that completely unnerved him. He was so bothered by this display that he spent his first weekend in office peddling obvious falsehoods about the size of the crowds at his inauguration. He was humiliated, and rightly so.
The Women's March sent a message that Trump is unpopular. The black bloc rioting likely accomplished the exact opposite: undermined public sympathy for Trump resistors.
It certainly seems like the organizers of the Women's March chose the more tactically effective route. Wasow said the march might have the same kind of lasting effect as the Tea Party movement, which accomplished many of its political goals.
"The peaceful and extraordinarily large Women's March will likely send a sympathetic message through the media that Trump's presidency and policies are opposed by many Americans," wrote Wasow.
I won't say violence never works as a means of advancing social progress, but the Women's March is powerful evidence that orderly resistance is the better tactic for the struggles that lie ahead. And recall that during the primaries, when protesters shut down Trump's speeches, this made Republican voters more favorably disposed toward Trump.
If the choice is between punching Richard Spencer—something that would still be morally wrong, even if it produced favorable social results—and peacefully carrying a sign in a march, for goodness' sake, do the latter.