Protests Don’t Make You Popular

by Dish Staff

A recent poll on Ferguson found that “fifty-nine percent of Americans — including 67 percent of whites but just 43 percent of blacks — think the protesters’ actions have gone too far.” Robert Shapiro is unsurprised. Data he compiled shows that “the American public has traditionally responded unfavorably to protesters seen as disruptive, even if nonviolent”:

The majority of Americans felt this way toward the Freedom Riders in the Civil Rights Movement and toward civil right protesters and demonstrators in general. The same was true for the Vietnam antiwar movement and student protests on college campuses. The public clearly supported the Chicago police over the protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and they favored the police and the National Guard responses to disturbances in colleges and high schools. And a majority of women as well as men, no less, objected to the protests by the women’s movement.

Other historical public opinion data provide more insight.

Although most Americans support the right to protest in general, they prefer other means of achieving political goals — notably, the ballot box.  When asked in an October 1983 Louis Harris & Associates survey about “the most effective way blacks in this country can achieve a better break for themselves — take to the streets in protest, or register and vote in larger numbers to increase their political power, or just be patient and hope things get better for them?” only 1 percent said protest, while 85 percent said register and vote.

That said, he cites evidence “that protests put and keep issues on the political agenda.”