Politics Scholar Omar Wasow on Protests, Violence and the Media

Photos, from left: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration; Stanley Wolfson/Library of Congress; Public Domain; Tony Webster/Creative Commons; Fibonacci Blue/Creative Commons. Illustrations: Getty Images (2).

Omar Wasow, ’92, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton, was raised by activist parents in New York City and graduated from Stanford with an individually designed major in race and ethnic relations. He went on to co-found BlackPlanet.com, an early and still popular social media platform. As a tech guru, he appeared on NBC’s Today Show and CNN’s American Morning and tutored Oprah Winfrey in the 12-part series Oprah Goes Online. But questions about the history of social change weighed on his mind, and in 2005, he returned to academia, eventually completing a PhD at Harvard in African and African American studies. He recently published the first results of 15 years of reflection and research in the American Political Science Review. The article, “Agenda Seeding: How 1960s Black Protests Moved Elites, Public Opinion and Voting,” examines the larger social impact of nonviolent and violent protests.

Here, Wasow speaks to Stanford about how social moments have shaped public opinion and influenced social change, from the civil rights movement to the George Floyd protests.

Headshot of Omar WasowOmar Wasow (Photo: Willi Wong)


STANFORD: How did you become interested in studying protests?

Wasow: My parents had both been activists. My dad had gone to Mississippi as part of the Freedom Summer and registered voters in Mississippi in the 1960s. He was part of a cohort that went to Mississippi not long after Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner had been murdered, so he was engaged in a kind of activism that was very high-minded but also high-risk, and that loomed large in my mind as a great moment in his life and in American history, of people really putting their lives on the line for democracy. So that’s a touchstone for me.

I grew up in New York City at a time when it was approaching its peak homicide rate. I loved New York as a kid, but I was wrestling with what became an overarching puzzle for me personally and then professionally, which was: How is it that we’ve seen this shift from my parents’ coming-of-age experience during the victories of the civil rights movement to the moment when I was coming of age and my experience in New York surrounded by tough-on-crime politics and a sense that things had really gone off the rails? I was trying to understand how we went from the era of civil rights victories to law-and-order politics.

I then attended Stanford when it was at the center of a national debate about race and politics in curriculum. I was part of the first class that enrolled after they changed their curriculum, their core canon, to include women and people of color. I was deeply interested in the question of how you build a viable multiethnic society, and here was Stanford at the center of that. I was interested in tech, I was interested in race and politics, and so Stanford just kind of felt like mecca.

But there were also significant protests in my freshman year at Stanford, and there’s a photo on the cover of Campus Report of me and some other students, arms locked, around the president’s office. It was a formative part of my own campus experience to see protest in action as a way to push for issues of diversity and get even more of a commitment to ethnic studies and hiring faculty of color.

After having established a successful career in tech, why did you choose to do a PhD? 

There were some questions that had been looping in my head that weren’t going to be answered in a tech start-up. The animating question was: What led to the rise of law-and-order politics? If you look at incarceration rates in the United States over the 20th century, from roughly 1910 to 1970, it goes up some decades and down some decades, but it’s basically flat over 60 to 70 years. Then, coming out of the ’70s, it just hockey-sticks up. So, from the middle of the ’70s to the ’80s and ’90s, we have this unbelievable increase in incarceration. For me, the core question was: What happened in the ’60s and ’70s that led to some change in our politics that we became a much more punitive society?

And that led me to look at not only the ways in which social movements achieved incredible victories in the civil rights era, with landmark civil rights legislation, but also the countermobilization that came later, which contributed to a significant increase in tough-on-crime rhetoric becoming central in American politics.

What sorts of answers have you found, and where has your research on protests led you? 

I’ve been working since grad school through May of this year, for 15 years, on trying to nail down this question of how social movements can help grow both what I think of as the egalitarian coalition—a coalition aimed at changing the social hierarchy that, prior to 1964, included both Republicans and Democrats, but with the passage of the ’64 Civil Rights Act basically became the Democratic Party and various allied groups—and the status-quo coalition, which, after ’64, became the Republican coalition. So, for 15 years, I’ve been trying to nail down the story of how protests were playing a role in which of those coalitions held power. And that paper got published in May, a few days before the George Floyd protests happened.

The core question of the work was what kinds of tactics are most effective for protesters. What I found in the 1960s is that when protesters engaged in nonviolent resistance, particularly when they were the object of police violence—a classic example being protesters on Bloody Sunday getting attacked by state troopers and vigilantes in front of a national audience—those kinds of protests built urgency and sympathy for the cause of civil rights. Inversely, when protesters engaged in more aggressive resistance to white supremacy, using violent tactics as a form of resistance, whether or not the state engaged in repression, that tended to generate much more negative press that was more focused on issues of crime and riots and that tended to reinforce the coalition intent on maintaining the status quo.

‘When the world can see what people in the Black community have seen for decades but has often been invisible to the larger white public, change becomes possible.’

In terms of the contest between the more-egalitarian-society coalition and the status-quo coalition, what I found was that being a protester who is the object of violence, which was an explicit strategy used by the civil rights movement—to make themselves the targets of violence—could be very effective while of course risking injury, trauma and even death. At the same time, when protesters used violent resistance, that often actually strengthened the opposition. As Minneapolis saw some buildings go up in flames, that became part of a national conversation about racial justice but also resistance to injustice and what’s effective to advance the cause of racial justice.

You can have an event where the protesters are nonviolent and the state is nonviolent, like the March on Washington, with a quarter of a million people in D.C. That can be very effective, but it’s much harder to get media attention for a peaceful event. Then there is a category in which protesters are nonviolent but the state is violent, like Bloody Sunday, and that generates a lot of attention and sympathy for protesters. In the other two cases, protesters are violent, and the state might be nonviolent or violent, but they generate more negative press for the protesters. So, the core of my story was really about how protesters shape the media. Their actions and strategies can shape a larger public narrative.

There’s a question that was asked by a variety of pollsters between the 1950s and 1980, which is, What is the most important problem in America? There’s a moment in 1963 where there’s a big spike in concern for civil rights. To be clear, the country is about 90 percent white at that moment, so if white America thinks civil rights is the most important problem and that happens to be coincident with the March on Washington, that’s interesting. But there’s another spike of concern about civil rights when Selma happens in ’65, right after Bloody Sunday. Public concern about civil rights goes through the roof and then drops pretty quickly. Later in the ’60s, around ’67, there’s a peak in public concern about crime, and it turns out that there’s a spike in the summer of ’66 and a spike in the summer of ’67 around concern about crime and riots. So how do we explain this shift in between 1963 and 1967, with the most important problem going from civil rights to crime and riots? Just looking at raw data, at what’s happening on the ground in terms of nonviolent direct action or violent resistance to police violence, there is a very plausible case that what’s happening on the ground is shaping media coverage and public opinion.

Can we apply this to the George Floyd protests? If in a few places people are destroying property but in most cases the state is exerting violence, threatening protesters and beating them up, what is your interpretation of this event and how the public will respond? 

There are a couple of competing narratives that come out of the last few months. We see the police station go up in flames in Minneapolis, and that becomes one very powerful image that emerges from the protests. There are images of police arresting reporters from CNN on live TV, or the now famous image of a 75-year-old white man in Buffalo being knocked over by police and bleeding out of his ears. Those are in some ways competing stories about how we make sense of what’s happening. What I think we’ve seen over the last couple of months is a lot of attention to the police’s use of excess force. That has been one of the core ways in which the media have documented what’s happening at these events and helped the public make sense of a larger debate about the reform of policing. That’s clearly not to say that there haven’t been moments when protesters were also using violence. That’s been in the press as well. But I think what we’ve seen is that, overwhelmingly, the protests have been peaceful and have helped to focus national attention on the need for reform in policing. This echoes the 1960s, when police and vigilantes engaged in what were then called spectacles of violence that actually hurt the cause of police who wanted to maintain the status quo.

Given that there have been some acts of violence in recent protests, why do you think the public has been so sympathetic to the protesters?

I think it links to what was happening in 1955 with Emmett Till. Mamie Till is trying to figure out how to turn the brutal killing of her son into something that has meaning, and she fights tenaciously to get images of her brutalized son in national media. There’s this quote from her, which for me is quite powerful, “Let the world see what I have seen.” The work she does to turn suffering into change is a core lesson that the civil rights movement takes in their work in the 1960s. We see echoes of that in what people like John Lewis were doing, where he thinks of his work as a kind of redemptive suffering, where if I am an object of violence in national media, that may shock the conscience of the nation and advance the cause of racial equality. The link then to the current moment is that there’s this teenager, Darnella Frazier, who has the presence of mind to document all eight minutes and 46 seconds of Derek Chauvin resting his full body weight on the neck of George Floyd, and that video is an echo of Bloody Sunday, is an echo of the photograph of Emmett Till’s brutalized face. When the world can see what people in the Black community have seen for decades but has often been invisible to the larger white public, change becomes possible. It’s a terrible price to pay in the case of George Floyd, to be murdered on camera, but it speaks to the possibility of how activists can use media to elevate issues in the public and build powerful coalitions for change. So I think one of the core takeaways for me of my work on the 1960s is that when activists are able to tell their story in a compelling way—and sometimes that means telling a story in which people are injured, traumatized and killed—that can be very effective. It is obviously a terrible price to pay. But at the same time, when it works it can profoundly shape and change American politics.

A lot has obviously changed since the 1960s. We have a much less white country, and we also have young white people turning out to protest in record numbers. What has changed in American culture in the past 60 years that makes young white people so much more willing to stand up and protest these sorts of abuses?

One thing that’s clearly different now than in the past is the nature of media. In the 1960s, there’s a quote from a reporter about a large peaceful protest in Hattiesburg, Miss., and he says that a large picket line is not newsworthy. Blood and guts are news. Civil rights protesters had to fight an indifferent and, in some cases—with Southern pro-segregation newspapers—outright hostile media, to get their story out to the public. Today, the national media is much less indifferent to the cause of civil rights, but more important, we also have things like cell phones, where everybody now has a video camera in their pocket, so it’s possible to document incidents like the car driving into a crowd in Charlottesville, Va., where peaceful protesters were killed by a white supremacist vigilante. We, as an audience, can see images of somebody driving into a crowd. That does a lot to shape who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. I think young people have come of age in a moment when they are in some ways a generation shaped by the death of Trayvon Martin and this steady stream of cell phone footage that has documented police killing of unarmed Black men. Though young people may not be as grounded in any particular commitment to ideologies of the past, they are a generation that has in many ways been defined by the rise of video. The video images of indiscriminate use of force by police against African Americans have helped shape a sense of allegiance to the larger cause of the need to reform the police.

Deni Ellis Béchard is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at dbechard@stanford.edu.