Protests and social movements are centerpieces of American democracy. In the past, certain rights for women, blacks, and gays and lesbians were all attained through the process of successful protests and movements against injustices. Today, we see groups like Black Lives Matter, and the Parkland Youth protesting against perceived injustices and threats to our democracy.
On March 1st, 2018, I attended an event hosted by the Columbus, Ohio branch of Showing Up for Racial Justice. Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) is as their website says a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice. They have branches in all 50 states, in DC, and in Canada. To achieve this goal of a racially just society, they have a few strategies laid out. Their first strategy is to delegitimize racist institutions. Their second strategy is to fight for a fair economy. Their final strategy is to shift culture in a way that undermines white supremacy.
At the event, we discussed local ballot initiatives, some upcoming protests, and finished talking about the gun violence debate. Because SURJ is a group interested in racial justice, we compared the Black Lives Matter protests to that of the Parkland survivors. Specifically, we looked at the media portrayal of both protests. The consensus was that Black Lives Matter protests have not received the level of positivity from the media that the Parkland youth have received. The Parkland youth have also seemingly achieved a much more positive response to their cause from the government. These comparisons led those at the event to ask “What can Black Lives Matter do to get positive media coverage, direct talks with government officials, and real change enacted to end the injustice like the Parkland youth have?”.
For one, it is important that Black Lives Matter sticks to a path of nonviolent protests in the future. As Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth detail in Why Civil Resistance Works, their research shows that nonviolent campaigns are about twice as likely to succeed as violent ones. They found two reasons for this. The first reason is that it better legitimizes the cause and encourages more participation. As Chenoweth later writes online, this increase in participation is especially important if the people joining the cause do not normally participate in activism. The Parkland youth have been practicing nonviolent forms of protests and have been successful in recruiting gun owners and even high-ranking government officials to consider joining their cause. Black Lives Matter protests have been largely peaceful, but not completely peaceful. To draw more legitimacy and participation from outsiders in the future, they must put that behind them and not associate with future sympathizers that protest through violence.
The second reason that Stephan and Chenoweth find is that violence in response to violent protest is more acceptable than violence in response to a nonviolent protest. If the Parkland youth were to be pepper sprayed or tear gassed for their nonviolent protests, then this would surely draw more sympathy for their cause. If Black Lives Matter can stay nonviolent in their protests, then any violent attempt to stop them should backfire and end up helping their cause.
The presence of central leadership is also important for the success of protests and social movements. In the case studies that Stephan and Chenoweth looked at, part of the reason that the countries’ resistances succeeded were the presence of their leaders like the Aquino’s in the Philippines. Martin Luther King Jr. and Susan B. Anthony are both well known for their roles as leaders in helping their respective movements succeed in the United States. Today, the Parkland youth are gaining positive attention, sympathy, and respect because they are being well represented by their leaders like David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, and Emma González. Black Lives Matters has three main leaders in Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. For the movement’s future success, it is very important that these three leaders stay active, stay involved, and keep protesting for their cause. Without their leadership, Black Lives Matter could end up becoming another failed social movement.
Finally, as James Stimson writes in Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics, the mood of public opinion can often be attributed to the views of the incumbent president. This thermostat-like model says that public’s attitudes about liberal and conservative ideas shift back and forth in way that reflects how people change the thermostat when they feel it is too cold or too hot. When a more liberal president is in office, people will generally start to favor more conservative ideas. When a more conservative president is in office, people will generally start to favor more liberal ideas. Today, we have a more conservative president in office. As a result, we are seeing some public support for gun control from people who were previously opposed to it. If this pattern continues for Trump’s presidency, then Black Lives Matter should potentially see an increase in support from people who previously opposed their cause.
If Black Lives Matter can continue to protest nonviolently, keep their central leadership, and take advantage of a shift in public opinion, then they will be positioned to achieve their goals of stopping racial injustices just like the Parkland youth are starting to achieve some of their goals of gun control.
*Photo by Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune, Creative Commons Zero License
 Stephan, Maria J., and Erica Chenoweth. “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” International Security, vol. 33, no. 1, 2008, pp. 7–44
 “Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics.” Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics, by James A. Stimson, Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 23–57