University of South Florida


The power of protest

A stock photo of people protesting

Cities across the country, including in the Tampa Bay region, are making adjustments to policing tactics and how individual departments investigate claims of police brutality. Monuments are being torn down, buildings are changing names and well-known brands are updating their images to coincide with modern times. The shift to eliminate a previous era that glorifies Confederate leaders and racial stigmas follows ongoing nationwide protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

USF sociology Professor Robert Benford has spent his career studying social movements. He says while protestors are being heard, it’s very challenging to scientifically identify a movement’s impact on an issue’s true outcome. He says such results are often counterfactual, meaning there are other changes simultaneously taking place. Experts have long disagreed on how much the anti-Vietnam effort impacted the war’s end, as other social forces were at play, such as the availability of televised news coverage, concerns about the length of the war and varying military strategies.

USF students protest the Kent State shootings in 1970.

USF students protest the Kent State shootings in 1970.

Benford points to the civil rights movement as another prime example. Slavery was abolished in 1865, nearly a century before segregation became illegal. Throughout the decades in between, the cotton industry began to decline, precipitating a large migration from southern rural communities to northern, urban areas. This provided African Americans the opportunity to connect with larger groups of people, such as through Black churches, colleges and volunteer organizations, like the NAACP, all of which became a critical component to organizing the civil rights movement.

“What made the movement so impactful, was that it used multiple strategies to influence change,” Benford said. “It changed laws, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, changed private business practices, increased voter registration and changed attitudes about race.”

He adds in order for a movement to be successful, it must combine grassroot efforts with bureaucratic and organizational support, something Benford says the Occupy movement was known to lack, and it does not attempt to displace or overthrow existing power. He says they also offer a sense of solidarity and incentives to people who participate in the movement, such as t-shirts, buttons and access to high-profile leaders.

Benford’s specific expertise is studying the effectiveness of how movements frame a social issue. He’s found the most impactful movements clearly articulate their grievances to the public and not only get people to agree with them, but inspire them to take action as well. In his co-authored study published in the “Annual Review of Sociology,” Benford writes, “The more culturally believable the claimed evidence, and the greater the number of slices of such evidence, the more credible the framing and the broader its appeal.”

USF protests in 1970

Experts attribute much of the Black Lives Matter movement’s impact to video evidence of African Americans being killed in police custody. The movement has brought tens of thousands of people into the streets, protesting police brutality and racial inequalities. It initially launched in 2013, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. As its visibility continues to grow, so do concerns with the militarization of police, a shift in policing tactics and recruitment strategies.

“Black Lives Matter seeks to reframe at least five centuries of framings and policies by dominant actors and institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, which devalued Black lives, denigrated blackness and systematically discriminated against any who appeared to be other than white,” Benford said. “BLM activists are not arguing that other lives don’t matter. Rather, BLM activists fashioned a powerful moral argument against categorical prejudices and discriminatory practices that permeate virtually every nook and cranny of American society. It’s an attempt to counter-frame the historical and current lack of regard for the value and sanctity of Black lives.”

The movement is prompting some structural and cultural changes. More leaders are being held accountable for their actions and there’s a greater awareness of implicit biases and the definition of “white privilege.” However, Benford says truly meaningful change moves more gradually. It took 50 years from the time women earned the right to vote to when all states allowed them to serve on juries. The gay rights movement mobilized for decades before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015, and just this month, it expanded the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit employers from discriminating against sexual orientation and transgender status. Benford says only time will tell if these ongoing protests will have a long-lasting impact.

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