Social Movements and Policy Change

Laura Blessing | September 8, 2020

How should we understand the fire this time?  In the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, a movement has re-ignited for civil rights in general and against police brutality specifically.  August 28 saw a March on Washington, 57 years after the original march with MLK’s famous “I have a dream” speech to crowds that thronged the Reflecting Pool. This year’s event was both similar and different. The comparison is worth considering both for larger questions of equality but also for Congress’s ability to respond to major societal needs. Such contrasts include the groundwork of previous organizing, changes in media, shifts in public opinion, the nature of the policies in question, and congressional functionality.

Previous Organizing

Both the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and today’s Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality have benefited from periods of previous organizing. The contrast drawn here focuses on the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act that provided desegregated accommodations and a federally protected right to vote, spurred by activists engaged in nonviolent resistance, engaging mass protests and high visibility that mark a shift from previous efforts. The successes of the 1960s were built on not merely peaceful protests, but protesters committed to nonviolence who knew they faced potentially brutal, even deadly, opposition. The calculation that experiencing racist violence would prompt enough moral outcry for change was not without controversy; successful Gandhian revolutions are not common in world history. But in addition to long-standing civil rights organizations like the NAACP, 1960s organizers depended on thorough training of their members for non-violent protests, to not react to either provocation or pain.

Today’s tactics, policies, and organizing look different, less hierarchical and more technocratic. It can be difficult to pin down BLM: created in 2013 after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, it has no central leadership, has both more establishment and more radical elements and policy proposals, and even some of its better known slogans, such as “defund the police,” are taken as meaning a large spectrum of actual reforms. But this seems to work for BLM—their public support has gone from fringe to mainstream, their network is active in many settings and can mobilize quickly for protests, and spin-off efforts such as Campaign Zero, prompted by a criticism that they lacked policy specifics, created a raft of researched reform proposals. These proposals could be implemented should they arrive at a window of opportunity for policy change. The window is now open. Doing groundwork ahead of time matters.

Media Changes

Major changes in media have political implications. Whether it be developments in the newspaper industry, the advent of radio, television, or the internet, or economic changes that undergird how the public consumes news, the electoral connection is filtered in a different way. It is hard to imagine the social reaction to 1960s civil rights abuses without the advent of mass TV ownership. Social media has the ability to engage and polarize people. But for a tool of mass awareness, it may be hard to overstate the advances of smart phones. Most citizens have a video camera at the ready, and while police reports can obscure abuses, there is nothing ambiguous about an officer kneeling on a man’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Absent these videos, there are likely no consequences for the officers, and no protests.

Public Opinion Shifts

The pressure of the protests, the use of new media to reveal injustice to white Americans, and the resulting shifts in public opinion may be what the 1960s and today have most in common. The pandemic has highlighted many inequities faced by communities of color, but polling on questions of police brutality specifically have shifted in dramatic ways. A June poll showed major shifts in the percentages of Americans who saw high-profile police murders as indicative of a larger societal problem with white Americans’ realizations essentially doubling (to over two-thirds) since 2014.

These shifts are remarkable in such a short period of time. Beyond the polling numbers themselves come a host of changes as different actors react to changes in society. Confederate symbols are challenged, corporations have put messaging and money towards this cause, and sports management finds themselves belatedly following the leadership of their players. Some of these are significant, while others have been criticized for prizing symbolism over substance. But the changed environment that spurs such reactions is significant.

It would be remiss to not focus on the political manifestations of protests that are not peaceful.  This is potentially another similarity with the 1960s, as riots were generally seen as undercutting the hard-won support of the non-violent protesters, and leading to Nixon’s “law and order” charge and a political and policy backlash. To be sure, many prominent voices—elected officials like Atlanta Mayor Bottoms, President Obama, the families of victims—have forcefully denounced rioters. The vast majority of protests—93%–have been peaceful, and violence has also been caused by police and white nationalist counter-protesters, and incited by political rhetoric. The disparate treatment given armed white militants or white rioting has certainly not escaped attention.  Still, the rioting that has occurred is politically significant. Various studies have sought to understand the political effects of riots and have found mixed results. The June poll cited above notably found a 91% rate of support among respondents who perceived the protests as largely peaceful, which dropped to 53% among those who thought they were mostly violent. Perception may not be reality, but it can still be politically consequential.

It is common to hear MLK’s quote that “riots are the language of the unheard,” but MLK also insisted on nonviolence in order to reach positive social change, which feels -accurately- like vulnerable communities are being judged by a different standard of behavior. This recognition is not new. One of the civil rights era recordings I’ve played for students offers a heartbreakingly stark statement on this (emphasis mine): President Kennedy is speaking to MLK on September 19, 1963, in the aftermath of the Birmingham bombing. (These comments come in at 18:49-20:10):

I know that this bombing is particularly difficult.  But if you look at any, as you know, any of these struggles over a period across the world, it is a very dangerous effort.  So everybody just has to keep their nerve.  If the Negroes should begin to respond and shoot at whites, we lose.  I think Wallace has lost.  I heard a southern senator with regard to civil rights say to me today, this is what I hear from him: that Wallace has made a bad mistake.  Now if you get…Wallace is in a bad position.  And because you gentlemen and the community have conducted yourselves in the way you have, it’s with you.  And of course when the police starts going for guns, they’ll shoot some innocent people, and they’ll be white, and then that will just wipe away all the support that’s been built up.  There will be no, in the beginning, you can’t get anything.  I can’t do very much.  Congress can’t do very much unless we keep the support of the white community throughout the country—as a country.  Once that goes, then we’re pretty much down to a racial struggle, so that I think we’ve just got to tell the Negro community that this is a very hard price which they have to pay to get this job done.

For all of the much-deserved opprobrium LBJ receives over Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement had an ally in him in a way that exceeded, in sincerity, effort, and strategy, what they found in JFK.

Different Policies, Different Possibilities

Some reforms are easier to both enact and to enforce than others. The successes of the 1960s involved policy areas that enjoyed sufficient popular and congressional support, with an activist President using federal law and administration to overcome the savage inequalities of some states and localities. This is not to downplay the staggering success of this legislation, or the importance of bipartisan leaders in Congress or particularly of President Johnson, who rose to power through a segregationist power structure, only revealing himself as an advocate for civil rights when real change was possible. But later reforms, from desegregating housing to schools, proved considerably more difficult and engendered far more entrenched opposition, with more empowered local actors.

How should we think about policing reforms? This issue is far from new; its history appears maddeningly intractable. The outsized importance and power of state and local areas and of police unions make any reforms require a different constellation of reform advocates in different institutional venues. To be sure, a whole host of changes, including funding restructuring and policy changes (bans on chokeholds, bans on no-knock warrants), have already occurred, with more underway. Perhaps one of the most significant is Colorado’s legislation eliminating qualified immunity, which allows police to be legally accountable in civil court. This reform’s success may not be a blueprint for elsewhere, though, as police unions are unusually weak in that state.

Congressional Capacity

A major part of the consideration for which reforms are possible is congressional responsiveness and capacity. The mid-1960s saw the passage of major pieces of legislation that remade the relationship of the state with its citizens—beyond civil rights, this included the Great Society legislation as well as other major bills, such as the 1964 tax cut. Both parties had liberal and conservative wings; while some issues were blocked by members of Congress or factions, the partisan gridlock of today (as well as routine use of the filibuster) were not evident.  Congress was far more legislatively productive than today, while grappling with bigger issues.

Much of the locus for police reform is on the state and local levels, though federal laws could make more widespread change. While this more localized set of political actors and institutions would have blocked reform in the 1960s it may represent an opportunity today. The House has passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which includes a host of reforms.  Other civil rights legislation under discussion involves the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which the House passed in 2019 but recently renamed after Lewis. Neither would make it past a Senate filibuster.

Reform advocates are so frustrated with this state of affairs that calling for the removal of the legislative filibuster has gotten mainstream attention and advocates. President Obama called for its removal as he eulogized John Lewis. It should be noted that reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act was not just a bipartisan but a nearly unanimous affair (nearly so in the House, actually unanimous in the Senate) as recently as 2006. Movement politics bring along radicals, but extreme circumstances also prompt movements.

Where We Go From Here

Who will be the next generation of change-makers, and what choices will they make? It is hard to overstate the loss of John Lewis last month.  Born into poverty, he rose to become of the “big six” leaders that organized (and spoke at) the 1963 March on Washington, and was the chair of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) from 1963-1966. He was just 25 when he led the Selma March and suffered a blow to the head that he feared would kill him. He looks so young in these photos in his tan coat. He invariably reminds me of my undergraduate students in a way that makes my chest tighten. These photos should remind us that every great leader was not born thus. Lewis became an elder statesman, representing Georgia in the House from 1987 to 2020. Those who worked in Congress got to see a man who emanated deep humanity and empathy regardless of whether the cameras were on or not.

When one thinks about what influences reform possibilities, the above factors– groundwork of previous organizing, changes in media, shifts in public opinion, the nature of the policies in question, and congressional functionality—are important indicators. But reform may be elusive even in more promising conditions. One of the most compelling speakers on Friday was MLK’s granddaughter Yolanda Renee King, who at twelve years old is already a public speaking veteran. The challenges we face are great, and the tools may seem imperfect, but these challenges need to be met. Yolanda’s future children and grandchildren should not have to protest the same abuses.

Laura Blessing is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

Categories: 116th Congress, Congressional Policy Issues, Congressional Update, Leadership, Media Center, Revise & Extend, Updates