Resist, Revolt, Rinse, Repeat

By Cleo Hernandez
Associate Editor, Volume 23

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Protestors gather in Charlottesville, VA in Aug. 2017

A public square, angry words, angry people, police in riot gear, torches bright against a night sky, flags, homemade signs and banners, summer heat. Some would say that this is what democracy looks like, [1] but perhaps it is the failure of democracy that brings people to the streets. For those whose combined voices, votes, or dollars are too small in number to form a majority capable of effecting political change,[2] or for those of color competing against a white majority, protests and other forms of unconventional political participation may seem more effective at achieving equality goals.[3]

The recent incidents in Charlottesville can be characterized as a racial protest.[4] Charlottesville 2017[5] was not a spontaneous outburst of hatred and violence fanned into flame by diverging partisan reactions to the Trump administration,[6] but another battle in America’s longstanding struggle against racism.

Early protest scholarship orbited around the assumption that the benefits of protest are undeniable, but that the extreme inherent costs should always prevent people from protesting.[7] Costs of protesting can include anything from the increased likelihood of arrest, to the time required to protest, to the possibility of losing employment because of protest participation. Indeed, the law operates on four different yet interlocked levels to restrict protest and discourage people from protesting.[8] Police officers regulate protestor behavior in the streets with varying degrees of physical force.[9] Legislatures enact laws that restrict protests in time, place, and manner.[10] Administrative agencies sometimes require permits and fees for protests.[11] And finally, the judiciary then operates as a reviewer of these three regulators in freedom of speech concerns, and as a final restrictor for protestors if they face criminal charges.[12]

So why take to the streets? Why did people protest at Charlottesville in particular? One prevailing theory is that people protest because other people protest. This is called sometimes a bandwagon[13] effect or a cascade.[14] Each individual weighs the pros and cons of protest differently, and acts when benefits outweigh costs. An increase in the availability of information about protest and its likelihood makes protest increasingly seem more plausible to the human psyche. [15] As the information spreads, certain individuals increasingly begin to perceive others as more likely to protest, and those individuals’ perceptions of the costs of protesting change, causing them to protest and/or to add to the information about the likelihood of protest or protest success.[16] This information in turn changes other individuals’ cost calculations, and the pattern repeats and cascades, so that large numbers of people coalesce, or jump on the bandwagon.[17]

Charlottesville 2017 seems to fit this model. The controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate symbols across the South and in Charlottesville creates an increased availability of information[18] in the news and on social media that could influence perspectives about protest likelihood. Furthermore, the bandwagon effect could operate as a feedback loop to explain why two groups of people with completely different reasons for protesting both took to the streets. Not only is it possible that the increase in information available in support of one group’s protest platform served to spur that group to protest, but it is also possible that that same increased availability in information, which would be information that the other side fundamentally disagreed with, served to mobilize the other group as well.

Race is no stranger to the concept of American protest, and neither are emotions. Both are factors that play a significant role in determining each individual’s decision to protest. When large numbers of individuals turn out to protest, however, a complex process occurs over time, in a context where laws interact to characterize protest as costly. The racial hatred and violence exhibited at the Charlottesville 2017 protest is nothing new to this nation, it is just one of those certain moments where enough people have seen enough information about it so they no longer feel like they are risking their safety, jobs, freedom, etc. to trigger a bandwagon effect.


[1] See, e.g., This is What Democracy Looks Like (Independent Media Center and Big Noise 2000), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBUZH2vCD_k (demonstrating protest chants that express support for the democratic value of directly expressing the people’s voice).

[2] See id. at 419-20 (explaining Jim Crow era oppression and the theory that the only way to initiate real change is to economically influence the target of the protest).

[3] Effectiveness or success of a protest is difficult to measure, for it is usually never the protestors themselves doing the study about what their goals were and how they were met. Some studies have found that protests do not have an effect, but other research supports that sit-ins in the 1960s were a contributing factor to de-segregation. Michael Biggs and Kenneth T. Andrews, Protest Campaigns and Movement Success: Desegregating the U.S. South in the Early 1960s, 80 Am. Soc. Rev. 416, 416-17 (2015).

[4] When considering protests with a racial component, Susan Olzak’s definition of racial/ethnic mobilization provides a useful conceptualization of the phenomenon: “collective action based upon ethnic claims, protest, or intergroup hostility that makes reference to a group’s demands based upon one or more cultural markers (such as skin pigmentation, language, religious distinctions, dialect, cultural practices, or regional or homeland identification) . . . .” Susan Olzak, The Global Dynamics of Racial and Ethnic Mobilization 4 (Stanford University Press, 2006).

Therefore, racial protest not only serves to define protest that is about a race or racism related issue, but also a protest where the predominant actors are of one racial group expressing that group’s concerns.

[5] I have elected to refer to the protest in this way for simplicity’s sake, and to not give more credit to any particular branch of protestors that participated in the event.

[6] PBS Newshour White nationalist rally brings clashes in Charlottesville (Aug. 12, 2017), http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/white-nationalist-rally-brings-clashes-charlottesville/ (describing the protest as “sparked,” and interviewing protestors who cite the Trump administration for inciting hatred).

[7] Doug McAdam and Yang Su, The War at Home: Antiwar Protests and Congressional Voting, 1965-1973, 67 Am. Soc. Rev. 696, 699.

[8] Kevin Francis O’Neill, Disentangling the Law of Public Protest, 45 Loy. L. Rev. 411 at 416-18.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Timur Kuran, Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution 1989, World Politics Oct. 1991 at 7, 19-21.

[14] Timur Kuran and Cass R. Sunstein, Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation, 51 Stan. L. Rev. 683, 685-86.

[15] Id. at 685 (explaining how the availability heuristic operates in the collective action context).

[16] Kuran, supra note 13, at 19-22.

[17] Kuran and Sunstein, supra note 14, at 685-87; Kuran, supra note 13, at 22

[18] And this information is likely from the perspective of both sides of the debate, especially on social media outlets, thus encouraging people to protest against the takedown and against those against the takedown.

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