Repression and Insurgent Practice

Daniel McClymonds and Dr. Joshua Bloom, University of Pittsburgh

Published on: August 21, 2021

Image: All-Nite via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

Following the killing of George Floyd by officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Black Liberation Struggle mobilized on a scale unprecedented in the United States since the 1960s. Nonviolent anti-racist protesters were met with police wielding batons, tear gas, and flash grenades. This repression, however, did not stop the rebellion. Indeed, in the days following the most repressive incidents, Black Lives Matter protests intensified and spread across the country.

Insurgent movements almost always face repression from authorities. But why does repression sometimes quash insurgent movements yet sometimes invigorate them? The key to answering this question, a perennial concern for activists, lies in the specific form of insurgent practices being repressed.

For decades, social movement scholars have developed theories of repression and its effects on movement mobilization. Some of these theories emerged from scholarly attempts to account for the ebbs and flows of the Black Liberation Struggles of the 1960s. However, empirical data continue to defy their predictions.

“The Dynamics of Repression and Insurgent Practice” revisits and refines longstanding theories. Empirical implications are assessed with hazard and graphic analyses, and out of sample testing, using two Stanford event catalogues covering thousands of Black insurgent events in specific U.S. cities between 1954 and 1992.

The “Inverse U” theory suggests that the effects of repression vary according to the intensity of the repression. In particular, moderate repression can instigate further movement activity by creating grievances for the opposition. Intense levels of repression, however, make protesting so risky that it effectively stifles the opposition. The theory expects this pattern to hold uniformly across historical situations.

In the case of the Black Liberation Struggle, this theory leads us to expect that high levels of repression should decrease the likelihood of mobilization, and this pattern should persist regardless of the practices being repressed, or historical period. The empirical analysis did not support this prediction.

The “political opportunity” theory, by contrast, suggests that the effects of repression vary historically for a given social group. Weakening political constraints provide opportunities, and groups favored by those changes can use their newfound political leverage to resist repression and mobilize.

This theory would lead us to expect that repression would increase the likelihood of Black mobilization from the mid-50s into the mid-60s, when political opportunities expanded for Black people as a social group, but decrease the likelihood of mobilization from the late 1960s onward, as those opportunities began to contract. The empirical analysis, however, did not consistently support these predictions, either.

Finally, “insurgent practice” theory suggests that the effects of repression vary according to the insurgent practices being repressed. In a given historical situation, some insurgent practices draw on broad support from allied third-parties, effectively resisting repression, while others do not, making them easily repressible.

In the Black Liberation Struggles of the 1960s, insurgents used various kinds of insurgent practices. Some practices, including lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides, drew broad support from allies. Some violent forms, such as Black Panther armed resistance to police raids also drew support. Violent urban rebellions, however, did not. Insurgent practice theory leads us to expect divergent outcomes based on which practices drew support. Repression of Civil Rights and Black Panther insurgency should increase the likelihood of mobilization. Repression of violent urban rebellions should decrease that likelihood.

The empirical analysis provided consistent support for these predictions. As authorities repressed Civil Rights and black Panther practices, protestors were more likely to mobilize. As authorities repressed violent urban rebellions, protestors were less likely to do so.

Importantly, this pattern persisted regardless of the intensity of repression, contrary to the Inverse U theory. This pattern persisted despite the fact that these divergent practices were used by the same social group, contrary to political opportunity theory. And this pattern persisted throughout the time period under study, contrary to both earlier theories.

These findings can inform not only to academic debates but also movement practice. The findings call attention to the specific repertoires of insurgent practice. If you look closely at a movement in progress, you may notice that in a given struggle, only certain practices draw support in the face of repression. In such a situation, it is these forms that are likely to sustain mobilization.

Bloom, Joshua. 2020. “The Dynamics of Repression and Insurgent Practice in the Black Liberation Struggle” American Journal of Sociology 126(2): 195-259.