Disruption is not a form of attraction.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Ferguson Protests Risk Losing More Than They Gain

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I spent the holiday weekend in Washington.  This morning I headed to the airport to return to Chicago for my final week at the Institute of Politics.  The driver took  a long and strange route, and when I landed, I found out why: a group of Ferguson protesters had shut down a major artery during rush hour, causing huge delays, especially for inbound commuters.

Ferguson protests have been active in Washington for several days -- shutting down streets, surprising shoppers at various retail centers.  There’s been a lot of back and forth about the propriety of taking over highways in order to protest injustice in another city.  I’m not going to get into that debate, because I doubt that anyone involved  is open to persuasion.  But it’s worth exploring a different question: regardless of the morality, is this a good tactic?

The last week has brought defenses of these sorts of disruptive protests -- even a few defenses of rioting -- on the grounds that this is the only way to get public attention.  And it’s true: These protests have certainly attracted attention.  But attention that helps the cause?  You often hear that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. That is deep nonsense, as I’m sure Bill Cosby could testify right about now.

The defenses of riots are the easiest to dispose of: Riots are pretty bad.  They’re bad because they put people at physical risk (multiple people died in the 1968 Washington riots, not from overzealous policing, but because ambulances couldn’t reach them in time, or because they were burned to death in fires set by rioters).  They’re also terrible for the neighborhoods they ravage -- often the neighborhoods where the rioters live. 

The 1968 riots destroyed swathes of Washington's residential commercial corridors.  Many businessmen simply chose not to rebuild; others might have, but quailed when they saw their new insurance rates, and realized that they’d be trying to run a business on a strip with a lot of abandoned, or burned-out, storefronts.  Places like that are bad places to do business, because stores can generate spillover traffic to your establishment.  The upshot is that the stores moved to the suburbs, and nearly 50 years later, large areas of Washington have a striking paucity of retail.  That means fewer jobs for low-skilled residents, and of course, fewer, more expensive, and much more inconvenient options for those residents to purchase what they need.

True, the 1968 riots attracted  attention, and a fair amount of federal money.  Ending the rule of the segregationists over the city was a big deal, and it’s hard to argue that the riots had nothing to do with that.  But after the wave of federal money receded, the Washingtonians who remained had a lot of ugly government-built buildings, and not much in the way of an economy. The most hurt were, of course, those who lacked the social and financial capital to flee the problems the riots left in their wake.

But what about non-violent protests, such as the ones that have shut down various Washington thoroughfares?  There’s no lasting harm to offset against the attention these protests draw.  Except, maybe, to the cause for which they’re trying to rally support.

Making someone sit in his or her car for an hour or so in order to hold a rush-hour protest may indeed get you on television. And if that person was already in sympathy with your cause, maybe they’re happy to do it out of solidarity.  On the other hand, what if that person is part of the big, messy middle who hasn’t been paying much attention to the details of Ferguson?  Now that person hates you, and by extension, your cause.  It’s a flashy protest that gets you on television, of course --  but are the folks in the big, messy middle imagining themselves in the place of a) the protesters, or b) the poor person who is going to have to skip lunch all week to make up the time he lost stuck behind your protest?

If the answer is b), then congratulations, more people are paying attention to your cause than ever before, and instead of being apathetic, they’re actively against you.

Now, I’m going to get some angry pushback on this from people who say that I’m ignoring historic wrongs in favor of grubby calculations about public opinion.  To which I reply: I am not ignoring the historic wrongs, which are both historic, and wrong. If you want to change them, however, you are going to need a public that supports you, or at the very least, does not actively oppose your cause.  This is a lesson that the Tea Party has been busily learning over the last few years.

I once heard a story about a marriage counselor who was talking to a client, one of those scorched-earth debaters who would do anything to get the other person to admit that he was right.  “Do you want to be right,” asked the counselor, “ or do you want to be married?”  Protesters need to ask themselves a similar question: “Do you want to express yourself, or do you want to actually make changes?” 

Maybe in an ideal world, there would never be a tradeoff between those two things; in the real world, however, there often is.  

Righteous fury is hard to transmit to someone else who doesn’t feel it.  And when protesters escalate their tactics in a bid for attention, they run the risk that they will inspire someone else to righteous fury -- aimed at them, not the injustice they are trying to right.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net