In his book Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, Doug McAdam discussed the combination of social and political factors that facilitated the emergence, and significant successes of, the Civil Rights Movement. One of his arguments is that discussions of the movement often overlook the way that non-violent civil rights protesters were able to strategically use violent responses by white supremacists as a resource. While in some cases violent responses were unexpected, most of the time activists understood that they were likely to be met by violence. In fact, McAdam argues, many activists counted on that public brutality. Images such as Sheriff Bull Connor’s officers turning fire hoses and police dogs on non-violent protesters galvanized public opinion in support of the civil rights movement and produced the political pressure necessary to push an often-reluctant federal government to intervene. Thus, McAdam argues that public use of violence by state authorities against protesters can provide essential tools for social movements: a visible, concrete sign of repression, evidence of the vulnerability of citizens in the face of a brutal, intransigent state, and dramatic images that draw media and public attention.

I thought of McAdam’s book when Dmitriy T.M. sent in a link from Five Thirty Eight about how police actions affected media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests. The article was written on October 7th, so it doesn’t include the impacts of the most recent clashes with police, particularly the Oakland PD’s tear gassing of OWS protesters a couple of nights ago. But already, a noteworthy pattern was emerging. Nate Silver looked at OWS coverage in a database of about 4,000 U.S. news sources. He found that media coverage was basically nonexistent until NYPD pepper sprayed some protesters. Coverage shot up again after NYPD arrested a few hundred protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct. 1st and after more incidents on Oct. 5th:

As Silver points out, we can’t discern any clear causality here; perhaps media coverage would have gone up over time anyway. But coverage of OWS doesn’t show a smooth, slowly-increasing trend; coverage jumped after each of these instances of violence, and after the Brooklyn Bridge arrests, remained much higher than it had been before. At the very least, it appears that violence by the police drew media attention, providing an opening for the concerns of OWS protesters — and the persistence and growth of OWS protests around the country — to be defined as legitimate news stories in their own right.

UPDATE: For more on the persistence of the OWS movement and protesters’ tactical and organizational skill, check out Steven Vallas’s post at Organizations, Occupations and Work.

[Full Cite: Doug McAdam. 1999. Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.]