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The Conditions of Protest Behavior in American Cities*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2014

Peter K. Eisinger*
University of Wisconsin, Madison


This paper is an exploration of various political environmental conditions associated with the incidence of political protest activities directed toward urban institutions, agencies, and officials in 43 American cities.

Two preliminary questions are considered first. One deals with making explicit the theoretical linkage between elements in the political environment and political behavior. The other is an attempt to define protest technically and to differentiate it from political violence. This effort is made necessary by the facts that violence and protest are not treated in the literature as distinct forms of behavior (but rather as similar acts at different points on a continuum of aggressiveness) and that studies of collective violence in American ghettos indicate no relation between environment and rioting.

Two alternative hypotheses are considered: protest varies negatively with indicators of an open political system (a linear model) and protest is greatest in systems characterized by a mix of open and closed factors (a curvilinear model). Data are drawn from newspaper accounts of protest incidents in 43 cities over a six month period in 1968, producing a sample of 120 protest incidents.

Both the simple incidence of protest and the intensity of protest seem to fit the curvilinear model more closely than the linear one. The incidence of protest, then, seems to signify change not only among previously quiescent or conventionally oriented groups but also in the political system itself as it becomes more open and responsive.

Copyright © American Political Science Association 1973

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This paper is a revised version of one prepared for a Seminar Panel on The Political Legacy of the Urban Protests in the 1960s at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, September, 1971, Chicago, Illinois. The research was supported in part by funds granted to the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin by the Office of Economic Opportunity pursuant to the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. I wish to thank a number of indefatigable assistants including William Corman, Mark Ginsberg, Eugene Hahn, Freda Merritt, Robert Neis, and William Walker. I am also grateful to my colleagues Donald McCrone, Ira Sharkansky, Richard Merelman, and David Seidman for their helpful comments and suggestions. The conclusions are, of course, my responsibility alone.


1 It should be noted that a significant body of research, based on similar intellectual assumptions, has also treated governmental structure as a dependent variable. These would include Kessel, John H., “Governmental Structure and Political Environment,” American Political Science Review, 56 (09, 1962). 615620CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schnore, Leo and Alford, Robert, “Forms of Government and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Suburbs,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 8 (06, 1963), 117CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Alford, Robert and Scoble, Harry, “Political and Socio-Economic Characteristics of American Cities,” Municipal Yearbook 1965 (Chicago: International City Managers' Association, 1965), 8297Google Scholar; and Wolfinger, Raymond and Field, John Osgood, “Political Ethos and the Structure of City Government,” American Political Science Review, 60 (06, 1966), 306326.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 Alford, Robert and Lee, Eugene, “Voting Turnout in American Cities,” American Political Science Review, 62 (09, 1968), 796813.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 Sherbenou, Edgar L., “Class, Participation, and the Council-Manager Plan,” Public Administration Review, 21 (Summer, 1961), 131135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 Hawley, Amos H., “Community Power and Urban Renewal Success,” American Journal of Sociology, 68 (01, 1963), 422–431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5 Lieberson, Stanley and Silverman, Arnold R., “The Precipitants and Underlying Conditions of Race Riots,” American Sociological Review, 30 (12, 1965), 887898.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

6 Lineberry, Robert makes a similar point in his essay, “Approaches to the Study of Community Politics,” in Community Politics, ed. Bonjean, Charles, Clark, Terry N., and Lineberry, Robert (New York: The Free Press, 1971), p. 20.Google Scholar

7 Lineberry, Robert and Fowler, Edmund, “Reformism and Public Policies in American Cities,” American Political Science Review, 61 (09, 1967), 715.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

8 This view of reform government is most cogently put in Edward Banfield and Wilson, James Q., City Politics (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard and MIT Presses, 1963), pp. 40 ff.Google Scholar

9 Lieberson and Silverman, p. 896.

10 Downes, Bryan T., “Social and Political Characteristics of Riot Cities: A Comparative Study,” Social Science Quarterly, 49 (12, 1968), 504520.Google Scholar

11 Spilerman, Seymour, “The Causes of Racial Disturbances: Tests of a Theory,” Institute for Research on Poverty Discussion Paper, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, 1969.Google Scholar

12 Palley, Marian Lief and Palley, Howard A., “Social Welfare Indicators as Predictors of Racial Disorders in Black Ghettos,” a paper delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, 09, 1969.Google Scholar

13 See, for example, Fogelson, Robert, Violence as Protest (New York: Doubleday, 1971)Google Scholar; Turner, Ralph. “The Public Perception of Protest,” American Sociological Review, 34 (12, 1969), 816830CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; and Banfield, Edward, The Unheavenly City (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1970).Google Scholar Banfield speaks of “demonstrations” as a form of “rioting.” See Chapter 9, esp. p. 191.

14 Lipsky, Michael uses this phrase in “Protest as Political Resource,” American Political Science Review, 62 (12, 1968), 11441158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15 Wilson, James Q. was among the first to see protest as a form of bargaining in “The Strategy of Protest: Problems of Negro Civic Action,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 5 (09, 1961), 291303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16 When the solitary politician rises in the legislative chamber to object to some official action, the press and public note that Congressman X protested on the floor of the House. This is to use “protest” generically to refer to vehement objection.

17 Donald Von Eschen and his colleagues argue that the primary element leading to the success of a black protest movement in Maryland which they studied during the days of the civil rights turmoil was the exploitation of elite fear of violence and civil disorder, although the movement never intended violence. Eschen, Donald Von, Kirk, Jerome, and Pinard, Maurice, “The Conditions of Direct Action in a Democratic Society,” Western Political Quarterly, 22 (06, 1969), 309.CrossRefGoogle ScholarTurner, Ralph also dwells on the theme of the manipulation of fear of violence as the motive force of protest in “The Public Perception of Protest,” p. 816.Google Scholar See also Nieburg, H. L., Political Violence (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1969), p. 129Google Scholar; and “The Threat of Violence and Social Change,” American Political Science Review, 56 (December, 1962), 872.

18 A theory of violence and protest must somehow confront the problem of classifying verbal violence. i.e., where no physical harm is actually done. I would contend that verbal violence changes the nature of a political action and goes beyond the balance of threat and legitimate appeal struck by protestors. Thus it may be classified with active violent behavior for the purposes of understanding the dynamics of categories of actions.

19 The analysis presented here makes an attempt to control for the racial composition of the protest incidents under examination.

20 Spilerman, pp. 1–2.

21 See Lupsha, Peter, “On Theories of Urban Violence,” Urban Affairs Quarterly, 4 (03, 1969), 275CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Palley, Marian Lief and Palley, Howard A., “From Expressive Disorders to Issue-Oriented Politics,” a paper delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, 09, 1970, 56.Google Scholar

22 Eisinger, Peter K., “Protest Behavior and the Integration of Urban Political Systems,” Journal of Politics, 33 (11, 1971), 989990.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

23 This hypothesis finds support in the vast literature on relative deprivation and psychological response to frustration. For a summary of relevant materials, see Gurr, Ted, Why Men Rebel (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1970)Google Scholar, chap. 2, especially pp. 24, 34–35, 38.

24 This hypothesis represents an amalgam of several classic explanations of the causes of revolution, namely those of Soule and Brinton. As Soule has written, only after the position of desperate people “is somewhat improved and they have sensed the possibility of change, do they revolt effectively against oppression and injustice.” Quoted in Gurr, p. 114.

25 The sample was drawn from the Municipal Year-book 1968 (Chicago: International City Managers' Association, 1968). Population and percentage of blacks were taken from the 1970 census, 1970 Census of Population, Advance Report, U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Washington, D.C.

26 Lipsky, p. 1146.

27 Lipsky, p. 1151. Compare Turner's observation that protest cannot be projected as protest unless it conforms to folk-theories of what protest is (“The Public Perception of Protest,” p. 818).

28 The case of an American court-martial, held in Britain in the summer of 1971, comes to mind in which the guilt of the defendant hung on the definition of an act he had admittedly committed. The defendant, an army lawyer, had been accused of organizing a demonstration against the war (which is illegal for Americans in uniform overseas) while the lawyer argued that all he had done was to present a petition at the American embassy, which is legal for military personnel. In other words, the defendant refused to define his action as protest.

29 These were San Francisco, Milwaukee, Sacramento, Boston, and Seattle.

30 Unless otherwise noted, the correlations reported here are significant at the .05 level.

31 Some participants may have taken part in more than one protest in a given city during the time span of this study, but there is no way of controlling for multiple participation.

32 Eisinger, p. 1005.

33 Mexican-Americans were responsible for the remainder of those protests in which participants were identified by race or ethnicity (4 per cent).

34 Lineberry, and Fowler, , “Reformism and Public Policies in American Cities,” p. 715.Google Scholar

35 Lineberry and Fowler, pp. 713–714. The difference between reform and traditional components is illustrated in the present body of data by the fact that blacks are slightly more likely to have nearly proportional representation on the city council under a ward system than under either a combined at-large/ward system or an at-large system. The correlation coefficient between the degree of proportional representation and ward elections is quite small (r = .16) but it is in the predicted direction.

36 This is significant at the .02 level. Form of government was treated as a dichotomized dummy variable with the one commission government in the sample grouped with the manager governments. Robert Alford and Eugene Lee found that grouping commission and manager governments for a procedure identical to the one used here did not alter the correlation in a significant way. See their “Voting Turnout in American Cities,” p. 803.

37 Significant at the .006 level.

38 Aiken has argued that reform governments and a concentrated distribution of power are positively related, but his relationships are neither strong nor significant. “The Distribution of Community Power: Structural Bases and Social Consequences” in The Structure of Community Power, ed. Aiken, Michael and Mott, Paul (New York: Random House, 1970), pp. 499500.Google ScholarGreenstone, J. David and Peterson, Paul however, have argued the exact opposite in “Reformers, Machines, and the War on Poverty” in City Politics and Public Policy, ed. Wilson, James Q. (New York: Wiley, 1968), p. 289.Google Scholar Their examination was based on a study of only four cities.

39 Lipsky, pp. 1146–1147.

40 Hawley, “Community Power and Urban Renewal Success.” Aiken has run the MPO ratio against his own measures of power concentration and comes up with the exactly opposite conclusion from Hawley. Aiken is not entirely sure how to explain the difference and ends up urging caution in the use of the measure. See p. 503.

41 Hawley, p. 424.

42 The distinction between potential influence and manifest influence, or influence in repose and influence in use, is germane here. See Dahl, Robert, Modern Political Analysis (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970), pp. 2829Google Scholar; and Gamson, William, Power and Discontent (Homewood, Illinois: Dorsey, 1968), Chapters 4 and 5.Google Scholar

43 It could be argued that the association of protest with occupational makeup of a population is simply an indication that protest occurs where there are greater numbers of people holding low status occupations. That is, protest is not a response to the systemic characteristic of resource concentration but rather is a function of the existence of large numbers of potential protestors. (This assumes that, at least in the aggregate, protest and lower-class status are related. Survey data I have collected in Milwaukee, to be reported elsewhere, show no relationship at the individual level between low status and protest participation.)

Nevertheless, if this were the case using aggregate rather than survey data, we could explain Hawley's findings by arguing that the larger the percentage of MPO's, the better-off the population, and the fewer would be the policies geared to social welfare programs designed to aid low income groups. However, the findings of Paulson and his colleagues suggest that the MPO ratio affords more than a simple indicator of the socioeconomic composition of the population and implies a distinctive configuration of power.

Paulson et al. discovered that North Carolina counties with small percentages of MPO's—which would indicate a relatively low level of socioeconomic wellbeing—had lower welfare expenditures than those counties with high proportions of MPO's. They conclude that a high concentration of power can block what elites feel are undesirable programs, despite demonstrable needs of the population. Paulson, Wayne, Butler, Edgar W., and Pope, Hallowell, “Community Power and Public Welfare,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 28 (01, 1969), 1727.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

44 Data on black elected officials was drawn from the National Roster of Black Elected Officials, compiled by Metropolitan Applied Research Center, Washington, D.C. and Voter Education Project, Southern Regional Council, Atlanta, Georgia, 02, 1970.Google Scholar

45 This was set up in terms of a Model Cities grant/no Model Cities grant dummy variable. The source for this information is 1968 HUD Statistical Yearbook (Washington, D.C.: Department of Housing and Urban Development, Government Printing Office, 1968). There are no data concerning those cities which applied for Model Cities funds but were turned down.

46 Municipal Yearbook 1970 (Chicago: International City Management Association, 1970) provided the source for these data.

47 Survey data I have collected in the city of Milwaukee indicate that housing ranks consistently first for members of both races as “the most important problem facing this city.” This is a finding duplicated in other surveys. See, for example, Frieden, Bernard J., “Housing and National Urban Goals: Old Policies and New Realities,” in The Metropolitan Enigma, ed. Wilson, James Q., (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 162.Google Scholar

48 The Model Cities Program: A Comparative Analysis of the Planning Process in Eleven Cities (Washington, D.C.: Department of Housing and Urban Development, Government Printing Office, 1970), p. 7.

49 Delaney, Paul, “Recruiting of Negro Police Is a Failure in Most Cities,” New York Times, January 25, 1971Google Scholar, p. 1, cols. 2, 3, p. 14, cols. 3–8.

50 For example, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Gary, all cities in our sample, were less likely than some of the other cities to share power over the program with local residents. See The Model Cities Program….

51 Alex, Nicholas, Black in Blue: A Study of the Negro Policeman (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1969), p. 161.Google Scholar

52 Naturally, such an argument means that the open system cannot be measured by these variables: they only indicate closed and mixed systems. This is true when the variables are treated as gross indicators of responsiveness. If they could be combined with a lay participation index and a black policeman brutality index, for example, then the variables would offer greater discriminatory power.

53 These included Phoenix, Elizabeth, Sacramento, Long Beach, Rockford, Las Vegas, and Miami.

54 Variations in reporting practices make interjurisdictional crime rate comparisons a delicate task, yet I have used such a measure in the absence of other readily available summary measures.

55 Solomon, F. et al., “Civil Rights Activity and Reduction in Crime Among Negroes,” Archives of General Psychiatry, 12 (03, 1965), 227236CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, cited in Gurr, , Why Men Rebel, p. 310.Google Scholar

56 For riots in 1967 the list on pages 158–159 of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (New York: Bantam Books, 1968) was used. For 1968 riots, the New York Times Index supplied the data.

57 There is some point of diminishing returns, after which a long and large protest simply becomes routine, and passions settle down. The measure of intensity used here takes this phenomenon into account in an arbitrary way by scoring equally any duration over three days.

58 The mean number of participants per protest was 180.

59 The argument of this paper would have it that discontent over deprivation may be expressed more easily through conventional political strategies in an open system, whereas protest is often necessary to communicate discontent in a closed system.

60 Bowen, Don R., Bowen, Elinor R., Gawiser, Sheldon, and Masotti, Louis H., “Deprivation, Mobility, and Orientation Toward Protest of the Urban Poor,” American Behavioral Scientist, 2 (03-April 1968), 2024.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

61 Palley and Palley, “Social Welfare Indicators as Predictors of Racial Disorders…”.

62 Lupsha, , “On Theories of Urban Violence,” pp. 285, 288.Google Scholar

63 Frances Fox Piven has observed that “social protest actions, because they offer simple and dramatic definitions of problems, may penetrate apathy and override puzzled disengagement bred of lack of information.” “Participation of Residents in Neighborhood Community Action Programs,” Social Work, 11 (January, 1966), 78.

64 This draws on the well-known argument of Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz, S., “Two Faces of Power,” American Political Science Review, 57 (12, 1962), 947952.Google Scholar

65 Eisinger, , “Protest Behavior and the Integration of Urban Political Systems,” p. 990.Google Scholar