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Disruptive Behaviors in Social Movements

In order to foster social change and correct injustices, activists use various methods, including disruptive behaviors. Examples of disruptive behaviors are physical violence, damaging property, blocking highways, and using threatening or inflammatory rhetoric (Feinberg et al., 2020). Although such actions may positively influence the effectiveness of social movements, they also entail negative consequences, and activists engaging in such behaviors may be held liable in court.

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Disruptive behaviors can be beneficial for social movements under certain conditions. According to Feinberg et al. (2020), such actions may be effective for nascent movements seeking public attention because disruptive behaviors receive much media coverage. After they become well-known, these movements will be able to engage in more peaceful activities. Further, the impact of disruptive behaviors highly depends on the context in which they appear. Violent protests can be productive in the contexts distinguished by severe policing or authoritarian regimes (Wouters, 2019). For example, such actions resulted in successful social change during the Cuban, American, French, and Russian Revolutions, (Feinberg et al., 2020). Yet, they are unlikely to be effective in modern democratic countries.

The possible negative consequence of disruptive actions is a loss of public support. People tend to support activists with whom they can identify, but they cannot identify with protesters who engage in illegal acts or pursue unlawful goals (Feinberg et al., 2020; Wouters, 2019). For example, observers were less likely to support the BLM movement or Trump’s candidacy when shown that protesters used disruptive behaviors (Feinberg et al., 2020). Therefore, although activists can sometimes achieve their goals using disruptive behaviors, they risk losing public support.

The First Amendment protects citizens’ freedom of speech, but it has its limits. In particular, it does not protect violence and the speech that incites violence (Zick, 2020). A recent case, Doe v. Mckesson, involving a Black Lives Matter activist and a police officer injured by one of the movement’s activists, illustrates this principle. In this case, the Fifth Circuit reasoned that the leader of the protesters could be held liable for the unlawful acts committed by protesters (Zick, 2020). Thus, the First Amendment does not protect activists who commit or authorize violence. At the same time, in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware, the court ruled that the “use of speeches, marches, and threats of social ostracism cannot provide the basis for a damages award” (Zick, 2020, p. 26). It means that these types of activism are protected by the First Amendment.


Feinberg, M., Willer, R., & Kovacheff, C. (2020). The activist’s dilemma: Extreme protest actions reduce popular support for social movements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(5), 1086-1111. Web.

Wouters, R. (2019). The persuasive power of protest: How protest wins public support. Social Forces, 98(1), 403-426. Web.

Zick, T. (2020). The rising costs of dissent: Public protest and civil liabilities. SSRN, 1-46. Web.

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