When Does Anger Lead to Protest?

By Francesca Polletta

The insight that reoriented the study of social movements in the late 1970s was that people knew when they were oppressed. The relevant question was not, what led people to feel discontented enough to protest? (This was the question animating strain theories of collective action.) Instead, it was, when did people see themselves as able to act effectively on their discontent? Hence the causal importance attributed to external resources (by resource mobilization theorists) and to political opportunities, indigenous resources, and cognitive liberation (by political process theorists).

Doron Shultziner argues that the earlier question was the right one after all—and he does so in the context of the case that was supposed to have laid to rest accounts of mobilization based on discontent. Not only does discontent matter, he maintains; it may be all that matters. In short, none of the factors that have been used to account for protest generally, and the Montgomery bus boycott in particular, explain the decision of so many people to stay off Montgomery’s buses. No one from the outside injected resources, financial or otherwise. There were no political opportunities. To the contrary, after Brown v. Board, things got worse, not better, as a backlash against school integration swelled the ranks of the notorious White Citizens Council and amplified everyday white aggressions. There were black leadership structures in Montgomery, and they did play a role in the protest, but only after it had gotten underway. As for cognitive liberation, it is hard to imagine what would have led black citizens of Montgomery to feel that political change was newly within reach.

So why then did people protest? Because they were angry at the humiliation they encountered on Montgomery buses, humiliation that had increased dramatically since 1953. It was the uniquely abusive character of Montgomery buses’ system of segregation, and the increasingly abusive character of that system, that led people to launch a protest they would not have imagined launching even two years earlier. When, after Rosa Parks was arrested, Jo Ann Robinson and E. D. Nixon called for a “rather spontaneous one day boycott” (128), they were responding to a wellspring of anger, not guiding it.

The take-away is that we need to pay more attention to the changes in local interactions that pose new threats to group honor and identity, threats that are responded to by way of collective action. Although Shultziner does not distinguish his theory explicitly from earlier strain theories, I imagine that he would do so by pointing to the local interactional character of his approach. In other words, look not for some general societal level of discontent, but rather for new patterns of intergroup conflict. Look especially for situations in which customary rituals of deference are strained to the breaking point by abuses that impose too great a psychological toll on those subjected to them.

The argument is persuasive as far as it goes. But Shultziner needs to say much more—or the rest of us need to say much more—about how and when discontent translates into mass mobilization. What is missing from Shultziner’s account is an understanding of social psychological, and—I would argue—cultural, pathways to protest, rather than only the preconditions for it.

Leave aside the generalizability of Shultziner’s argument. (Certainly, the 1960 student sit-ins weren’t preceded by a period of sharpening discrimination against black college students at downtown lunch counters. I don’t think Shultziner’s argument is that protest is only triggered by local experiences of increasing humiliation, but rather that that is a common and neglected pattern.) Instead, I want to ask whether Shultziner’s approach actually accounts for the emergence of the Montgomery bus boycott. Shultziner does a good job of documenting the humiliation to which Montgomery’s black bus riders were subjected, and he does a good job of documenting the increased humiliation to which riders were subjected after 1953. He says that black riders’ experience of humiliation was combined with rising anger. But he doesn’t provide any evidence for this increase in anger (other than citing Jo Ann Robinson’s recollection that more riders were complaining to the bus company [p. 125]). He does cite reports that riders were expressing their frustration in domestic abuse and delinquency, but he does not cite any evidence that either of these were on the rise.

This is important, because the experience of group-based humiliation is no guarantee that people will protest. Of course, it is reasonable to assume that bus riders were increasingly angry. But why did the anger lead to a mass boycott when it did? Shultziner never tries to answer that question. (He fudges a little on this score: sometimes arguing that he is trying to explain the “emergence” of protest [p. 137]; and sometimes saying that he is trying to explain the “social psychological antecedents” [p. 136] of protest. But the two are different things). Presumably, Shultziner does not want to argue that there is some objective level at which humiliation and anger spills over into collective action. Presumably, too, he doesn’t want to argue that mass mobilization was inevitable, if not after Rosa Parks’ arrest, then after the next arrest, or the one after that. The argument here would be that, given black bus riders’ level of anger, something would have triggered mass action. But, of course, people can be angry without engaging in nonviolent collective action. They might turn their anger toward an individual bus driver, or toward their family or strangers, or toward objects, or inward on themselves.

I can imagine a few possibilities for what moved people from the “social psychological background” (p. 136) Shultziner describes to collective action. One is that Rosa Parks’s refusal to move to the back of the bus was preceded by other instances of defiance. Maybe people saw other riders sometimes getting visibly angry at bus drivers. The key would be that despite their knowledge of the potential penalties for expressing anger, they were doing so nonetheless. Those performances of anger would signal to riders that other riders were prepared to violate the code of deference. This would help explain why, when the boycott call was issued, people were prepared to stay off the buses.

In her memoir, Jo Ann Robinson described people refusing to ride the bus because they feared insult from violent bus drivers. Staying off the bus was thus already a part of black riders’ repertoires for registering complaints about an unjust system. The formal boycott call thus would resonate with an already-existing strategy of action.

A third possibility puts greater stock than does Shultziner in the mobilizing role of Montgomery’s black leadership. Shultziner is at pains to argue that leadership came into play in sustaining the boycott, not in triggering it, and he describes the initial call for the boycott as “fairly spontaneous.” But he also notes that the Women’s Political Council (WPC), the organization led by Jo Ann Robinson, which sought to improve racial conditions in the city, had put the issue of black bus passengers’ treatment at the top of its agenda in 1953; that Robinson and other leaders had written to city officials in 1954, calling for reform of the bus system and highlighting the uniqueness of Montgomery’s arrangement for seating black riders; that Robinson and colleagues had devoted some effort to documenting black riders’ experiences of abuse; and that they informed city officials that they might launch a bus boycott. Shultziner uses those facts mainly to make the point that black riders’ sense of frustration increased dramatically after 1953. But on an alternative reading, many black bus riders may have known about the efforts by the WPC to secure better treatment on their behalf, and may have known that their city was unique in its seating arrangements. This knowledge would have leavened their sense of humiliation with a belief that they had given the bus company fair warning. When Robinson and colleagues asked passengers about their experiences, did they, in the process, implicitly or explicitly communicate to passengers that collective action might be called for? In other words, leaders may have contributed to the likelihood that people would mobilize well before they called for a boycott.

I don’t know if I’m right about any of these possibilities. But I offer them to make a point about discontent. Yes, discontent matters. It is not constant. But it can be manifested in a variety of ways. People may act on their anger, even white-hot anger, by doing many other things than protesting. So when do humiliation and anger lead to protest?

I think that the question is well worth asking, and I appreciate Shultziner’s article for pushing us to try to answer it. The possibilities I mentioned above involve: a) members of a group seeing each other demeaned but also seeing some members publicly defying expectations of their submissiveness; b) a familiar repertoire for registering complaints that organizers were able to capitalize on in calling for mass action; c) organizers working long before protest emerged to get members of an oppressed group to see their experiences of humiliation as injustice. Each one of these dynamics, which I suspect may operate in other contexts, connects a situation in which people experience group-based humiliation to the likelihood that mass protest will be the result.

In a way, these are questions about the conditions in which people frame their troubles as issues that demand collective action now. Since its origins in the 1980s, much of the research on collective action framing has focused on strategic persuasive efforts after the movement is underway. But important strands of work have centered explicitly on the discursive and social psychological dynamics by which people recognize issues as unjust and as demanding action (see, for example, Gamson, Fireman, and Rytina 1982; and Gamson 1992). This is the kind of work that Shultziner’s account pushes us toward.

In addition, we might ask whether there are certain sequences of interaction between the enforcers of a system and its subjects that are likely to trigger mobilization. For example, if alongside routine abuse, there is an especially egregious episode of aggression, or aggression against someone perceived as especially vulnerable or upstanding, is collective action more likely? My own hunch is that, if there are such sequences, their power lies not in our emotional hardwiring but, rather, in collective memories of the kinds of abuses that call for collective action.

Finally, Shultziner is absolutely convincing that the Montgomery bus boycott’s origins are more local than has been previously recognized. The next step, though, is not to say that all protest is local. Nor is it to say that all protest reflects macro-political factors and local ones (although that is undoubtedly true). Rather, we should acknowledge that some protests are more local in their origins than others. As a result, they may demand different explanatory models. Whether or not the trajectories or impacts of movements are also shaped by their localness is yet another question worth asking.



Gamson, William A. 1992. Talking Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gamson, William A., Bruce Fireman, and Steve Rytina. 1982. Encounters with Unjust Authority. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Origins of Social Movements

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