Activism in Europe vs the USA

When I think of activism in Europe and activism in the United States, for some reason activism in Europe seems more violent overtly, whereas activism in the USA definitely seems violent, but seems to contain more covert state sanctioned violence. When I google ‘mai 68 Paris’ for the student protests in France, some of the first pictures that show up include violent confrontations between students and the police.

Similarly, in the case of activism in Italy, I think about ‘gli anni di piombo’, or the years of lead. A tumultuous period in Italian history, that saw many violent attacks, including the bomb explosion in the National Bank in Milano in 1969 and the attack on the train station in Bologna on August 2nd 1980.

To me it seems that in both France and Italy, activism and protests took place with overt use of violence.

Alternatively, when I think about activism in the United States of America, it seems more peaceful from the side of the protestors, while the police backed by the state has been inherently violent, specifically towards Black people. Consider for example the Black Panthers. Their activism did not at all start out violently, yet they were crushed by covert state sanctioned violence. Going back to the year 1968, the treasurer of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Hutton, died at the hands of police violence in Oakland, California, while Hutton was in the process of surrendering. Additionally, the FBI infiltrated the Black Panther Party with the aim to ‘neutralize’ the Black nationalist movement. However, ‘neutralizing’ in this case referred to actively jailing and assassinating many Black Panthers. It therefore seems to me that the US government crushed the movement by means of covert violence, assassinating even some members while they were sleeping – which unfortunately resembles the recent assassination of Breonna Taylor.

“the fascist [government] have already decided in advance to murder Chairman Bobby Seale in the electric chair.” Emory Douglas, March 15, 1970, in Sam Durant, Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas, (New York: Rizzoli, 2014), 47.


Though freedom of speech and assembly are in theory legal in both France / Italy and the United States, the violent response of the US government shows that this right of activism through protesting is not always respected.


  1. Hi Stephanie! I really appreciate the examples you provided in this post. I agree that it seems like the police force in America trends more violently than the European examples. I think that the legacy of American police forces as enforcers of the status quo. (i.e. as slave patrols) definitely has a role to play in the current state of protesting in America. I was wondering what the Netherlands’ history with activism is?

  2. Why do you think that freedom of assembly and speech are only legal in theory? What social structures, historical events, etc. has made it this way (i.e. what are the underlying causes of freedom of protest being only legal in theory?)?

  3. You make excellent points about the covert violence carried out by police towards protestors! In my own research, I was fascinated to see the overt violence that has been documented through photography and read about more covert violence that tends not to be covered in US history. I think the point you raise regarding freedom of speech and assembly is a right in the US, France, and Italy yet the differences in their response to protests are very powerful and raise a lot of questions on how the US constitution differs between what’s written and the actions carried out.

  4. Highlighing the covert, state sponsered violence in America really summarizes the striking difference between both regions. Seeing the most recent protests in France, it astonishes me that police officers do not have guns. If anything, the videos I have seen show French police officers becoming easily overpowered by large swathes of protestors. I cannot imagine the uproar in France or Italy if say, there were tanks and heavily armoured vehicles roaming the streets, as seen in America. Americans’ desensitization towards violence speaks volumes towards our definition of activism.

  5. Julia Carnine

    June 24, 2020 at 6:06 am

    Stephanie it is hard to argue that protest movements in general lack violence, you are right to show that indeed, violent acts responses from the protesters as well as from the state are a central part of social movements in both US and Europe. Are you familiar with Weber’s definition of the state via its use of violence?
    The state is for WEBER “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”

    Constitutional rights are also foundational, but not always respected!

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