Since George Floyd was murdered in late May by a police officer in Minneapolis, media attention has focused on the demands of protesters across the country who want to abolish and/or defund the police. By listening to the activists who are yelling the loudest, the main message of the protesters who have turned out to protest peacefully is being lost: the highest priority for participants in the movement is not about the police at all; it’s about race-based health disparities and race-based poverty.
For the past three months, activists have flooded city streets across the US to protest racism and to support #BlackLivesMatter in the broadest protests in US history. Substantial attention has been paid to the numbers of people who have marched in the streets, the clashes with law enforcement, and the loud calls by activists to abolish or defund the police, which is not supported by most Americans.
In a new project studying “The Current Mass Mobilization against Systemic Racism: Effects on Democracy and Politics,” I am working with Michael Heaney and Stella Rouse to study who is participating in protests and why these people are out in the streets. During the 2020 March on Washington, which was held on the 57th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream Speech,” working with a research team of 10, we collected electronic surveys from 277 participants who had been randomly sampled at the March on Washington in Washington, DC.
Even though much of the coverage of these recent protests has focused on the violent clashes between protesters and law enforcement and how President Trump and his opponent Vice President Joe Biden have responded, only a third of participants in the crowd reported having participated in any sort of direct action, including civil disobedience or property destruction, in the past year. Moreover, the Black participants in the March on Washington were much less likely to report any experience with more confrontational protest.
While defunding and abolishing the police is the highest priority for only a quarter to a third of protest participants, about three quarters of the crowd reported that reducing race-based health disparities and race-based poverty was the highest priority. These results hold when we control for the age, race, and location of the participant.
These results are particularly noteworthy given the race-based disparities in how Americans are experiencing COVID and the economic divide plaguing our nation. Over half of protest participants do identify improving police training to be more racially sensitive and to de-militarize the police as their highest priorities.
As the media focuses attention on a new report about the low percentage of violence in protests while protests continue, it’s all the more important to understand Who is the crowds and Why they are there.