When Protest Becomes Insurgency

Since violent insurgents stormed the US Capitol on January 6th, myriad accounts of what happened have been reported. It is clear that what many believed would be a peaceful protest that was legally permitted by the National Park Service, turned into something altogether different. In contrast to some claims that the actions of January 6th were unexpected (and that is why the Capitol police were so ill-prepared), expectations of violence had been reported far and wide prior to the events last Wednesday. For example, here is a detailed report from the day before the event in the Washington Post.

The distance between peaceful protest and violent confrontation that can turn into an insurgency is smaller than you might expect but it is not a spontaneous process–it involves significant planning and coordination. When we look back over the past 8 months, there were many signs that pro-Trump groups were radicalizing, in terms of the targets of their grievances and the tactics that they were considering. Look back at the ways they responded to COVID restrictions and organized counter protests to Black Lives Matter events in cities for clear signs.

As I noted less than three weeks ago, the current moment is the product of normalizing hate, legitimizing untruths, and emboldening misinformed Americans to challenge the legitimacy of the US government and take up arms in the streets. Yesterday, I published a new piece in Business Insider that asks: How do we stop an insurgency provoked by the President of the United States? How do you douse the flames of hatred, mistrust, and deliberate misinformation that creates a false reality?

The piece ends by noting how differently participants in the insurrection at the US Capitol last week were treated than protesters have been treated at events I have observed while studying protest for the past 20+ years. Although law enforcement is now rounding people up, there’s an enormous difference between escorting people out of the building to go back to their hotels and arresting everyone who breached the building. A clear message was telegraphed on January 6th that Pro-Trump supporters can incite violence, threaten elected officials, and occupy federal buildings with no recourse. We are now seeing some of the participants facing consequences, but I worry that this type of post-hoc response is not sending a strong enough message as groups prepare to return to DC this weekend and stay through the inauguration next week.

Kicking off 2021

It’s going to be a wacky week! Yesterday, the 117th Congress began. On Tuesday, the Georgia Senate runoffs take place, which will determine which party controls the US Senate. On Wednesday, the Congress will meet to count and certify each state’s electoral votes, which is expected to include a number of challenges by Republicans.

At the same time, thousands of Trump supporters are expected to travel to DC to protest the outcome of the 2020 election. Numerous permits have been issued for around Washington on Wednesday January 6th for rallies that will demand Congress overturn the results of the 2020 election. These protests are expected to include participation by the Proud Boys and other groups that have been linked with white supremacy and violence.

Given the calls for violence and encouragement from the President, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser issued an appeal to locals from the DC area not to participate in counter protests, asking people to avoid areas where protests are scheduled to take place. So far, it is unclear how local groups that have organized counter protests to previous Trump rallies and demonstrations against systemic racism will respond (especially as videos of Proud Boys destroying the BLM memorial fence are being shared on social media).

In other news, American Resistance is now available in paperback!

Are We Drifting Towards Civil War?

Yesterday, I posted a new piece at Business Insider that lays out three reasons why America may be drifting towards a Civil War: first, the President and his allies have coaxed hate out of the dark corners of society where it had been relegated by social norms; second, the Trump Administration has cultivated a culture of untruths and alternative facts; and third; misinformed Americans have been emboldened to challenge the legitimacy of the US government and take up arms in the streets.

Although some have responded by saying that I am fear mongering and using the title (which the editors changed to ask if we are heading towards a ‘serious schism’) as click bait, anyone who is paying attention to what happened at the Oregon capitol yesterday can see even more evidence. With the President joining with MAGA supporters to call for a ‘wild protest’ at the US Capitol on January 6th, this is only the beginning.

As the Electors meet, Protests get much more dangerous

Today, the electors will meet to cast their votes for the 2020 Election. While many people who have been involved in the American Resistance since Donald Trump took office expected to be seeing light at the end of a four-year long tunnel, there is growing evidence that we are entering a dark place where violent conflict fueled by conspiracy theories against our democracy are rampant.

I spoke to Annie Gowan at the Washington Post on Friday about how we got here for her piece on public officials being targeted by activists: “What we’re seeing is an escalation, so that instead of people calling each other nasty names and cursing each other out on Twitter or Parler, instead they’re doing it in person while holding weapons…The country is at risk of serious armed confrontation in the days to come.” The original quote said that we were at risk of slipping into a Civil War (a not unlikely continuation of our country’s current path).

Since the interview, videos have circulated social media from this weekend’s protests in Washington, DC where Trump supporters were joined by Proud Boys who clashed with counter protesters. There will be a lot of discussions about who fanned the flames of this type of violence in the coming days and weeks. Unfortunately, what we saw this weekend is almost definitely only the beginning.

Resisters in the 2020 Election

This week has been a rollercoaster as the 2020 election continues. Although a national day of action to send a message to #ProtectTheResults had been called for Wednesday, the organizers called off the mobilization while states continued to count their mail-in ballots. Instead, only a small number of protests took place in urban areas, with relatively small “rolling protests” in the nation’s capital.

On Tuesday, I published a piece that summarized findings from a follow-up survey with Resisters (those whom I originally surveyed in the streets protesting the Trump Administration and its policies starting after the inauguration in January 2017 and including the 3rd Women’s March in January 2019). The piece discusses how priorities have changed for these activists. Police brutality / Black Lives Matter is now the most common motivation with 76% of Resisters reporting it to be a motivation for their political work and activism.

In addition to these shifting motivations, the article notes that Resisters (who are predominately highly educated middle-aged White women) have continued to be very civically engaged. As of the end of October, 81% had reported voting in the past year (in primaries and/or early voting). These rates are much higher than the national average participation in a presidential election. Beyond voting, all indicators suggest that, no matter who wins the election once the final votes are tallied, we should continue to expect a lot of political participation from Resisters.

The Women’s March Marches Again

Yesterday, the Women’s March coordinated events in over 425 locations across the United States. I was out in Washington, DC with a research team of 10 (here’s the photo before we began data collection). We also collected data in NYC and LA (stay tuned for those findings).

Although the event turned out repeat protesters (only 15% reported being new to protest), about three-quarters of participants reported previous experience protesting systemic racism (76%), with almost half (46%) reporting participating in previous Women’s Marches.

Demographically, the turnout was consistent with other Women’s Marches and the other big protests in the Resistance: the Marches were highly educated (76% with a BA), female (85%), and mostly white (74%). Participants were much younger than previous events with a median age of only 31 years old (vs in the 40s for the other events). This turnout is likely due to the COVID pandemic.

Overall, these findings suggest that participants were the White allies who have been in the streets supporting the #BlackLivesMatter movement since George Floyd was murdered in May 2020.

Door-Knocking in Election 2020

Yesterday, Lara Putnam and I published a piece in the American Prospect called “Door-Knocking in a Life-or-Death campaign.” The piece compares the very different ground games being run by the Trump and Biden campaigns during the pandemic. Although rumors were flying yesterday afternoon that the Biden campaign was going to begin canvassing as part of the final month’s GOTV plans, with today’s announcement that the Trumps have COVID, it’s unclear how the campaigns will move forward.

Whatever the campaign decides, it’s worth highlighting that our collective research over many years has found that face-to-face campaigning is much more effective when it is conducted with friends and neighbors rather than strangers who are knocking on doors (and may have parachuted into the district to do so). If you’re looking for historical evidence, I discuss the differences in the ways the George W. Bush and John Kerry Campaigns ran their respective ground games in 2004 in Activism, Inc (Stanford University Press 2006).

Bracing for More Resistance

As America wakes up to the news that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died, many political groups and Republican Senators have already started pushing forward with their political agenda. Plans are underway to respond with resistance in the streets.

Here is the most recent Resistance Timeline since the 2018 midterm elections (which feel like a lifetime ago). I expect to be adding more to the timeline in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

What we learned from the #MarchOnWashington2020: very little violence and broader priorities.

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.

Thus begins a long week of Resistance

On Saturday, the #SavetheUSPS day of action mobilized thousands of people to participate in more than 800 events outside local post offices around the US.  The event was coordinated by a broad coalition of progressive groups including MoveOn, NAACP, SEIU, Working Families, Indivisible, and the American Federation of Teachers.  It provides a great example of how distributed organizing continues to be used on the Left to mobilize activism (for more on this issue read my recent piece in Business Insider).

With this coordinated action taking place on Saturday, protests planned to coincide with President Trump’s acceptance speech for the Republican nomination from the White House on Thursday, and 57th anniversary of the March on Washington taking place on Friday, this week is expected to be filled with protest.

With more details coming out about how Jacob Blake was shot in the back while he tried to get into the car where his kids were waiting, protests in Kenosha, WI are likely to spread and increase turnout across the country.