Protest Themes in Biden’s First 100 Days

On April 29, 2021—today—President Biden has held office for 100 days. While the president plans to mark the date by headlining a rally in Atlanta, we decided to use the occasion to look back at the major themes in U.S. protest activity in the first few months of the Biden Administration.

So far, the Crowd Counting Consortium has logged just over 5,300 events since Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021. Of those, roughly 60 percent (3,202) have been ostensibly left wing in their political orientation; 31 percent (1,664) nonpartisan or other; and only about 8 percent (441) right wing.

One hallmark of contentious politics under the Biden administration so far is that left– and right-wing activists are mostly talking past each other. When they gather in public spaces to voice political grievances, they are mostly emphasizing different issues and speaking in different terms.

Here, we’ll use two types of charts to show this pattern: tree maps and word clouds.

  • Tree maps use visual area to represent the relative frequency of categorical data. In the compiled version of the CCC dataset, we use natural language processing to attach tags to each event identifying the recurrent political issues raised by its participants. In the tree maps in this blog post, the size of each rectangle represents the relative frequency with which each of the three dozen recurrent issues we track were raised, where frequency is measured by counting the number of times each tag appears in the ‘issues’ field in the data.
  • Word clouds do something similar with words, only here it’s text instead of rectangles that represent each element (word) in the summary data, and the size of the text indicates relative frequency. The larger the text, the more frequent the word. The word clouds below are derived from the text coders use to summarize protesters’ grievances (the ‘claims’ column in the data). All that text gets dumped into one big pool; each unique word in that pool (minus words like “the” and “a”) gets identified and then counted; and then the word cloud visualizes the relative size of those counts.

As the tree map below shows, the dominant themes in left-wing protests over the first 100 days of the Biden presidency have been racism and policing. These two issues have figured in nearly three-quarters of the thousands of events we’ve observed so far. Other leading themes have included migration (e.g., calls to shut down ICE detention facilities, or to offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants); labor (including nationwide support for the unionization drive at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, which many activists also cast as a push against racism); the economy, and the environment (led by calls for urgent action on climate change and opposition to the Line 3 pipeline project). The coronavirus pandemic (covid) makes the top 10, but not by a lot, and is similar in frequency to concerns about democracy, education, and native peoples’ rights (which, in recent months, often co-occurs with ‘environment’).

The word cloud below visualizes the relative frequency of individual words in coders’ summarizations of protesters’ grievances. Here, we can see more clearly what any regular news reader would already know: when left-wing protesters are raising concerns about racism and policing, they are mostly demanding an end to police violence directed at Black people; calling for police who perpetrate that violence to be held accountable; and, often, calling for defunding or abolishing police departments. The past several weeks also saw a surge in activism rejecting racist violence and hate targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and a spate of events in response to the killing of Daunte Wright by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.

The dominant themes of right-wing protest in Biden’s first 100 days look very different. As the tree map below shows, racism has been only a tertiary issue, and policing is just one of a host of quaternary concerns. (And, it should be noted, these counts include events endorsing racism and some events expressing support for law enforcement.) On the right, the coronavirus pandemic (covid) has been the leading concern, followed by reproductive rights (mostly annual anti-abortion events around the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision), executive (a tag that gets attached to events expressing support for Donald Trump or opposition to President Biden), and civil rights (including concerns about censorship and freedom of speech).

The word cloud below helps clarify what, exactly, those right-wing COVID-related protests have emphasized: opposition to state– or county-mandated public-health measures meant to control the virus’ spread, including mask mandates and vaccinations. As captured in the word cloud, right-wing protesters often describe these mandates as a form of tyranny and cast themselves as agents of freedom and patriotism in their opposition to them. Donald Trump has been invoked at some of these events (76 of 441), but—somewhat surprising to me, anyway—he has not been a focal point of most right-wing rallies and demonstrations in Biden’s first 100 days. (That may change soon, however.)

Finally, we can also take an early look at patterns in the more than 1,600 events—some 31 percent of the total so far—that CCC identifies as neither left-wing nor right-wing. This set includes actions over most local and workplace issues, along with actions about wider concerns that aren’t particularly partisan (say, local criminal violence, or sexual assault). Here, the dominant theme is clearly the covid pandemic and its effects on schools (education), hospitals and nursing homes (healthcare), and access to housing. This is also where most strikes and other local worker actions show up (labor), along with recent flurries of events opposing the military coup in Myanmar or the war and purported genocide in Ethiopia’s Tigray region (foreign affairs).

A word cloud of claim summaries at local and nonpartisan events mostly reinforces what the tree map showed: in the first 100 days of the Biden Administration, the coronavirus pandemic has spurred a lot of protests over school closures and worker safety in hospitals and other places of business.

We’ll try to revisit this analysis later in the Biden presidency to see how these patterns change.  Meanwhile, If you’re interested in replicating or tweaking this analysis, you can find the R script used to generate these figures and stats on the Nonviolent Action Lab’s GitHub repository. The compiled CCC dataset is posted there as well, but please note that it changes with each weekly update, so you can expect to get slightly different results if you rerun this analysis after early May 2021.

FIPS Codes!

To make Crowd Counting Consortium (CCC) data easier to integrate with other datasets commonly used by scholars and journalists studying social and political behavior in the United States, we have added FIPS codes to the version shared on the Nonviolent Action Lab‘s GitHub repository (here).

Federal Information Processing Series (FIPS) codes are numbers that identify geographic areas. They include two-digit codes for states; three-digit codes for counties and county-like entities (e.g., Louisiana parishes, Alaskan boroughs, and independent cities in various states); six-digit codes for census tracts; and four-digit codes for blocks within tracts. As the U.S. Census Bureau explains, these numbers can be combined to generate unique IDs for geographic entities.

FIPS codes for smaller geographic entities are usually unique within larger geographic entities. For example, FIPS state codes are unique within nation and FIPS county codes are unique within state. Since counties nest within states, a full county FIPS code identifies both the state and the nesting county. For example, there are 49 counties in the 50 states ending in the digits “001”. To make these county FIPS codes unique, the state FIPS codes are added to the front of each county (01001, 02001, 04001, etc), where the first two digits refer to the state the county is in and the last three digits refer specifically to the county.

The compiled version of the CCC data now includes a column called fips_code that shows the unique five-digit (state + county) code for the county or county-like entity in which each event occurred (assuming that coders were able to associate the event with a specific locality). These codes make it much faster and cleaner to merge the CCC data or summaries of them with U.S. Census Bureau files and other U.S.-specific resources that already include FIPS codes for this purpose. Faster and cleaner merging, in turn, should make it easier for us and others to study the relationship between protest dynamics, social-structural conditions, and other forms of political behavior (e.g., voting).

If you’d like to see code we’re using to generate these IDs—mostly leaning on the lookup_code() function from the R package tigris, with custom handling of various exceptions—you can find it on the NAL repo, too (here). If you hit any snags or find any errors in this field in the dataset, please open an issue on GitHub to let us know. (And note the advice in the data dictionary on how to handle the likely omission of leading 0s when the data are ingested.)

Happy number-crunching!

Monthly Review: March 2021

So far, the Crowd Counting Consortium has recorded more than 1,800 protest events in the U.S. in March 2021, with roughly 88,000 to 125,000 participants in the events for which we were able to find information about crowd size (a little more than half of the events recorded). That’s an 80-percent increase in the number of events over the previous month and more than five times as many events as we recorded in March of 2020.

The political themes associated with U.S. protest activity in March did not change dramatically from February, but the predominance of the leading theme did.

  • Nearly 900 of the events recorded in March so far, or almost half of the month’s total, included claims about racism. Of those, more than 400 centered or touched on the theme of #StopAsianHate, opposing racist attacks on Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders. Another 50 events commemorated Breonna Taylor on or around the one-year anniversary of her death at the hands of Louisville police, and the start of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd spurred another surge of events associated with this theme near the end of the month.
  • Concerns about policing also figured prominently in March’s protest activity, usually in the form of opposition to police brutality and calls for greater police accountability or defunding or abolishing police. Fewer than two dozen of the more than 300 events associated with this theme in March expressed support for law enforcement or opposition to defunding police or holding them more accountable (e.g., by limiting or ending qualified immunity).
  • COVID also remained a leading theme of protest activity in the U.S. in March, almost always in tandem with other themes such as education (e.g., demonstration for or against resuming full-time in-person schooling) and housing (e.g., calls for cancelling rent, extending eviction moratoriums, and providing more help to unhoused people during the pandemic).

As noted in a previous post, one striking feature of the wave of “Stop Asian Hate” events that swept across the country in March (and continued into April) has been its geographic breadth. As the map below shows, while the peaks of this wave have occurred in or near large metropolitan areas on the West and East Coasts, many smaller towns in parts of the country with relatively few Asian-American residents also saw actions in the wake of the March 16 mass shooting in Georgia. In this sense, the Stop Asian Hate wave resembles the initial weeks of the George Floyd uprising, albeit still on a smaller scale. Also interesting, many of the initial flurry of Stop Asian Hate events took the form of vigils rather than rallies or demonstrations, and local and state elected officials often participated in (or even organized) them.

Notably lacking in the set of events we’ve logged for March so far are ones with a right-wing bent. Only 116 of the more than 1,800 events recorded, or about 6 percent, fit that description. A sizable fraction of those events came on a single day, March 20, when a transnational action dubbed the World Wide Rally for Freedom spawned actions in more than 30 U.S. cities and towns. The claims expressed varied from location to location, but the dominant theme of these events—in and outside the U.S.—was opposition to government infringements on personal liberty in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Stop Asian Hate

In the several days since a young white man shot and killed eight people—six of them women of Asian descent—at three sites near Atlanta, Georgia, vigils and other demonstrations of sadness, solidarity, frustration, and anger over racist violence and micro-aggressions targeting the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community have mushroomed across the U.S.

The chart below shows daily counts of events against anti-Asian racist violence that the Crowd Counting Consortium has recorded so far. Since the Atlanta-area murders, we have logged 126 events focused on this issue, most of them this past Saturday and Sunday, March 20–21. At least three of those events—in Atlanta on Saturday and in New York City and San Jose, California, on Sunday—drew crowds of more than 1,000.

As that chart implies, collective action over this issue did not suddenly erupt in the past several days. On August 1, 2020, hundreds gathered in Brooklyn to march in protest against a violent attack on an 89-year-old Asian woman, and against the decision by the police not to classify the attack as a hate crime. And, as we noted in our recent blogged monthly report, protests centered on this issue accelerated in February, accounting for some of the largest crowds we saw in the U.S. that month.

What was especially remarkable about this past weekend’s wave of events on this theme was its geographic breadth. Much like the George Floyd uprising, activism aiming to #StopAsianHate has diffused widely and quickly in the wake of the Atlanta killings. As the map below shows, while recent actions against anti-Asian racist violence have been concentrated in major urban areas on the East and West Coasts, similar events occurred all across the country, reaching places like Norman, OK; Des Moines and Iowa City, IA; Birmingham, AL; and Conshohocken, PA, a town of about 8,000 residents, of whom 90 percent are white and less that 1 percent are of Asian descent. In all, we have counted 92 unique U.S. cities and towns with events centered in this issue in the past five days alone.

Finally, while most the vast majority of these events have stuck to the broad theme of #StopAsianHate, some have explicitly called out the intersection of anti-Asian racism with other themes and identities, especially other forms of racism, sexism, policing, and the decriminalization of sex work. In Washington, DC, for example, the group Total Liberation Collective quickly organized a vigil and march on Wednesday, March 17, in response to the Atlanta killings that emphasized solidarity against white supremacy and colonialism and distrust of police. At a Saturday-evening vigil in Alhambra, California, one speaker drew cheers from the crowd when she instructed police on the scene to leave, saying, “Our community does not welcome you.” And at a Saturday press conference and rally in Fullerton, California, speakers called out racism in many forms along with the “racialized misogyny and hypersexualization of Asian women.”

This is, of course, a developing story. We expect to record more events on this theme as they occur, and as news stories and social media posts describing additional events from the past several days continue to surface. Meanwhile, you can find and browse Google Sheets with the Crowd Counting Consortium’s ongoing monthly logs of events on our data page, and you can find a compiled and augmented version of the entire CCC dataset, updated weekly, in the Nonviolent Action Lab‘s GitHub repository.

Say Her Name: Breonna Taylor

On the night of March 13, 2020, police in Louisville, Kentucky, shot and killed Breonna Taylor in the dark in her bed. Police officers were executing a search warrant as part of an investigation into drug trafficking with which Taylor, a Black woman and healthcare worker, had nothing to do.

One year later, on Saturday, March 13, 2021, people held vigils, rallies, demonstrations, and protests in cities and towns across the U.S. to remember Taylor and call for an end to police violence and racial injustice. So far, the Crowd Counting Consortium has identified 47 events honoring Taylor on the anniversary of her death in more than 30 localities.

The map below shows where those events occurred. Darker circles represent localities with multiple events. According to our data, New York City had at least five distinct events commemorating Taylor; Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., each had at least four; L.A. had at least three; and Louisville and Seattle each saw at least two.

In Taylor’s hometown, hundreds gathered and marched throughout the day around Jefferson Square Park, a.k.a. Injustice Square, which has served as the focal point for Black Lives Matter demonstrations in that city since late May 2020. A local group called United Pharaoh’s Guard provided armed security for marchers. As is almost always the case with protests against police violence and racial injustice in the U.S., no violence occurred. That night, police in riot gear declared an unlawful assembly and broke up a march of about 50 protesters on River Road a couple of miles away.

New York City saw several events honoring Taylor throughout the day, many of them organized by Black women. In Manhattan, a few hundred people met at the Red Steps in Times Square for a die-in and march. In Brooklyn, the Roses for Breonna event brought together hundreds who later marched across the Brooklyn Bridge. Taylor was remembered at the nightly gathering in the Upper East Side’s Carl Schurz Park.

Washington, DC, hosted a six-mile bike ride—one mile for each of the shots police reportedly fired into Taylor’s apartment—from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, followed by a sunset rally and vigil for Taylor at Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park in the evening.

In Seattle, activists set up a memorial to Taylor at 11th and Pine Streets and invited people to drop by and pay respects throughout the day. That night, about 100 activists took part in a commemorative march that started at Occidental Park and made its way toward the ferry terminal, where police arrested 13 marchers for vandalism and obstructing or assaulting an officer.

L.A. saw several events in honor of Taylor throughout the day, including an afternoon march in Hollywood and an evening gathering in Sherman Oaks. Of course, the one that seemed to garner the most media coverage was a nighttime march from the Hollywood Forever Cemetery that involved as many as 200 demonstrators and led to clashes with police, vandalism, and 11 arrests.

In Portland, Oregon, things got started on Friday night, when police kettled and detained a group of roughly 100 people out to protest against ICE and police violence shortly after they started marching. On Saturday, an afternoon march and an evening vigil on the Burnside Bridge each brought out hundreds to honor Taylor. That night, activists argued about tactics after the Black Unity group that staged the vigil on the Burnside Bridge joined hundreds of demonstrators already gathered outside the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse.

In Dayton, Ohio, dozens came to a rally and march that started at Courthouse Square, with members of the New Black Panther Party on hand to provide security.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Taylor was born, the group Family Over Everything organized a commemorative march that brought together more than 100 people, including members of Taylor’s family.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, a small crowd convened next to a mural of Taylor for a brief, silent vigil in her honor.

In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the youth council of the local NAACP chapter organized a candlelight vigil at Peace and Justice Plaza on East Franklin Street. Scores turned out for speeches, musical performances, poetry, and chants of “Say her name! Breonna Taylor!”

Those are just some of the events honoring Taylor the Crowd Counting Consortium has recorded on March 13. We will probably find more over the course of this week, and we will inevitably fail to see some others, either because they were not covered in the media sources we track or we found no traces of them on social media.

Meanwhile, you can see our data collection in progress, including the records for all of these events and others from that day, in our monthly Google Sheet for March 2021. If you know about an event we have overlooked or see an error in our descriptions of events here, please consider submitting a record so we can record it.

It’s the Climate Change, Stupid!

One issue has dominated environmental protest activity in the U.S. for at least the past four years, and that’s climate change.

The charts below show monthly counts of protest events raising environmental concerns, and sums of estimated participants in those events (with appropriate caveats), in the U.S. since January 2017, according to the Crowd Counting Consortium’s dataset. Measured by events or participants, just a handful of months—or days, really—produced the bulk of the environmental protest activity in the Trump era.

As the labels in the charts suggest, all of the peak days of environmental activism in the Trump era were linked to global or national campaigns demanding more aggressive action to combat climate change. While national or international environmental NGOs led the first couple of those campaigns, two things were notable about the more recent ones: they were led by youth activists, and they were transnational, involving concurrent demonstrations in many countries around the world.

A word cloud of CCC coders’ summaries of the demands or claims made by organizers and participants in those events gives essentially the same impression as the column charts of monthly activity: URGENT ACTION CLIMATE CHANGE.

Beyond affirming the focus on climate change, the word cloud also surfaces evidence of other major themes of environmental protest in the past four years, many of them connecting with climate activism and each other.

  • Fossil fuels and renewable energy
  • Jobs and the economy (‘economic’, ‘job’, ‘worker’, ‘unionize’)
  • Oil and gas pipelines, such as Dakota Access, Keystone XL, and Line 3
  • Racial and social justice (‘equity’, ‘equitable’, ‘racial’, ‘racism’, ‘community’)
  • Indigenous peoples’ rights and sovereignty (‘indigenous’, ‘native’)

Finally, if we revisit the time-series charts at the top of this post, we can also take note of the scarcity of environmental protest in the U.S. through much of 2020. After a few years with numerous massive, often transnational mobilizations, the absence of any similar peaks in 2020 really stands out.

Two things that come to mind when thinking about the opportunity space for contentious politics during 2020 are, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd uprising. Superficially, at least, it looks those phenomena sharply slowed the momentum that built around climate change activism in 2018 and 2019. While the pandemic kept many people shuttered in their homes, the George Floyd uprising may have drawn the attention of many politically active young Americans toward a different (but similarly urgent) set of social-justice issues.

The slow but steady growth in environmental protest activity we’ve seen in the CCC data over the past few months suggests this quiet spell may be ending, however, with indigenous-led activism against the Line 3 pipeline project in Minnesota representing one important driver of that rebound. What we haven’t seen again yet are any of the large, coordinated campaigns for action against climate change like the ones that dominated environmental activism in the Trump era. Given the urgency of the problem, I suspect that won’t be true for long.

As always, you can find the data and R script used in this post on the Nonviolent Action Lab‘s GitHub repository.

Monthly Review: February 2021

Now that the calendar’s turned to March, we can use Crowd Counting Consortium data to offer a preliminary overview of protest activity in the U.S. in February 2021. I say “preliminary” because we’ll keep encoding events in February (and earlier and later) as new information turns up, so these numbers are subject to some change. That said, most of our collection occurs in near-real time, so the basic trends and patterns described below should hold.

So far, we’ve recorded 980 protest events in the U.S. in February 2021, with about 29,000 to 35,000 reported participants in them. (Note, though, that we currently have no data on crowd size for roughly half of those 980 events, so they get zeros in the tally of participants.) That 980 figure is roughly 40 percent fewer events than we saw in January 2021, but more than double the number we saw in February 2020.

The major themes of U.S. protest activity in February didn’t change much from January, with a couple of interesting exceptions.

  • Racism was the leading theme of U.S. protest activity in February. Roughly one-third of the events we’ve recorded for the month so far made claims related to it. Many of those events were connected to the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, but we also saw a flurry of protests in February against rising anti-Asian racist violence, including several of the month’s largest events by crowd size.
  • COVID also remained a major driver of U.S. protest activity, with more than 250 events linked to it. Many of those COVID-related events also touched on education, the economy, healthcare, and housing. On education and the economy, we saw many events arguing for and against reopening schools and businesses during the pandemic, whereas nearly all of the events linking COVID-19 to healthcare or housing called for additional relief or protection from the pandemic.
  • Nearly 200 protests in February also raised claims about policing. While most protests critical of police conduct continue to fit into the Black Lives Matter movement, we also saw a number of protests in February that focused exclusively on opposition to police violence and the absence of police accountability without reference to racial injustice (see here and here, for example). It’s too soon to say if this is a durable trend, but criticism of police brutality and impunity may be broadening.
  • The first notable deviation from recent patterns in protest themes came from the appearance of environment in the top 10, with 57 events recorded in February so far. One-third of those events focused specifically on opposition to the Line 3 tar sands pipeline project in Minnesota, and nearly half (including those Line 3 protests and opposition to copper mining at Oak Flat, Arizona) intersected with claims about native peoples’ rights. While climate change and other environmental concerns were a major driver of protest activity in the first few years of the Trump presidency, protests on these issues had become relatively scarce in 2020. (More on that in a future blog post, I expect.)
  • The other notable exception to the persistence of recent trends involves protests for or against the U.S. president or candidates for president, a theme we label executive. Unsurprisingly, this topic persistently ranked among the most common for the last several months of 2020 and into January 2021, as Trump loyalists continued (sometimes violently) to contest November’s election results and various left-wing groups turned out to oppose them. In February, though, that topic finally plummeted in salience, as the MAGA crowds mostly stayed home and some left-wing groups shifted their attention to new issues.

Distinct from those trends in broader issues, February saw a number of interesting clusters of events that were explicitly coordinated or thematically connected, including the following.

  • As mentioned above, we recorded eight events in February voicing opposition to anti-Asian violence: five in California, two in New York City, and one in Washington, D.C. One at Madison Park in Oakland reportedly drew more than 1,000 people.
  • On February 10, parents and students demonstrated outside at least 35 schools in Nevada’s Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas, in hopes of giving kids a chance to resume school sports despite the coronavirus pandemic. California saw an even-larger wave of Let Them Play protests in January.
  • The announcement on February 23 that a grand jury had chosen not to indict any of the Rochester, New York, police officers involved in the March 2020 death of Daniel Prude, a Black man, sparked renewed protesting in his home town (here and here) and demonstrations in solidarity with Rochester in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
  • On the weekend of February 19–21, the Southern Workers Assembly’s call for national action in solidarity with Amazon workers attempting to unionize their workplace in Alabama led to more than 50 events, most of them on Saturday the 20th. As the map below shows, these events were scattered widely across the country, including parts of the South traditionally considered hostile to unionization efforts.

As always, you can find the data and R code used in this post on the Nonviolent Action Lab‘s GitHub repository.

Dude, Where’s My Protest?

When you spend hours each day hunting for news reports and other public digital traces of protest events, you become acutely sensitive to the many ways in which the information you find may fail to tell the whole story, the accurate story, or even the story at all.

There are lots of reasons to care about these gaps in the record, but one that should concern scholars, data scientists, and journalists who try to learn things from protest event data is selection bias. If these bits of information were missing completely at random, we could consider our sample to be representative in spite of them and ignore the gaps when analyzing the data at scale. If, however, the gaps result from implicit or explicit filtering processes that allow certain types of information to seep through more often than others, then we have to worry about how these omissions could bias the inferences we draw.

So, what are some of those filtering processes that distort the picture we see of protest activity in the United States? Here is a non-exhaustive list of sources of selection bias that come up in the Crowd Counting Consortium’s work, and that we design our collection strategies to overcome or to mitigate as much as we can.

  • If it bleeds, it leads. In local TV news, gruesome stories often get top billing. The broader principle here is that sensational events are more likely to draw audiences’ attention, ergo to draw journalists’ attention, ergo to get covered. Other things being equal, a group of people marching politely with signs is less interesting than a similar-sized group shouting at diners while they march, or blocking an intersection, or brandishing guns. That means we’re more likely to hear about the latter than the former, and that selection effect distorts our view—not just of the incidence of protest activity overall, but also of the prevalence of confrontational or disruptive behavior within it.
  • Squirrel! Novelty draws attention. The other side of this coin is that familiar and routine things do not. In press coverage of protest activity and related conflict processes, this means that waves of activism often garner a lot of attention when they first emerge, but that attention tends to wane over time. So, other things being equal, events early in the wave are more likely to get reported (and thus encoded in datasets like ours) than later ones. With bursts of activism like the George Floyd uprising, this selection effect can make it harder to tell how much of the observed ebbing of activism represents a real decrease in the frequency of protest activity and how much is just the press (or their viewers and readers) getting bored and moving on to the next new thing.
  • Copaganda. Some news outlets (hi, New York Post) adopt a pro-police editorial line in their reporting on protest activity, and I think most readers and viewers know it. What many readers and viewers may not know is that coverage of supposedly unruly protest activity in many other news outlets also tilts towards the local police departments’ understanding and description of it, in no small part because the police department is sometimes the main or even the only source of detailed information about protest events. Of course, everyone’s got an angle, including protest participants. What’s matters here, though, is that they aren’t usually the ones issuing press releases that news outlets read and sometimes regurgitate. (For an excellent longer and broader discussion of this type of bias in protest reporting, see this June 2020 essay by Kendra Pierre-Louis.)
  • Paywalls. This is kind of boring to point out, but it’s not trivial: some news sources are paywalled (with good reason; journalism is not cheap); CCC operates on a shoestring, so we can’t afford subscriptions to every informative source; and we can’t encode what we can’t read. We try to minimize this problem with a blanketing strategy, searching as many national, local, and social-media sources as we can. Sometimes, though, an event only gets reported in one source, and that source is paywalled, so we can’t quite see it to encode it, or we can only capture some of the relevant information.
  • The social media Red Queen’s Race. One way to mitigate the bias caused by the filtering processes described above is to scour social media and public aggregators for reports of events that news outlets didn’t cover, or for additional information and perspectives about events they did cover. For CCC, that means following open Twitter and Instagram accounts of scores of activist organizations, aggregators of information about local protest scenes, and many different independent journalists, whose reporting often provides some of the richest coverage of these events. This strategy helps quite a bit, but it also takes a lot of time to sustain, because the array of relevant sources and the platforms themselves are constantly evolving. The result is a Red Queen’s Race in which—on top of doing the actual reading and encoding—you can never stop working at identifying useful accounts and figuring out how to extract information from them. Partial automation of this process can greatly reduce the workload, but shifts in relevant social-media ecosystems will eventually cause data drift, implying that the pipeline itself should be maintained or even overhauled at frequent intervals. So, that work never really ends, either. We would love to experiment with developing open-source tools to track protest activity via these platforms, but the start-up costs are steep. So, for now, we do it the old-fashioned way and continue to identify and review by hand as many of these accounts as we can.

Contours of the George Floyd Uprising

We all know that the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020, triggered a tsunami of protest activity across the United States.

Just how large and broad was that wave of protests, though? How destructive was it? And how did police and right-wing counter-protesters respond to it?

The Crowd Counting Consortium’s dataset represents one of the most comprehensive sources on U.S. protest activity over the past four years, including the George Floyd uprising. I’m going to use that dataset to answer the questions I just posed in a moment, but I want to preface this exercise with three caveats.

  • First, as the late Will Moore observed, no event data set at this scale can ever be complete, and CCC’s is no exception. With generous help from Count Love, we record every relevant event we find, and we believe our search strategy is thorough. Still, we can’t catch everything that gets reported anywhere, and we know that some events don’t get covered by news outlets or on social media at all (more on that in a future post, I think). As a result, we know the true number of relevant events is always going to be larger than what we (or any similar project) can capture.
  • Second and related, we know that our data on crowd sizes at protest events generally undercounts the true number of participants as well. A non-trivial fraction of the events in our dataset have no information about crowd size because none was reported and no pictures or videos were available to estimate it. When we sum crowd sizes across events, these missing values effectively become (inaccurate) zeros. What’s more, when crowd sizes are described with vague words, we err on the conservative side and convert those to the lowest relevant value. For example, “dozens” becomes 24, or “hundreds” becomes 200. Again, the net effect is to shrink the overall estimates of participation in protest activity toward the low end of the true value or range.
  • Third, our data collection for 2020 is ongoing, so these numbers are subject to change. In particular, we are still working to clear a backlog of candidate events from August and September, so apparent declines in protest activity during that time are, at least in part, an artifact of this aspect of the data-making process.

Okay, so, with those important caveats attached, what do the data we’ve collected so far tell us about the contours of the George Floyd uprising?

For starters, we can confirm that it has been massive. CCC’s dataset includes nearly 12,000 anti-racism events in the U.S. since May 25, 2020, or nearly 20 percent of all protest events in the country over the past four years. By our (conservative) count, those events involved roughly 2.7 million participants, and, for the reasons noted above, the true number is surely much higher.

In addition to its sheer size, a key feature of the George Floyd uprising was the pace and breadth of the spread in activity associated with it. So far, CCC has recorded anti-racism events in an astonishing 3,113 different U.S. cities and towns since Floyd’s death. Remarkably, more than 2,800 of those localities saw anti-racist activism in just the four weeks after May 25.

As that number suggests and as the chart below shows, activism in support of the Black Lives Matter message diffused quickly. The wave peaked on Saturday, June 6, just two weeks after Floyd was killed, with more than 700 events in over 600 different cities and towns. The next day saw another 518 events in more than 400 localities. The wave gradually receded over the ensuing several weeks, eventually settling into a pattern in many cities that involved daily or weekly marches and demonstrations with fewer participants than that initial surge but a persistent focus on calls for racial justice and Black empowerment and opposition to police violence.

We can also use maps to visualize the speed and breadth with which the George Floyd uprising spread across the country in May and June. The gif below animates a sequence of maps from May 26 to June 30, 2020. In those maps, each point represents an anti-racism protest, and the size of the point is crudely proportionate to the size of the crowd. (Events with no reported crowd size get the same-sized point as events with tens of participants, and apologies to Alaska and Hawaii for leaving them out).

Now, how destructive was the George Floyd uprising?

If you follow right-wing news outlets or listened to many Republicans’ stump speeches last fall, you have heard that the Black Lives Matter protests of the past eight months have been exceptionally destructive. The CCC dataset does not capture the scale of destruction associated with protest events, but it does indicate whether or not any property damage occurred, including minor vandalism such as broken windows or graffiti as well as larger-scale damage or looting.

By that measure, nearly all events associated with this uprising were not destructive at all. More than 96 percent of the nearly 12,000 events in our dataset involved no reported property damage. As the chart below shows, the vast majority of the events that did involve property damage occurred in the uprising’s initial wave in May and June 2020; since then, reports of property damage associated with anti-racism protests in the U.S. have been extremely rare.

And what does the CCC dataset tell us about how police responded to these events?

As with property damage, we can’t readily quantify the intensity of the response from police and political rivals, but we can say some things about the frequency with which they took certain actions.

  • According to our data, police arrested protesters at nearly 7 percent of these roughly 12,000 events, including nearly two-thirds of the events involving any property damage.
  • The CCC data also show that police used tear gas or other chemical irritants such as pepper spray or pepper balls on protesters at 292 of those events, or nearly 2.5 percent of them. In only 56 percent of those 292 events did we also see any property damage or police injuries, leaving at least 126 events where chemical irritants were used against people who were protesting without damaging property or harming police.
  • We also saw reports of protester injuries at 288 (2.4 percent) of these events. That’s substantially higher than the 172 (1.4 percent) of events that involved any police injuries, and most (212 of 288, or 74 percent) of the events with protester injuries did not involve any police injuries. What we can’t say for sure without digging back into the source material for those records is whether those protester injuries were caused by police, counter-protesters, or something else.

Finally, what about those counter-protesters?

One notable feature of the George Floyd uprising was the backlash it inspired, not just from police but also from other civilians. CCC data capture this backlash in several forms, including the rapid growth of the Back the Blue counter-campaign over the summer of 2020 and the increased frequency with which far-right militant groups organized or participated in protests and other demonstrations or direct action over the latter half of the year.

One of the most obvious manifestations of this backlash, though, were the direct counter-protests that occurred at many events—cases where people gathered at demonstrations calling for racial justice for the specific purpose of rejecting or rebutting their anti-racism message. So far, we’ve recorded 245 of those since May 25, 2020, and that is almost certainly a low estimate, as counter-protesters did not always reference racism in their claims (or coders did not record them as such).

As the chart below shows, while the rate at which these counter-protests occurred generally follows the same trajectory as the George Floyd uprising, they have tapered off more slowly. Some of these counter-protests ostensibly focused on the protection of property, especially early in the uprising, when images of rioting in dominated coverage of anti-racist activism; many expressed support for police officers and law enforcement, sometimes but not always mixing that message with support for President Trump; and some led to violent or even fatal confrontations.

In sum, CCC data confirm that the wave of anti-racism protest activity following the killing of George Floyd has been massive and widespread; has very rarely been destructive; and has spurred backlashes in the forms of aggressive policing and right-wing counter-mobilization. 

We’ll dig deeper into the data on mobilization and counter-mobilization around racism in the U.S. in future posts. Meanwhile, if you’d like to replicate or expand on this analysis, you can find the R code used to generate the charts in this post in the Nonviolent Action Lab’s GitHub repository, here.

Trump-Era Themes in U.S. Protests

Under the Trump administration, what did Americans protest about?

The Crowd Counting Consortium’s compiled dataset offers a few ways to answer this question. Each of the more than 61,000 records in the dataset so far represents a separate event, and each of those records includes a field summarizing what the event was about, as understood and recorded in words by CCC’s human coders.

One of the simplest ways to try to spot patterns in those claims is to break them into individual words; toss all those words into one metaphorical bag; count the number of times each word appears in that bag; and then compare those counts.

The word cloud below shows what happens when we do just that. In the cloud, word position is essentially arbitrary, but the size of each word represents its relative frequency, so more common terms appear larger. Words that don’t have political meaning, like “the” and “of”, were dropped before the tallying; plural forms were singularized; and words that occurred fewer than 10 times have been dropped the figure.

I think the resulting image does a nice job highlighting major themes in protest activity under Trump. For example, the Black Lives Matter that began in 2020 is probably the broadest and widest mobilization in U.S. history, so it’s no surprise to see “racism”, “police”, “violence”, and “brutality” pop out of the cloud. Meanwhile, the tsunami of student walkouts after the Parkland attack in 2018 represents the broadest single-day event in U.S. history—walkouts occurred at nearly 5,000 institutions across the country—and we see traces of those events and similar ones in “gun”, “control”, and “school”. The latter also gets a boost from COVID-related protests, many of which have argued for or against resuming in-person learning or school sports during the pandemic.

Unfortunately, this simple word-counting approach doesn’t work so well at the level of individual events, or for tracking trends in protest themes over time. To do those kinds of things, we need to move up a rung or two on the ladder of abstraction, reducing and structuring the data even further.

We accomplish this in the compiled version of the CCC dataset by associating each event’s claims with recurrent issues in American politics. When compiling the data, we also run the coder’s summaries of protesters’ claims through a series of regular expressions representing nearly 35 major political themes—things like ‘racism’, ‘education’, ‘guns’, ‘reproductive rights’, and, since 2020, ‘covid’. Each regular expression, or regex, looks in the Claim field for a set of words or phrases associated with the issue in question and, if it sees any of them, attaches a tag for that issue to that event.

Once those issue tags have been attached, we can use them to group or filter events for analysis. The simplest thing to do at this point is just to count the number of times each tag appears in the data.

The column chart below shows the results of that exercise for the 60,000+ events that occurred during the Trump presidency. Consistent with the word cloud, we see that racism, policing, guns, and education (schools) were the most common themes of U.S. protest activity over the past four years. Now, however, we can also see more clearly the prominence of other recurrent issues such as immigration, the environment, women’s rights, democracy (including voting rights), COVID-19, and the presidency and Trump himself (“executive”).

To see how activism around those themes has trended over time, we need to group events by time step as well as issue. The set of small multiples below does that, grouping here by month. Because the ranges of daily counts vary so widely across issues—some peak in the thousands, others in the tens—I’ve chosen not to standardize the scale of the y-axis across the charts, but the x-axes all span the same time period. The charts are arranged alphabetically by issue tag.

There’s a lot going on in that stack of charts. Picking just a few to focus on, though…

  • Each of the annual Women’s Marches shows up as a peak in the “women’s rights” chart, including the batch held in October 2020, ahead of the presidential election.
  • Ditto for the Fridays for Future climate strikes, which produce a series of clear peaks in the “environment” chart.
  • The March 2018 National School Walkout in response to the Parkland shootings was so massive that the peaks it produces on the “guns” and “education” charts drown out the rest of the variation over time for those plots. We see a hint of the uptick in school-related activism in the COVID era on the “education” chart, but you have to know to look for it to spot it.
  • The “economy”, “housing”, and “labor” charts all show broad increases in protest activity around those themes at the tail end of the Trump presidency, when the coronavirus pandemic set off a historic decline in the U.S. economy. Schools have been one focal point of COVID-related activism, but frustrations over business closures, demands for safer workplaces, and calls for cancelling rent and evictions have also figured prominently in this wave.

Together, these three charts offer a solid high-level overview of major themes in protest activity under the Trump administration. I also hope this post shows some of the ways the CCC dataset can be used to identify and analyze patterns in U.S. activism at various levels of abstraction, from reading a news story about, or even watching video footage of, a specific event (see the links in the ‘source_’ columns of the compiled dataset), to reading CCC coders’ summaries of protester claims, to using natural language processing techniques to summarize those summaries into features we can tally and compare at higher levels of abstraction.

If you’d like to replicate or expand on the analysis described in this post, you can find the R code used to generate these charts in the Nonviolent Action Lab’s GitHub repository, here.