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.

Published by Jay Ulfelder

Jay Ulfelder has worked for more than two decades at the intersection of social science and data science, with particular interests in contentious politics, democracy, and forecasting.

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