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.

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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