Right-Wing Backlash Against COVID-19 Mitigation Measures

Over the past two months, mobilization against public-health measures meant to stem the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. has swelled to levels that exceed the wave of protests against business closures and stay-at-home orders around the start of the pandemic in 2020, Crowd Counting Consortium (CCC) data show. And, so far, the current surge shows no signs of abating.

The figure immediately below charts daily counts of protest events in the CCC dataset that had the COVID-19 pandemic as a major theme and were labeled as right-wing. In the CCC data, events related to COVID are generally labeled “right-wing” when they oppose public-health measures such as mask or vaccination requirements, whether or not the protesters explicitly identify themselves in a partisan fashion. So, for all practical purposes, these are events at which participants were protesting against those kinds of mandates, usually on grounds that those mandates infringe upon their personal liberty, parental prerogatives, or “medical freedom.” (Consistent with CCC’s general practices, this set of events does not include protests voiced during comment sessions at meetings of bodies such as school boards or county councils, unless those protests deliberately and successfully disrupted or derailed the larger meeting.)

As the figure shows, the ongoing wave has already exceeded the one seen in spring 2020 in both intensity and duration, and it may not even have peaked yet. The single day with the most protest actions in the current wave happened just a few days ago, on August 28, with more than 60 events nationwide, many of them backed by the Tea Party Patriots.

The next figure plots daily sums of participants in those protest events, splitting the difference between the high and low crowd estimates recorded by CCC coders for each action. This chart suggests that the recent protests are not drawing larger crowds than the ones in 2020, even as there are more of them. (Note: estimates of crowd size are unavailable for roughly 40 percent of the events in the CCC data set, so these sums almost certainly underestimate the scale of participation in these events. That’s true for 2020 and 2021, however, so it probably doesn’t affect comparisons across the two waves.) 

The scale of the ongoing wave has varied widely across states. As shown in the bar chart below, the state with the most of these protests in the past two months by far is California, where opposition to COVID-19 public-health measures is thematically and organizationally intertwined with the effort to recall Governor Gavin Newsom. Washington ranks second, due mostly to a statewide, single-day mobilization led by the group Unmask Our Kids Washington on Wednesday, August 18. Despite its liberal reputation, New York ranks third, and New Mexico and Florida follow close behind. Only Wyoming and Puerto Rico have yet to see any events in the current wave, or at least any that CCC was able to spot.

In per capita terms, however, California does not look so exceptional. As the next chart shows, relative to their population size, it’s New Mexico, New Hampshire (“Live Free or Die”), and Hawaii that have contributed proportionately the most to the current wave. Washington state still lands in the top five, but Idaho, the Dakotas, Montana, Oregon, Maine, and Alaska now show near the top of the list as well. (James C. Scott’s work on resistance to government from afar among hill peoples in Southeast Asia comes to mind…)

So, why is this happening now? As the person who’s been reading the news stories and social-media posts and watching the TV-news videos to code events during this period, I’d say it’s pretty clear that the current wave has two main catalysts.

  • The approach of the new school year, and the imposition of mask mandates in many districts where students will at least start the year attending school in person; and
  • COVID-19 vaccination requirements announced by many hospitals and other employers in the healthcare industry—and, in places like New York and Oregon, by city and state governments as well.

Mask mandates in schools were more often the focal point through much of July, but the wave really swelled in August as deadlines for vaccinations as a condition of employment at many healthcare facilities began to loom. In California, a group calling itself America’s Healthcare Workers for Medical Freedom has promoted dozens of demonstrations against COVID-19 vaccination requirements for healthcare workers on social media in recent weeks, most of them outside area hospitals. But similar demonstrations have occurred across the country in places like Staten Island, New York; Miami, Florida; and Memphis, Tennessee.

A crucial question we can’t answer clearly with our data is the extent to which the impetus for the current wave is coming from national conservative groups with broader goals, as opposed to local activists motivated specifically by frustrations over these public-health measures. The frequent appearance of groups like the Tea Party, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, and the Proud Boys in the lists of organizations involved with these events suggests that right-wing movements are looking to use frustrations over COVID public-health measures to boost recruitment and mobilize voters for upcoming elections to everything from local school boards to federal office. So, too, does the appearance of GOP office-holders and candidates at some of these events, including one this past Sunday on the steps of the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and one earlier in the month in Lansing, Michigan. Long-time observers of the anti-vaccine movement have also described how its leaders are exploiting public frustration over COVID mandates to push the Republican Party toward a broader anti-vaccination agenda. For now, though, we’ll have to leave more confident answers to the “grassroots vs. astroturf” question to the investigative reporters, who, as far as I can tell, are still digging.

Pro-Palestine Movement of 2021

In May 2021, opposition to Israeli occupation and the displacement of Palestinians set off a large wave of pro-Palestinian protest activity in the United States. The initial protests were especially motivated by the Israeli push to remove Palestinian families who live in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and replace them with Israeli Jews, but other factors contributed as well. During this period, the Crowd Counting Consortium has logged more than 460 events in the United States in support of Palestine with more than 130,000 total participants, and, more than a month later, the movement continues to unfold and evolve.

While protests against expulsions from Sheikh Jarrah had already occurred in Israel and Palestine, the first 2021 event captured in CCC’s dataset that specifically mentions “the current violence against Palestinians in Jerusalem” occurred in Boston’s Copley Square on May 1. One week later, Palestinian-led groups organized demonstrations in Brooklyn and Chicago to condemn Israeli actions and support Palestinian resistance in Sheikh Jarrah. 

Over the next several days, various pro-Palestinian organizations organized a series of “emergency” actions across the U.S. to decry the expulsions from Sheikh Jarrah and aggressive Israeli police actions in the al-Aqsa Mosque. As the charts below show, on Saturday, May 15, roughly 60 events nationwide drew tens of thousands of participants, and nearly as many turned out for a smaller number of events the next day. That peak weekend included massive marches in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles on Saturday and in Chicago and Dearborn, Michigan, on Sunday. The Chicago and L.A. marches both reportedly drew 20,000 or more, while high estimates for the D.C. and Dearborn events put turnout around 10,000 each. These are some of the largest political crowds CCC has seen in the United States in 2021 so far.

As of June 10, CCC had recorded events associated with this wave in 250 unique cities and towns. The geographic scope of the groundswell of recent activism in support of Palestine is also evident in the animated map below.

At many of these events, organizers and participants harshly condemned Israeli practices, using words such as ethnic cleansing, atrocities, genocide, and apartheid. Recent reports from Human Rights Watch and from B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, characterizing the Israeli system as apartheid have brought renewed attention to that wording. But it has long been the Palestinian contention that the Israeli system meets the international definition of apartheid. Moreover, organizers from Black Lives Matter–associated groups have used such messaging fairly consistently since at least 2016.

Indeed, at some events, anti-racist and abolitionist organizations and pro-Palestine demonstrators have expressed solidarity with one another, emphasizing related experiences with settler colonialism, white supremacy, and police brutality. The chant “From Ferguson to Palestine,” which existed prior to this protest wave, speaks to the ways in which many contemporary activists draw on Black radical traditions to articulate common cause between Palestinian and Black liberation struggles. Solidarity protests along these lines took place in Dearborn, Greenville, Portland, New York, L.A., and elsewhere. 

Sometimes the protests have explicitly challenged U.S. policy that favors Israel over Palestine. At numerous actions, protestors called for ending U.S. aid for Israel, about $3.8 billion annually. Pro-Palestine protesters have recently demonstrated at the offices of members of the U.S. Congress, at the U.S. State Department, and at the headquarters of corporations like Boeing, Raytheon, and Gulfstream. In the first few weeks of the current wave, several actions were held outside Israeli consular offices in places like Los Angeles and New York. In June, demonstrators in several cities have gathered to prevent Israel-flagged ships from off-loading cargo in U.S. ports.

A wave of mobilization in support of Israel has also occurred during this same period, but it has been much smaller. So far, CCC has recorded 57 explicitly pro-Israel events since May 1, 2021, with 10,000-15,000 total participants across 46 different cities and towns. The first third of those events all occurred on Wednesday, May 12, when the Israeli-American Council collaborated with local groups to organize rallies in 19 cities under the slogan “Stand Up Against Terror, Stand with Israel.” The early phase of these waves also saw a number of direct counter-protests and some physical clashes between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrators. 

As antisemitic attacks in the U.S. accelerated, the Israeli-American Council coordinated a second batch of rallies on Sunday, May 23, that emphasized opposition to antisemitism in addition to support for Israel. The single-largest in-person pro-Israel rally during this period took place in Cedarhurst, New York, on May 27 when an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 people came to a local park “to show support for Israel and Jewish people around the world.” A number of leading American Jewish organizations had declared May 27 a national Day of Action Against Antisemitism, and a virtual rally held that same day drew faith leaders and top lawmakers from across the country.

Among other things, these protests supporting Israel or Palestine serve as a reminder of how sensitive the protest environment is to current events. From January through April 2021, CCC tallied only two protests in the United States in support of Palestine and none in support of Israel.  

In our research thus far, we did not try to disentangle the various aspects of Israel-Palestine to ascertain exactly which sub-claims were the most important. The Sheikh Jarrah displacement, heavy-handed Israeli police actions in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque, Israel not allowing Palestinians to congregate at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City during Ramadan, the IDF bombing of Gaza, and Israeli Jewish citizens attacking 1) Palestinians in Jerusalem and 2) Palestinian citizens of Israel inside pre-1967 Israel (e.g., in Lod, Haifa, Jaffa) all could affect the organization of, and participation in, pro-Palestine events. Each of these sub-claims reinforces certain aspects of a larger Palestinian narrative about Israeli occupation, settlements, and apartheid; Palestinian dispossession; and the need for Palestinian rights and/or statehood. While the exact sub-claims would vary, the same connection between specific issues and a larger narrative is happening among U.S. groups and protesters supportive of the Israeli government.

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.