The demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd have seen millions of Americans take to the streets on bicycles, horses, surfboards and boats, skateboards, in cars or on foot. It is the largest sustained mobilization in the United States in our lifetimes.
Data from the Crowd Counting Consortium gives a sense of the scale of these protests. So far, we’ve counted 5,000 individual anti-racism/anti-police-brutality protests nationwide since the end of May, involving millions of participants. In fact, data from Pennsylvania (which we have studied most intensively) suggest that our national count still underestimates the number of protests in small cities and towns. The real national total may be as high as 8,000. Here are some key findings so far.
Anti-racism protests are wider than the tea party and anti-Trump ‘Resistance’ protests
From the end of May through June, more than 400 anti-racism protests were held in Pennsylvania alone, across at least 230 different communities in 62 of the state’s 67 counties. By comparison, Tax Day 2009 saw foundational tea party protests in 29 communities in Pennsylvania, while January 2017 saw Women’s Marches in 24 communities. In this wave, Black Lives Matter protests were held in 40 communities in Pennsylvania in just a single day (June 6). Moreover, the protests are not just concentrated in metropolitan suburbs. That’s different from the grass-roots groups founded in response to Donald Trump’s election, largely by college-educated women.
Very different kinds of places within Pennsylvania have seen similar levels of protests. As the figures below show, counties with big cities, former industrial centers, less-prosperous suburbs and rural regions have generated protests in nearly exact proportion to their share of the state’s population. There is no simple rural-urban-suburban divide.
Black and allied youths have played a central role everywhere
Contrary to myth, young people don’t always dominate street protests. Polls in 2018 found that less than a quarter of people who reported attending a rally in the previous two years were under 30. However, this time the standard view is correct — more than half of self-reported participants are under 30.
Teenagers and 20-somethings are not just participating. They are leading protests, in places as different as 4S Ranch, Calif.; Aledo, Tex.; Canton, Mo.; Morgantown, W.Va.; Potsdam, N.Y.; Springfield, Ill.; and Woburn, Mass. A typical small town was Pen Argyl, Pa. (pop. 3,600), where three friends in their late teens organized the protest, while younger siblings helped promote it on Instagram. One hundred and 50 people showed up in support.
The fact that they used Instagram isn’t happenstance. In rural and small-town areas, young people are seeing the world — and their own role in it — through an Instagram-anchored media ecosystem that connects them to young people in cities and differentiates them from older people around them.
What teens and 20-somethings have seen in recent years is people of their own age taking the lead nationally and internationally, in the Movement for Black Lives, gun control and climate action. Some have firsthand experience, too. On March 14, 2018, survivors of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting helped galvanize student walkouts at more than 4,400 schools nationwide — from kindergarten to high school classrooms. A majority of the school districts in Pennsylvania that had a walkout in 2018 have now seen an anti-racism protest, as have an additional 140 districts statewide.
Broad protests are building specific local coalitions
These protests involve a wider range of places and a different mix of people than the 2017 Women’s March/anti-Trump wave. Still, there are important parallels. First-time activists have rapidly built connections with one another and others nearby. New micro-regional alliances were born within days, like Small Town Peaceful Protests in eastern Pennsylvania’s Slate Belt and If Not Us Who along the Susquehanna. New organizers have connected with established partners, too, from NAACP chapters and churches to labor-linked independent expenditure groups to state legislators.
In suburbs, cities and small towns alike, such coalitions are articulating local demands that range from changing high school curriculums and reconsidering the presence of police officers in schools, to advancing stalled county legislation for police accountability, changing use-of-force rules and challenging police budget allocations. Politicians are responding, presumably because they can see the groundswell.
New people are coming into politics
A sign at a Black Lives Matter protest in Montoursville, Pa., population 4,600, read: “It’s not about Politics: it’s all about ETHICS.” The largely white, largely young protesters in this Trump+44 county carried signs with slogans like “Black LGBTQ Lives Matter,” “Racism is a System not an Event,” “The System isn’t Broken it was BUILT this way,” “White Silence=VIOLENCE.” None of these are partisan statements, but embracing them publicly and collectively may have broad political consequences.
Nearly half of the 10 percent of American adults who report attending a protest in support of Black Lives Matter last month identify as independents. That’s important because, in general, independents are less likely to be politically engaged or optimistic about politics or to vote. Yet the message that voting is necessary — if not sufficient — has rung out at protests. From Kansas City to Sacramento, protesters registered voters.
Everything we know about political engagement suggests that protest involvement builds new personal networks that make people more knowledgeable and engaged with politics — and more likely to vote. All this suggests that the current wave of anti-racism protests may reshape local political engagement, and through it regional and state politics, even more than the tea party or the suburban-led anti-Trump “Resistance.”
Lara Putnam is a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and a contributor to “Upending American Politics: Polarizing Parties, Ideological Elites, and Citizen Activists from the Tea Party to the Anti-Trump Resistance” (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Jeremy Pressman is an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and author of the forthcoming book “The Sword Is Not Enough: Arabs, Israelis, and the Limits of Military Force” (Manchester University Press, 2020).