Two weeks ago, “Lights for Liberty” protests were held throughout the country. Their purpose, according to the protest organizers’ main website, was “to protest the inhumane conditions faced by migrants” detained by the United States at the southern border. These protests received limited national media attention, certainly less than the Women’s March. But a careful look at the data shows these protests may be more significant than one might assume.
1. A decent number of people came out in a lot of places
We counted 696 such protests, including a few in Louisiana that were delayed because of the weather, and six pro-Trump counterprotests. They took place in all 50 states and Washington. We estimate that 105,154 to 121,732 people attended them.
That number of participants was not in the same league as, for example, the Women’s March or the March for Our Lives. But garnering over 100,000 participants on relatively short notice in over 600 cities and towns is still a notable achievement. Attendance at recent protests against the Trump administration has been much more modest, with only around 3,000 people counted in last month’s rallies supporting impeachment.
Moreover, many of the Lights for Liberty vigils took place outside of the largest urban areas, which usually account for a disproportionate share of the participants in protests. At the Women’s March in January 2017, the 10 most populous U.S. cities accounted for 38 percent to 41 percent of the protesters. At Lights for Liberty, it was only about 21 percent.
It’s also notable that many of the Lights for Liberty vigils were held in pro-Trump areas. Although we haven’t done a complete count of how many protests occurred in red states or in pro-Trump counties, we found many such instances in the data. For instance, in Alabama, where seven vigils took place, five were held in counties that Donald Trump carried in the 2016 election. Among North Carolina’s 23 vigils, nearly half (11) were in counties that voted for Trump in 2016. This is significant because it signals committed dissent in places commonly associated with supporting his policies. And for protesters in these areas, there’s a higher risk of ostracism or retaliation.
2. Place matters
In considering exactly where the protests were held, organizers followed past practice and chose visible places that in many cases had symbolic meaning. For example, these locations drew attention to immigrant detention and to the politicians who could influence policy.
Consider the five sites that were Lights for Liberty’s initial focus and held some of the biggest gatherings: in El Paso, at the Santa Fe Bridge/Paso del Norte Bridge that links El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; outside a detention center for migrant children in Homestead, Fla.; a march in California’s San Ysidro area to the eastern port of border entry; at Foley Square in New York City by a U.S. federal courthouse; and in Washington, in Lafayette Square, across from the White House.
In Albert Lea, Minn., the vigil was held outside the Freeborn County Adult Detention Center, hosted by Families Belong Together, an organization associated with June 30, 2018, protests over U.S. migrant detention policies. In Columbia, Mo., organizers chose the Boone County Jail “to protest Sheriff Carey’s cooperation with ICE to detain immigrants for deportation.”
The Lights for Liberty vigils also drew significant support from faith communities, so religious buildings, especially churches, were common sites for the gatherings. Religious references and biblical verses appeared on signs, such as “Jesus was a refugee” and “Immigrants are children of God too!” Host locations included the Billings, Mont., First Church; the Cherokee Buddhist Temple in St. Louis; the First Baptist Church in Beverly, Mass.; and Temple Concord in Binghamton, N.Y.
3. Organizers understood that a protest needs to lead to concrete action
Almost every Lights for Liberty vigil had a Facebook event page. On those pages with active discussions, a central theme was what actions vigil attendees could take in addition to the vigil. Over and over again, organizers and other discussants posted about things such as calling members of Congress, supporting new immigrants, donating to organizations helping immigrants, and talking with friends about the issue. In Tacoma, Wash., participants chanted “No estan solo!” in the belief that those detained in the Northwest Detention Center could hear them in solidarity.
BeLoved Asheville, running a vigil in Hot Springs, N.C., made the point succinctly in a Facebook post that read “We are in a ‘movement not a moment.’”
4. The grass-roots activism that has sprung up since Trump was elected could help determine whether he gets reelected.
A number of the Lights for Liberty vigils were organized by local anti-Trump groups that were established after the 2016 election. Over 150 people turned out at HB Huddle’s event in Huntington Beach, Calif. Action Together Lakewood Area and Indivisible CLE were two of the hosts of the 400-500 people who came together in Cleveland. A number of groups with Indivisible in their name played a role in vigils.
Political scientists Lara Putnam and Gabriel Perez-Putnam have argued that this grass-roots activism mattered in the 2018 midterm election, especially in areas that voted for Trump in 2016 but elected Democratic House members in 2018. More recently, they laid out the case for the possible effect of this organizational infrastructure on 2020.
Now the question is whether organizations translate their activism into concrete action — such as voter registration and mobilization — leading into 2020.
Tommy Leung is a software engineer and co-founder of countlove.org, a website that documents local news coverage of U.S. protest activity.
Nathan Perkins is a neuroscientist studying motor learning at Boston University and fellow co-founder of countlove.org.
Jeremy Pressman (@djpressman) is an associate professor of political science and director of Middle East Studies at the University of Connecticut. Pressman’s book, “The Sword Is Not Enough: Arabs, Israelis, and the Limits of Military Force” (Manchester University Press) will be published in early 2020.