Are we in the most widespread protest wave in US history?

As Black Lives Matter protests multiply across the country in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, people are asking how to place the massive public reaction into historical context. Subjectively, the current protests can feel like another element in a long series of protests memorializing Black deaths at the hands of the state and private racist acts—“A decade of watching Black people die”—and simultaneously like “a watershed moment” that “changes everything,” as new and unexpected parts of US and world society are joining in the resistance to racism and police violence. It’s in that context that the first quantitative counts of the George Floyd protests are circulating now.

Writing in the Washington Post, Lara Putnam, Erica Chenoweth, and Jeremy Pressman call the current protest wave “the broadest in U.S. history” and note that, “People have held protests in all 50 states and D.C., including in hundreds of smaller, lesser-known towns and cities that have not been in the spotlight during previous nationwide protests.” Of course, “broad” is the a measure here because, so far, largest is off the table: many protest waves have involved larger overall numbers of participants and certainly there have been many larger single events than the impressive rallies this week, which have reached the tens of thousands in Minneapolis, Houston, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington. And of course, no prior protest wave has had to overcome the challenge of pandemic-induced social distancing.

So the measure has become less about the sheer number of people involved, and more about the number and diversity of the locations we are showing up to protest. So how do we measure that and how can we be sure? Unfortunately, there is no single long-term data set on protest participation, despite the recent hard work of the Crowd Counting Consortium (CCC)—founded by Chenoweth and Pressman—since 2017. Before that time, we have to rely on historical and personal memory, which can often mean we forget the more distant past and discard events that don’t fit well into longer narratives.

The data from the CCC show events in 538 distinct US municipalities so far (and more are on the way). (To calculate this number, I ran a uniqueness filter on city and state from the May and June spreadsheets for George Floyd events.) A tracker from USA Today names 700 localities in the United States. These are very high numbers, but of course they reflect both the increased willingness and ability to rapidly organize protests and improved means for researchers to find them. Zeynep Tufekci makes a compelling call in her book Twitter and Tear Gas to avoid purely numerical comparisons across different decades: “seemingly similar outcomes

“seemingly similar outcomes and benchmarks—for example, a protest march attended by a hundred thousand people—do not necessarily signal the same underlying capacity to those in power when they are organized with the aid of digital technology as they do when they are organized without such supporting tools.

Tufekci, Zeynep. Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017, p. 192.

Instead of measuring outcomes, Tufekci urges us to look at the “onerous labor and deep organizational and logistical capacity to make things happen,” which had to be built before marches could exist in the 1960s, but which now tends to be constructed on site after a movement has gone viral and found one another in the streets. She proposes we should look at narrative capacity—“the ability of the movement to frame its story on its own terms, to spread its world view”; disruptive capacity to “interrupt the regular operations of a system of authority”; and electoral or institutional capacity “to keep politicians from being elected, reelected, or nominated unless they adopt and pursue” desired policies.

It may be too early to tell whether participation in 2020 is truly more widespread than in past events, or to measure the depth of commitment and sophistication of the current movement, but what I want to do here is lay out some other protest waves that we should have in mind when looking for comparisons:

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Narrow Road to Prosecuting Police for Killings; A Wall Blocks Murder Convictions

With the November 16 indictment of Jeronimo Yanez for the shooting death of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Height, Minnesota, there have now been twelve police officers criminally charged for shooting civilians on duty in 2016. Eighteen more were charged in 2015, reports Jennifer Bjorhus in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Her reporting draws on the media monitoring and data collection of Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University. Stinson has been chronicling this data since 2005, using systematic Google News searches, one part of a wide-ranging inquiry into police misconduct that can be seen in his many publications. (A 538 interview describes his work.) The thirty indictments in the last 23 months have come at a much faster pace than the 48 indictments Stinson has counted in the previous ten years, 2005-14.

Data sources: Prior to the emergence of Black Lives Matter, there was little appetite in the news media or government agencies for this kind of data, but news organizations have stepped in to the vacuum: The Guardian produces “The Counted,” a tabulation of all police killings and the Washington Post maintains “Fatal Force” chronicling deadly police shootings. Shamed by the lack of official data, the US Department of Justice announced plans to begin keeping a database of deaths in police custody and deadly police violent force in 2016, although it would rely on voluntary self-reporting for the latter. It is unclear if a Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department would continue this initiative.

Murder convictions remain elusive: The 78 indictments since 2005 have yielded 27 convictions. However, just one of those produced a murder conviction: Police officer James Ashby was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting Jack Jacquez in the back in 2014; the victim was unarmed and had fled into his mother’s house. As explained in the video below, the Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Connor (1989) provides any cop who believed there was a threat to himself or others with a defense against prosecution.

As previously noted on this blog, in 1969 the magazine Ramparts offered a challenge to secure a murder conviction of a cop killing a Black man. The Guardian has tabulated over 500 black deaths in just the past 23 months. According to Stinson’s data, no convictions matching that description have been made in over 12 years.

Kerner Commission report on 1967 riots seems eerily familiar

Following the 1967 wave of urban uprisings in Black communities, President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?” As part of the relatively small field of social science on rioting, it is best known for its alarming statement that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” a dire prospect for a country that had dismantled the legal doctrine of “separate but equal” just a dozen years before.

Less often quoted is the Commission’s in-depth study of the nature and process of rioting. Altogether, Malcolm McLaughlin records in a recent book (Long, Hot Summer of 1967: Urban Rebellion in America), in the first nine months of 1967, “almost 170 cities in 34 states and the District of Columbia had experienced an uprising of some sort, and almost 40 communities had more than one. Few corners of urban America were left untouched.” In its effort to document and understand the riots, Kerner Commission reached the following conclusions, many of which seem very descriptive of the past year’s flashpoints of unrest from Ferguson, Missouri to Baltimore, Maryland.

The “typical” riot did not take place. The disorders of 1967 were unusual, irregular, complex and unpredictable social processes. Like most human events, they did not unfold in an orderly sequence. However, an analysis of our survey information leads to some conclusions about the riot process.

In general:

The civil disorders of 1967 involved Negroes acting against local symbols of white American society, authority and property in Negro neighborhoods—rather than against white persons.Read More »

An Anarchist Response to Ebola

Anarchists are part of the global conversation on what’s broken in the world, but when things really fall apart — like with the current Ebola outbreak — is the state the only answer? How might a stateless society respond to a challenge like this one? This article provides an anarchist response to these questions, while highlighting issues that require those of us with anarchist politics to carefully think through our position.

This article, written with Chuck Munson, takes on that question: “An An Anarchist Response to Ebola.” It was written for Agency, a new anarchist PR project. Here are “Part One: What Went Wrong?” and “Part Two: Envisioning an Anarchist Alternative.” A single-page, prettified version is posted here on Medium.