The report, produced by the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, also concluded that an escalation in the government response to protests and a sharp uptick in extremist activity means the United States faces a growing risk of “political violence and instability” ahead of the 2020 election.
ACLED, which monitors war zones and political upheaval around the world, launched the US Crisis Monitor report with Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative. Using media accounts and other public information, the report identified 7,750 protests from May 26 through Aug. 22 that were linked to the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests took place in 2,400 locations across all 50 states and the District.
The group identified about 220 locations where the protests became “violent,” which authors of the report defined as demonstrators clashing with police or counterprotesters or causing property damage.
Even in those cases, however, the upheaval was “largely confined to specific blocks, rather than dispersed throughout the city,” the report states.
Still, the researchers warned of “violent political polarization” in the United States that they fear could spill over into the November election.
“In this hyper-polarized environment, state forces are taking a more heavy-handed approach to dissent, non-state actors are becoming more active and assertive, and counter-demonstrators are looking to resolve their political disputes in the street,” the authors wrote. “Without significant mitigation efforts, these risks will continue to intensify in the lead-up to the vote, threatening to boil over in November if election results are delayed, inconclusive, or rejected as fraudulent.”
ACLED had previously focused on studying violent incidents in dozens of foreign countries, including Pakistan, Mexico and Mozambique. But after the protests following Floyd’s killing erupted this summer, the group decided to also conduct research within the United States.
In June, ACLED issued a statement expressing “solidarity” with protest movements “calling for systemic and peaceful change.”
“This urgent need transcends discrete incidents, specific groups and borders,” it wrote.
The report highlights what it calls a dramatic escalation in the government's response to protests.
Police or other government agencies intervened to stop or confront protesters in about 10 percent of the Black Lives Matter protests nationwide. In a little more than half of those cases, authorities used force, “such as firing less-lethal weapons like tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray or beating demonstrators with batons,” the report states.
“The heavy-handed police response appears to have inflamed tensions and increased the risk of violent escalation,” the report states. “The escalating use of force against demonstrators comes amid a wider push to militarize the government's response to domestic unrest, and particularly demonstrations perceived to be linked to left-wing groups like antifa, which the administration views as a ‘terrorist’ organization.”
The report noted that National Guard troops or federal agents have been dispatched at least 55 times since Floyd’s killing.
In Portland, Ore., where protests this summer have been especially intense, the arrival of federal forces in July created even more volatility, the report states. In late May and June, fewer than one-fourth of Portland’s demonstrations were “met with state force,” the report states. That figure jumped to 40 percent in July and August.
Conversely, the number of violent demonstrations rose from 53 percent to 63 percent after President Trump dispatched federal agents to that city. Statewide in Oregon, the number of “violent” demonstrations increased from 17 percent to 42 percent after the federal deployment began.
“Although federal authorities were purportedly deployed to keep the peace, the move appears to have re-escalated tensions,” the report states.
The summer also brought a surging number of events linked to counterprotesters and “non-state actors,” which the report defines as far-right and far-left activist and extremist groups. The report says more than 20 such groups and their members have been active in over 100 demonstrations and counterdemonstrations this summer.
The report authors have been monitoring several self-described militia groups on the far right that have been linked to white nationalists, including the Three Percenters movement and the Proud Boys. On the far left, the authors identified antifa, a loosely organized group that claims to be a foil to far-right extremists that it believes are fascists.
Increasingly, researchers say, protesters on both sides of the country’s political divide are meeting face-to-face at demonstrations.
In July, ACLED recorded 160 counterdemonstrations, with at least 18 turning violent. In July 2019, the United States saw just 17 counterdemonstrations, with just one turning violent.
ACLED’s fear of a continued escalation of violence is partially rooted in the growing numbers of Americans who have been showing up at protests armed.
Last week, an armed 17-year-old was arrested after he allegedly fatally shot two men and injured another who had protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. On Saturday in Portland, someone fatally shot a 39-year-old man who had participated in a vehicle caravan of Trump supporters that drove into the city.
In all, the report states armed groups had shown up to at least 50 demonstrations since mid-May.
“Reports that police not only tolerate the presence of certain armed individuals at demonstrations, but in some cases actively encourage their involvement suggest this trend will continue amplifying the risk of violence,” the authors wrote.
The disorder within the United States has been magnified by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as well as the subsequent surge in the nation’s unemployment rate, the report says.
There have been more than 1,000 “pandemic-related demonstrations” that have included “regular confrontations between demonstrators for and against lockdown restrictions,” the report states.
In early August, the number of demonstrations related to the pandemic even surpassed those related to Black Lives Matter. That is when there was a surge of demonstrations related to state and local decisions about whether to reopen schools for in-person learning, with more than 300 such protests occurring so far.
“The United States is in crisis,” the report concludes.