Sociologist Dana Fisher moved to Washington for the protests. She'd been studying environmental activism for more than a decade at Columbia University, and when she was offered a job as director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland six years ago, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to get close to the action.
But little action came. In Fisher's first five years in the Washington area, she didn't see a single large-scale progressive protest — meaning 50,000 people or more — on the Mall. She wound up traveling back to New York City for the 2014 Peoples Climate March.
“It was just funny to me that I got here, and it was just not happening,” Fisher said Monday. “Now look at how the world has changed.”
Since President Trump's inauguration, major demonstrations on the Mall have become almost a weekly occurrence. Few of Fisher's past students had ever participated in a protest, but these days “everybody has to get out of class to go downtown because they’re chaining themselves to something or they're marching,” she said.
Fisher has deployed so many teams of researchers to survey march participants she's running out of energy — and funding. She looked ahead at the calendar for May, which is momentarily mostly protest-free, and said with relief, “I will be excited to take a few weeks off.”
“There's an exhaustion about studying protests when it's happening so frequently. … But I can't miss out on collecting data.”
Fisher's research is focused on why people wind up at a protest. How did they find out about it? What issue motivated them to join? Are they involved in other civic groups, or is this their first time being part of something so big and public?
“I always have been interested in why and how people participate in democracy,” she said. “What gets people off their butts and into the street?”
Here's what Fisher has learned from the many events that have rallied big crowds this year.
In some ways, the marchers are more or less who you'd expect.
The crowds have been overwhelmingly people who voted for Hillary Clinton (82 percent to 90 percent). More than 90 percent of participants surveyed at the Women's March in January said their political views ranged from “slightly” to “very” left. The vast majority of Women's March participants were women. At the March for Science and Peoples Climate March last month, women made up 57 percent and 54 percent of demonstrators respectively.
The Women's and Peoples Climate marches were somewhat more diverse than most liberal protests Fisher has studied. The crowd at the Jan. 21 event was 77 percent white, 4 percent Hispanic/Latino, 6.5 percent black, 0.2 percent Native American, 4 percent Asian and 8 percent multiracial or other. The numbers were similar at the Peoples Climate March, although last Saturday's event included significantly more Native American participants and fewer black and multiracial demonstrators. The March for Science had more white and Asian participants.
The marchers are really well educated.
More than three-quarters of participants at each march had at least a bachelor's degree (for the overall U.S. population, it's just one out of three, according to the Census). Interestingly, the Women's March, not the March for Science, was the most highly educated — a stunning 53 percent of survey respondents had a graduate or professional degree at the January event.
Protesters are mobilizing in new ways — many of them for the first time.
The Women's March, the March for Science and the Peoples Climate March all brought out large numbers of first-time demonstrators. About a third of the people at the first two events had never been to a protest before, and a quarter of those at Saturday's march said it was their first protest.
And the people joining the movements aren't being recruited in traditional ways. Usually, people will attend a protest because a friend or family member recommends it, or because they are part of an organization that is participating. But in recent months, Facebook was cited more often than any other source when Fisher asked people how they heard about a march. Many of those surveyed were not members of any of the hundreds of partner groups that helped orchestrate the events.
“Across the board, the marches are bringing out not just new people but people who are not members of those coalitions,” Fisher said. “People who are really new to participating in anything. This is a really interesting time where democracy has gotten a shot in the arm, and I suppose we have President Trump to thank for that.”
These marches wouldn't be happening without Trump.
Organizers of the March for Science insisted repeatedly that the demonstration wasn't just about opposing the White House. But participants told a different story. More than half said that Trump and what he stands for were a main motivation for marching; the only other motivation cited by more than 50 percent of protesters was the environment. At the climate march, 55 percent of participants said the same.
A whopping 98 percent of the people who attended the science march said the outcome of the 2016 election was important to their decision to participate. At the climate march, that number was 97 percent.
But people's reasons for marching are becoming more diverse.
Fisher noted that protesters' motivations at recent marches were unlike anything she'd seen before. Whenever she surveys demonstrators, she allows them to check off their reasons for protesting from a list of causes: “Women's rights,” “Environment,” “Racial justice,” “Equality,” “Peace,” “Labor,” “Religion.” Typically, protesters will tend to pick the same, single motivation: the environment at a climate march, LGBTQ rights at a pride parade.
But at recent marches, “I asked about the issues that mobilized them, and they were just like, 'All of them. Across the board, I’m here because of all of them,' ” Fisher said.
At the Women's March, 60 percent of participants said they were protesting for women's rights. But 36 percent also cited the environment, and 35 percent cited racial justice. At the science and climate marches, 90 percent of participants were motivated by concern about the environment. But still, a third were marching for women's rights, a third for LGBTQ issues, a third for racial justice, a third for reproductive rights. Fisher met a grandmother at the climate march who said she was protesting for a healthy planet, as well as for a more tolerant society. Her grandchild is transgender, she told Fisher, and she wanted to make sure the child has equal rights as well as clean air.
“Since the inauguration … the resistance has become the umbrella for a suite of issues that used to have their own individual movements,” Fisher said. “They are not just coming out for the one issue that is their big issue. They have a much more intersectional sense of an identity as an activist.”
The protesters aren't tired yet.
Despite concern about eventual “protest fatigue” (and Fisher's own fatigue from covering so many protests), “the resistance” seems to be building momentum rather than losing it, she said. Close to half of attendees at the March for Science had been to the Women's March in January. At the Peoples Climate March, 70 percent of participants were return protesters from the Women's March, and 34 percent had also been to the March for Science, even though it was held only the weekend before.
“What I think this is showing is that there are people who are getting involved and staying involved and coming out even if it's every weekend,” Fisher said. “There’s only so many weekends in a row you want to march, but we have not hit that exhaustion yet.”
Does this signal a shift in how Americans participate in democracy? “The only answer I can give you is, I hope so,” Fisher replied.
Most people used to be content to vote every four years and then disengage from politics, she said, “but many Americans no longer feel like their concerns are being heard just by voting.”
Fisher will keep surveying protesters to figure out whether the momentum can be sustained. “Are they really civically engaged, are they going to do something before the midterm election, or are they going to go back to watch TV?” she said. But she said she's optimistic: “The data we have collected so far suggest they are not going back to watching TV.”