Across the country, people are protesting the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and demanding action against police violence and systemic racism. National media focuses on the big demonstrations and protest policing in major cities, but they have not picked up on a different phenomenon that may have major long-term consequences for politics. Protests over racism and #BlackLivesMatter are spreading across the country — including in small towns with deeply conservative politics.
The scale of the protests is unprecedented
Two of us, Chenoweth and Pressman, have been gathering data on protests across the country, while the other, Putnam, studies political mobilization in Pennsylvania.
Our preliminary data shows that far more places have held protests already than held Women’s Marches in January 2017. That March occurred in 650 locations — and then had more participants than any other single-day demonstration in U.S. history. This time, few people had time for advance planning, amid a pandemic that has kept many Americans out of public spaces. And so the breadth of the protests is significant.
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, such as Fairmont, W.Va.; Lynn, Mass.; and Havre, Mont.
Some cities are seeing numerous protests a day, protests on numerous days, or both, as you can see in this article on events in the Palo Alto area or this Twitter account on New York City protests. Pittsburgh — not even one of the 60 largest U.S. cities — has seen at least one march, prayer vigil or silent protest daily since last Friday, drawing anywhere from hundreds to thousands of people. The United States rarely has protests in this combination of size, intensity and frequency; it usually has big protests or sustained protests, but not both.
Look at what’s happening in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania, a perennial “swing state,” gives us a sense of what is driving those dynamics.
Protests denouncing the killing of George Floyd have taken place in more than 60 communities across Pennsylvania so far, led and attended by residents who match the diversity of the state. More than half of Pennsylvania’s 1.5 million-plus African American residents live outside Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, many in economically declining cities, some with a growing share of Latino residents. Many of these cities have police departments that focus attention disproportionately on black and brown people and are perceived as operating with impunity. Meanwhile, black and brown residents are economically marginalized and are underrepresented politically.
Nearly all Pennsylvanian cities with this profile have seen large, multiracial protests led by young local black activists — often people who have been organizing around the label and issue of Black Lives Matter for years — joined in the streets by white and Latino young people in ways and numbers they have never seen before. Reading, Wilkes-Barre, Bethlehem, Allentown, Easton, Lancaster, Harrisburg: in each, more than a thousand people marched in protest in the space of a few days.
The protests have been overwhelmingly nonviolent. In a few cases, police treated the protesters harshly; in others, the marches were followed by acts of vandalism. There were tear gas and arrests in Harrisburg, Lancaster, Erie and Pittsburgh, as well as in Philadelphia, where police arrested hundreds of protesters and many people were injured.
Yet violence has not deterred peaceful protests under the banners of Black Lives Matter and Justice for George Floyd. For example, after a dozen people were arrested for alleged rioting at King of Prussia mall on May 30, local students and youth organizers persisted, holding nonviolent road blockades, organizing peaceful protests and circulating a petition calling for the county commissioner to resign.
Black Lives Matter protests have even emerged in smaller and whiter suburbs and towns in deeply conservative counties, including Chambersburg (pop. 20,000), Carlisle (19,000), Meadville (13,000), Waynesboro (11,000), Lock Haven (10,000), Carbondale (9,000), Punxsutawney (6,000), and two dozen similar locales. Participants reflect the demographics of young people in these communities as a whole: small numbers of black students with lots of teenage allies, plus some older supporters. While the young black protest leaders in Pennsylvania’s midsized cities have often been organizing against police abuses and racism for years, some of the young organizers of small town protests describe this as their first time organizing anything.
This is compatible with evidence that young people in outer suburbs and small towns are becoming less conservative. Indeed, statistical analyses suggest that rural voters age 18 to 29 went from supporting Donald Trump by a 17-point margin in 2016 to supporting Democratic congressional candidates by an eight-point margin in 2018 — while the votes of their neighbors in their 40s and older barely budged.
Even the very smallest cities — which tend to have more educated, more diverse and younger populations than their surrounding regions — have shifted leftward in recent years, while the surrounding regions have often shifted rightward.
This will shape our politics — and the election
Today’s geography of protest is very different from that of the late 1960s. Then, most protests were held in major cities and on college campuses — and most Americans saw them on the television news.
That matters, because the closer someone lives to a protest, the more likely it is to change their vote. Protests influence not just election turnout, but also what types of issues rise to the top of party platforms, and who gets elected to state, local and federal offices.
Of course, the U.S. election is still five months away, in a startlingly volatile year; other issues and events might still take center stage. Even so, these protests will likely have far-reaching effects not only on laws and policies about racial justice and police-community relations, but also on the 2020 elections, up and down the ballot.
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).