The most common grievances had to do with racism, policing, the president or presidency (executive), education, guns, immigration and democracy, as you can see in the next figure.
The states that hosted the most protests were, unsurprisingly, the five most populous states: California, New York, Pennsylvania, Florida and Texas. However, the states with the most protests per capita were Vermont, which had 7.9 protests per 10,000 people, Alaska, Maine, Oregon and Montana; Washington, D.C., surpassed all 50 states with 16 per 10,000. The states with the fewest protest events per capita, at about one or fewer per 10,000, were Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi.
The largest and most geographically dispersed protests in U.S. history
The Trump era included some of the largest and most geographically dispersed protests in U.S. history. The Women’s March on Jan. 21, 2017, had 3.3 million to 5.2 million people at 653 U.S. locations, the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. A year later, the turnout was still between 1.8 million and 2.7 million people in at least 407 locations. On March 24, 2018, between 1.4 million and 2.2 million students and their allies joined the March for Our Lives at 763 locations.
Protests were expansive geographically as well. After Parkland, the National Student Walkout on March 14, 2018, included 4,470 schools and universities, which, as we wrote at the time, was the largest number of recorded locations involved in a single-day protest in U.S. history.
In 2020, Black Lives Matter protests spread across thousands of urban, suburban, and rural areas. The maps below show the scale and breadth of this movement compared with the 2017 Women’s March. In addition, these protesters were overwhelmingly nonviolent. In 97.7 percent of events, no injuries were reported among participants or police. When there were injuries, protesters were injured more often than police, suggesting the police response may have been disproportionate.
In recent months, the political right has begun counter-mobilizing in larger numbers, as you can see in the figure below. In spring 2020, decrying the government’s public health restrictions to slow the pandemic’s spread, protesters gathered in state capitals, frequently rejected social distancing and masks, and demanded states immediately allow more economic activity. Much of this came after Trump urged protesters to liberate their states.
In response to the Black Lives Matter uprising, some right-wing groups confronted anti-racism activists, while others held Back the Blue rallies in support of the police. Some right-wing counterprotesters claimed to aid police or protect property. According to CCC data, previously fringe paramilitary organizations like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters increasingly turned up at these events.
Trump’s false claim that he won reelection appears to have inspired many protests. “Stop the Steal” rallies became a weekly fixture, as did counter-protests organized by local anti-fascist activists. The Stop the Steal movement organized three large pro-Trump rallies in Washington, D.C. After the third one on Jan. 6, thousands of rallygoers marched to the U.S. Capitol at Trump’s urging. Many then attacked, invaded, and vandalized the building in an insurrection in which five died.
Protests after Trump
Will this unprecedented wave of street protest and counterprotest continue under the Biden administration? Here’s why we think mass mobilization in some form is here to stay.
First, the left is still mobilized and using multiple avenues to try to shape policy. Many of the progressive groups that organized against Trump have turned their focus to pushing Biden and Democrats in Congress to adopt progressive policies. Indivisible released a handbook for how to influence politicians to improve ballot access. Black Lives Matter created a PAC to have more influence on political and government decisions, while local Black Lives Matter groups continue to hold protests. Groups working on behalf of immigrants and undocumented workers are seeking bolder action on immigration reform, including through protest. Climate advocates are pressing Biden. When asked about pressuring the Senate on green issues, Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, said, “We need to be in the streets” as well writing letters and making calls.
Far-left groups took to the streets in Portland and Seattle on Inauguration Day, vandalizing Democratic Party offices and Starbucks, respectively, to show they reject elites from both parties.
Second, the right also remains mobilized and radicalized. The Jan. 6 attack may embolden some armed groups to plan and carry out even more disruptive or provocative actions. Groups organizing ReOpen, Stop the Steal, and “Save America” actions mobilized tens of thousands around Trump’s false claims minimizing the danger of the coronavirus and hyping election fraud. Most Republican senators appear unlikely to convict Trump for inciting violence on Jan. 6.
As Biden’s agenda moves forward, we expect these groups will organize to resist his policies, try to punish GOP defectors, and aim to win back congressional majorities in the 2022 midterms.
With few areas of agreement and a now-established pattern of protest and counterprotest, we expect partisan conflict will continue to manifest in the streets at high levels well into the Biden era.
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 software engineer in natural-language processing and co-founder of countlove.org.
Jeremy Pressman is co-director of the Crowd Counting Consortium and an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.
Jay Ulfelder serves as program director for the Nonviolent Action Lab at Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.