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Protests in the Trump Era Have Been Mostly Peaceful. Here’s How the 2020 Election Could Change That

6 minute read
Dana R. Fisher is the director of the Center for Environment, Community, and Equity and a professor in the School of International Service at American University. She is the author of a number of books, most recently Saving Ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action.

Since Donald Trump took office, there has been sustained protest against his Administration and its policies. An estimated 4 million people turned out for the 2017 Women’s March (which was the largest protest in U.S. history), as many as 2 million people participated in the 2018 March for Our Lives against gun violence, and there have been countless other protests at airports, outside elected officials’ offices and even inside Congressional office buildings. With battle lines being drawn over impeachment, some journalists have wondered why there aren’t more people protesting. However, the more important question is: why have protests during this period been so peaceful?

The progression of protest has two primary paths: it can work to access positions of institutional power—such as electing like-minded candidates to office—or it can use more confrontational tactics to pressure those in power to respond to the demands of the protesters (like the civil unrest that has escalated in Hong Kong). The two are not mutually exclusive, but often groups lean more in one direction than the other, changing course if their goals are not accomplished. During the 1960s, for instance, we saw Civil Rights activists shift their strategy after realizing that they did not have the necessary access to power to make change through the legal and political systems. Instead, the activists employed more disruptive tactics, including staged sit-ins and non-permitted marches. Protesters in the anti-war movement began by focusing mostly on peaceful protests and teach-ins, but as the conflict in Vietnam dragged on, they too turned to civil disobedience and confrontation. Although most of the protesting we have seen since Trump’s inauguration has been clearly aimed toward mobilizing support for institutional political goals, the tide is starting to turn. And if the Republicans maintain political control in 2020, protest in the U.S. is likely to become a lot more disruptive.

Since the Women’s March in 2017, I’ve been studying the rise of the American Resistance, surveying protesters about their personal histories with protest and activism and their motivations for joining the movement, as well as interviewing Resistance groups to understand their plans. My research finds that the same people who marched in the streets at the seven biggest protests that have taken place since Trump’s inauguration went back to their communities and attended town hall meetings, lobbied elected officials, registered voters, wrote postcards and knocked on doors. In that sense, the anti-Trump resistance has followed in the footsteps of the Tea Party, and the 2018 Blue Wave was the product of those efforts. More women and people of color were elected to political office than ever before.

As the groups that worked so hard for those midterm successes set their sights on the 2020 election, they continue to support peaceful demonstrations, cultivating the embers of outrage that fueled the Resistance from the outset. For now, these protest events amount to a controlled burn that is not likely to spill over into real disruption and potentially violent resistance. Organizers apply for permits and pay for legally required bathrooms while participants assemble with witty signs and follow approved routes. Still, we are starting to see cracks in protesters’ restraint.

A closer look at the youth climate movement shows us where we may be heading. The youth climate movement in the U.S. first attracted attention a few days after the 2018 midterm elections when, despite the electoral victories, a small group of activists occupied Nancy Pelosi’s office with newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who was elected as part of the Resistance’s efforts to access power in Washington). The activists were calling for more progressive climate policies and the implementation of a Green New Deal, but their confrontational approach was hardly the norm. Since then, with the introduction of only a resolution and no actual bill, the young people who participated in this action have joined forces with those who were motivated by Greta Thunberg and her tactic of skipping school and striking for climate. Consequently, the movement has grown substantially, organizing increasingly larger strikes and marches, and based on my research, these protesters are growing more willing to be disruptive. Sixty-one percent of the organizers of the September climate strikes told me they had experience with direct action (which includes civil disobedience of all sorts) in the past year; that number jumped to 76% when I surveyed organizers of the climate strikes in December. Not only are these young people are getting more confrontational, they’re joining forces with adults who have also called for activism that breaks the law.

Last week, climate activists participated in civil disobedience in a number of cities, including Washington, D.C., Boston and the Twin Cities. Buildings were occupied and streets were blocked as activists chained themselves to doors and refused to move. And these activists are not the only ones becoming more forceful in their tactics. While the #ClosetheCamps protests over the summer were coordinated by MoveOn, which focuses on nonviolent, peaceful action, this week activists involved in the Never Again Action–whose website advocates “relentless, bold direct action” and states “We Are Not F-cking Around”–targeted ICE by staging protests at detention centers in California, Missouri and Rhode Island.

Many groups continue to focus their efforts on institutional political targets with campaigns around the 2020 election as well. But if the election results in another four years of Republican leadership, protesters of all ages who have been restraining their activism and focusing on the electoral process are likely to take it to the streets en masse. (Think the crowds from the Women’s March 2017 but for far more than a single day.) And without a clear institutional political target to solve their grievances, groups may follow in the footsteps of the Civil Rights movement and turn toward more insurgent tactics involving occupying streets and buildings, blocking traffic and causing all sorts of disturbances. History shows us that when activism gets more disruptive and confrontational, institutional power responds. And that’s when the distance between peaceful protest and violent protest narrows.

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