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Americans Are Taking Collective Action on Both Sides of COVID-related Policies

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

If you have followed recent news stories about protests seeking to end COVID-related stay-at-home orders – particularly reports on armed protesters at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing – you might be forgiven for thinking that COVID-related mobilizations have been mostly anti-lockdown in posture. After all, the threatening nature of these events – including the presence of dangerous firearms (such as a rocket launcher!) and lack of physical distancing among participants – quickly captures the attention. However, COVID-related collective actions have taken place on both sides of policies addressing the crisis and have been distributed widely across the United States. In fact, actions favoring measures responding to the pandemic slightly outnumber the measures opposing pandemic responses.

I reached this conclusion after consulting data compiled by the Crowd Counting Consortium (CCC). This project is directed by Professor Jeremy Pressman (University of Connecticut) and Professor Erica Chenoweth (Harvard University). It has used online searches and crowd sourcing in an effort to compile a database of all collective actions taking place in the United States since January 2017. These actions include protests, strikes, vigils, caravans, and many other examples of people working together to make a point. Their full methodology is detailed in a recent article in the journal Science Advances.

I closely examined the CCC data with a focus on COVID-related collective action events. I looked at the sources they referenced in order to determine whether an event they identified was COVID-related or not. If I determined that the event was COVID-related, then I coded it as pro-measures, anti-measures, or neither pro- nor anti-. For example, strikes at warehouses demanding safer working conditions and physically distanced protests encouraging people to stay home were coded as pro-measures. Caravans to advocate ending stay-at-home orders or groups of people doing push-ups in front of a gym they want reopened were coded as anti-measures. Events asking for workers to be paid more that did not specifically mention worker risks were coded as neither pro- nor anti-. Using this scheme, I determined that collective actions taking place between March 11, 2020 (the date of the first event) and May 23, 2020 were roughly 51% pro-measures, 46% anti-measures, and 4% neither.

COVID-related collective actions display a curious oscillation between the number of events that are pro-measures and those that are anti-measures. These trends are displayed in the figure below.

Since the figure contains only eleven weeks of data, it is important not to be too confident in the evident trends. Once we observe the events over a longer period of time, a very different pattern may emerge. Yet, for now, it is notable that the earliest COVID-related actions were mostly pro-measures (from March 11 to April 11). Anti-measure events surged the week of April 12 to reach the same level as pro-measures, with anti- events surpassing the pro- events during the week of April 19. Anti- events dipped during the week of April 26 while pro- events surged to almost 200 actions. Pro-measures events plummeted during the week of May 3, while anti-measures events sustained mobilization.

The oscillating pattern in the events is indicative of a movement-countermovement dynamic, as has been recognized previously by social movement scholars such as David Meyer and Suzanne Staggenborg. This dynamic may emerge due to several factors. It may be the that the competing movements create opportunities for one another. One group may act or speak in ways that the other side feels that it needs to respond to. Partisan polarization is also a factor, especially since pro-measures events seem to have aligned largely (though not entirely) with liberal/Democratic messaging, while anti-measures events are mostly (though not completely) consistent with conservative/Republican messaging. Of course, at this time we cannot rule out that this pattern is coincidental, especially as events are unfolding in different places, and on different specific issues, around the country.

The continued, robust mobilization of grassroots collective action during the COVID-19 crisis is surprising to some degree. Given the worldwide advice by public health officials for people to stay at home, one might reasonably expect protests and other collective actions to be on the decline. Yet the desire for people to express their views is powerful. Rather than staying at home, activists have adapted the ways that they mobilize politically. A recent study by Erica Chenoweth and her coauthors detected almost one hundred different demonstration tactics during the pandemic, such as distributing “vote” masks, virtual art builds, work stoppages, and placing body bags outside the White House.

The unfolding of protests and other forms of collective action, despite the potential public health risks they pose, underscores the centrality of these methods to the practice of democracy in the United States. The freedom of assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment is a cherished right. It is also a mechanism for responding to deficits in the functioning of other rights. For example, as the right to vote has come under attack through the intentional, strategic disenfranchisement of citizens, many people may feel that protest is the only way that they can be heard by the government. Partisan polarization adds to the feeling that people are not well represented by their leaders, especially when politicians from their preferred party do not hold key offices (such as governor or president). Under these conditions, grassroots collective action provides an emotional safety valve and a way for people to raise their voices.

COVID-related protests were displaced this past week by protests calling for justice in the murder of George Floyd, though they are likely to return shortly. These new protests, as well violence and property destruction surrounding them, have highlighted in a somewhat different way how people turn to protest when they believe that other means of raising their voices have failed. Both sets of events reflect an intensification of grassroots political conflict in the runup to the 2020 election.

Michael T. Heaney is a Political Scientist at the University of Michigan and the University of Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter at @michaeltheaney.


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