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How Covid-19 Lockdowns Contributed to Black Lives Matter Protests

By Nandini Deo

Black Lives Matters protest / Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers

The past few weeks have seen a swell of protests against police brutality framed under the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests have spread beyond large cities, and they include participation by a much wider swath of Americans than previous mobilizations around this issue. Public opinion has become largely supportive of the movement, with 67% of the population expressing support for the Black Lives Movement. This support slowly increased from the movement’s inception following the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 but has sharply accelerated in June 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. What explains this sudden expansion of activism and support for Black Lives?

In the study of social movements, there are four major approaches to understanding how and why people come together to protest (and when those protests succeed).

  1. Deprivation theory argues that if things feel bad enough, or unjust enough, people would rise up. If they weren't in revolt, it was because things were ok. Subsequent research has discredited this approach.

  2. Political Opportunity Structure focuses on elites and cracks in their unity. When some members of the elite begin to defect from the status quo, the people can rise up and exploit these divisions.

  3. Resource mobilization theory suggests that the oppressed are lying in wait to rise up. As soon as conditions improve a little bit and they have some breathing room, they will rise up.

  4. Framing theory says the most important thing is how people talk about and understand conditions of oppression. When the right frame is found, they will embrace it and rise up.

Which of these approaches (or which combination) can best explain the current upswing in mobilization? If we use these theories to make sense of the current moment we can tell four different stories:

According to a “deprivation theory” explanation, conditions have deteriorated in such a way that people feel they must revolt. In the past few years the Trump presidency has led to a rise in racism, as the President has normalized views and actions that previously were considered outside the bounds of the mainstream. Since 2014 the use of body cameras by police and the use of Facebook Live to livestream police stops by bystanders has had mixed results. While the body cameras do not seem to have much effect on police behavior, the viral spread of the videos has shown many people just how brutal police treatment of African Americans can be. Perhaps these two factors have led to a perception that racism is becoming more acute, or they’re just making more people aware of how severe racism is. That shift in perception could be driving the rising protests. There is a problem with this story, though: the fact that we had videos of the deaths of Michael Brown (2014), Sandra Bland (2015), Eric Garner (2014) is evidence that videos alone do not lead to mass outrage.

A second story involves the political opportunity structure and suggests that divisions among the ruling elite have appeared, making protest seem more likely to succeed. Maybe the Trump presidency has served as a focal point of opposition, encouraging moderate Democrats to join with progressives, when they were not willing to do so under an Obama presidency. The fact that we are in an election year could be driving some of the activist energy. Those who are electrified at the prospect of removing Trump will join in with anyone who is campaigning against him. However, divisions within the Democratic Party that were visible during the primary season before the pandemic hit suggest that we can’t take Democratic unity for granted. The political opportunity structure does not seem to be definitive in explaining the rising protests.

The third story, and the one I think is most convincing, revolves around the Covid-19 pandemic. It is based on resource mobilization theory: the new availability of resources like time or funding allows activists to mobilize in a way they couldn’t afford to before. Lockdowns in response to the coronavirus took millions of people out of their normal grind. Between March and early June, about 40 million Americans lost their jobs and had to stay home. Another one-third of Americans began working from home, and schools shut down, causing some to take temporary leave from their jobs to provide care at home.

All of this changed how people used the time in their day. Instead of hours spent commuting, running errands, socializing, taking children to extracurricular events, and most significantly being on site at work, millions of people were stuck at home, where they watched the news and used social media to stay connected to the outside world. That also made them an audience for the news about George Floyd and the protests against police violence. Not having to be in their workplaces meant that when a protest happened at 2pm, lots of people could attend, and continue working later into the day. They could also bring their children along, so the protests included many more families than at previous protests. This is a story about “resource mobilization”- where the main resource that the pandemic gave to the American people was time: time to think, time to protest, and time to show their decency.

The final story is about how the Black Lives Matter frame became resonant at this time. Framing theory suggests that protest is driven by activists telling a story of injustice in a newly resonant way. Here the focus is on the use of video, social media, and chants to create an emotional narrative. At the current moment in the US, with leadership that does not seem to care about the struggles of ordinary people, many more are sympathetic to a story about how governance structures are unfairly stacked against Black Americans. Especially once people join in a protest activity and experience the feelings of solidarity, hope, anger, and efficacy that comes with being one of hundreds in an energized crowd, they are likely to come back for more. The greater availability of videos of police brutality and first-hand witness of police overreaction to protests also drove some public opinion to support the BLM activists.

Some scholars argue that the elite and the media work together to manufacture consent for unjust systems of exploitation. When people realize how they are being exploited they will rise up. Others suggest that people usually understand how unjust systems of domination are and their quiescence is a result of their assessment that they cannot change the system at an acceptable level of risk. Participation in protests seems to be driving a shift in favor of the BLM protesters, rather than the reverse. John Gaventa and Ziad Munson have shown that a person’s participation in activism often precedes their adoption of an ideological position. That is, attending protests or starting dialogues about racism might account for why more and more people support the BLM movement. At this point, this theory has not been explored yet in regard to the ongoing campaign.

Current mobilization around BLM offers powerful evidence for resource mobilization theory and some support for Framing. However, Political Structures and Deprivation theories appear less useful—although, as is the usually the case, all of these theories explain some aspect of reality. What this means is that yes, many people always knew how awful racism was. They didn't think they had the ability to do anything about it. They are not rising up because it has gotten worse, or their perceptions of it have changed. What has changed for people is their perception of anti-racism activists and the costs of joining them. Instead of seeing them as a fringe group- they are now seen as speaking for the majority. I am suggesting that this shift may be happening because more people are participating in the protests than before.

Most significantly, people are rising up because they have time. The availability of time to protest has led to a shift in public opinion in favor of the goals of the protestors. A debt economy in which everyone works long hours is what keeps the people quiescent, not their lack of understanding of racism, nor their investment in the status quo. In the end, it may be that in the midst of all the heartbreak, Covid-19 has also created the conditions for us to come together in an extraordinary way to make real progress towards equality.

Nandini Deo is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Lehigh University. Her research is at the intersection of religion, feminism, and social movements in South Asia. 

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