Saturday, March 13, 2021

Useless And Destructive Lockdowns Fueled Unrest In America

acleddata |  In March 2020, the Trump administration declared the novel coronavirus pandemic a national emergency in the United States. Although the US is home to just 4% of the world’s population, it now accounts for a quarter of all confirmed COVID-19 cases and a fifth of the death toll (New York Times, 2021). A year on, more than half a million people have died of COVID-19 across the country (CDC, 2021), and the new Biden administration has officially extended the national emergency beyond its March 2021 expiration date (CNBC, 25 February 2021).

The health crisis has exacerbated existing inequalities and political faultlines in the US, contributing to a surge of unrest throughout the country. New analysis of ACLED data — now extended to the beginning of 2020 — reveals the full scope of the pandemic’s impact on American protest patterns for the first time.

Key Findings

Trends in pandemic-related demonstrations are closely correlated with trends in COVID-19 cases, with spikes in unrest matching infection waves reported throughout 2020. ACLED data show that the majority of these demonstrations have been organized around five main drivers: the risks faced by health workers, the safety of prisoners and ICE detainees, anti-restriction mobilization, the eviction crisis, and school closures.

  • Health workers have protested to call for safer working conditions and a stronger government response to the pandemic. Demonstrations organized by health workers have contributed to protest spikes throughout the year, with surges during each wave of the pandemic. These protests have been peaceful and less than 1% have faced intervention from the authorities. Health worker protests have taken place in 38 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Prisoners and ICE detainees are at high risk of contracting the coronavirus due to a combination of cramped quarters, poor ventilation, limited time outdoors, and restrictive measures that prevent the use of masks and other PPE. Demonstrations by and in solidarity with prisoners and ICE detainees have called on the government to reduce these risks, and have been organized in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Solidarity demonstrations have been overwhelmingly peaceful — over 99% of all events — and the majority of demonstrations involving prisoners and detainees have been peaceful as well — over 77% of all events. Nevertheless, demonstrations by prisoners are frequently met with force: in more than a third — over 37% — of all peaceful coronavirus-related protests held by prisoners and detainees, guards have used force like firing pepper spray and pepper balls.
  • Government measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus have prompted thousands of anti-restriction demonstrations calling for the country to reopen. These demonstrations have taken place in every state and the District of Columbia. Right-wing mobilization against COVID-19 restrictions has been a critical means for far-right armed groups to build networks around the country, serving as a key precursor to ‘Stop the Steal’ organizing after the election leading up to the US Capitol riot in January 2021. Over 23% of all demonstrations involving right-wing militias and militarized social movements across the country have been organized in opposition to pandemic-related restrictions. Anti-restriction demonstrations involving these groups turn violent or destructive over 55% of the time, relative to less than 4% of the time when they are not present, underscoring the destabilizing role that militias and other militarized movements can play in right-wing mobilization. 
  • Demonstrations over the eviction crisis triggered by the pandemic — largely spearheaded by the ‘Cancel the Rents’ movement — have urged the government to cancel rent and provide financial relief amid the economic downturn. These demonstrations — which have been overwhelmingly peaceful, at over 99% of all events — have fluctuated in response to federal and state relief packages as well as measures to postpone or ban evictions. These demonstrations have taken place in 35 states and the District of Columbia.
  • The battle around school reopenings has led to waves of protests both for and against a return to in-person teaching. School-related demonstrations account for approximately 25% of all coronavirus-related demonstrations in the US. Approximately two-fifths of these demonstrations have been organized against the reopening of schools (i.e. for continued online learning) while about three-fifths have been organized in favor of reopening (i.e. for in-person teaching). Both movements have been widespread geographically, with 43 states and the District of Columbia hosting demonstrations against reopening and all but Arkansas and District of Columbia hosting demonstrations in support of reopening.

The full picture of the Biden administration’s response to the crisis — and its impacts on pandemic-related protest patterns — remains to be seen. If the government is able to meet Biden’s promise that vaccines will be available to all Americans by the end of May 2021 (NPR, 3 March 2021), and if this in turn leads to a sustained decline in COVID-19 cases, pandemic-related mobilization may subside.

At the same time, much of the population remains resistant to vaccination (The Hill, 10 February 2021), which could stymie efforts to combat the virus and reopen the country. If partial vaccination prevents a decrease in new cases, or enables a future resurgence, it could prolong lockdown measures, prompting an increase in anti-restriction protests. Prolonged lockdowns will do additional harm to the economy, which will fuel further unrest over the eviction crisis as well as demonstrations calling for financial support. 

However, if the administration responds with a mandatory vaccination policy or imposes new national restrictions to curb the pandemic, it could reinvigorate right-wing mobilization, including militia activity, against the federal government. While right-wing organizing and militia activity has temporarily abated amid the crackdown on groups and individuals connected to the Capitol riot, these networks — bolstered during reopen rallies throughout 2020 — are likely to reactivate when the next politically salient moment arrives. The ‘anti-vax’ movement could serve as such a catalyst, as anti-vaccine activists are already a growing force at reopen demonstrations (New York Times, 4 May 2020), and have increasingly found common cause with right-wing anti-lockdown demonstrators as they shift their focus to the vaccination rollout (New York Times, 6 February 2021). Many of these demonstrators are new to the ‘anti-vax’ movement, joining as a reaction to the coronavirus pandemic and what they perceive as an attack on civil liberties mounted by the government in response to the health crisis (New York Times, 6 February 2021). Building on the reopen organizing that began in early 2020, organized opposition to the vaccine rollout in early 2021 could serve as an important nexus allowing militias, militant street groups, and other right-wing social movements to develop additional networks for future mobilization.