We are in an extraordinary era of protest. Over the course of the first 15 months of the 45th presidency, more people have joined demonstrations than at any other time in American history. Take a minute and digest that: never before have as many Americans taken to the streets for political causes as are marching and rallying now.
Protest numbers are always difficult to pin down, but thanks to researchers from the Crowd Counting Consortium and CountLove, we have very solid data on demonstrations since Donald Trump took office, and the numbers are huge.
The overall turnout for marches, rallies, vigils and other protests since the 2017 presidential inauguration falls somewhere between 10 and 15 million. (Not all of these events have been anti-Trump, but almost 90% have.) That is certainly more people in absolute terms than have ever protested before in the US. Even when you adjust for population growth, it’s probably a higher percentage than took to the streets during the height of the Vietnam anti-war movement in 1969 and 1970, the previous high-water mark for dissent in America, though the data for that era is much less comprehensive.
What’s even more significant than the scale of these contemporary protests is their ubiquity. A few individual demonstrations under Trump have been very large, rivaling the biggest protests in American history, but the overall numbers are so high because protests have been happening everywhere: in all fifty states, and in many places where marches and rallies have rarely been seen before.
The pattern was set on January 21, 2017, when women and their allies marched in more than 650 communities around the United States. Last month, during the March for Our Lives, gun control advocates organized protests and rallies in even more locations: more than 750. By contrast, past days of coordinated protest in America have generally involved something closer to 200 cities and towns, as when 2 million people took part in nationwide anti-war activities during the Vietnam Moratorium actions in October 1969, or when a million Americans protested George Bush’s rush to war with Iraq on February 15, 2003.
Protests are of course just one index of resistance activity; a lot of key organizing, like voter registration and door-to-door canvassing, is much less visible and harder to quantify. But the evidence is strong that this kind of less showy work to counter the Trump agenda is as widespread as the marches and rallies that have defined this era. Six thousand local resistance groups have affiliated with Indivisible, the advocacy group founded by two former congressional staffers, and even if not all of them are consistently active, that represents a breadth and depth of organizing with little, if any, precedent in American history. Many of these groups are digging into grassroots electoral work in their areas, hoping to translate the wave of street actions into a decisive blue wave in the November 2018 midterm elections.
Equally striking, though, is the kind of resistance that hasn’t been happening under Trump – yet. Surprisingly enough, there has been very little direct action over the last 15 months. People have been marching and rallying in huge numbers, but stronger forms of protest, like sit-ins or street blockades, have been quite rare. Out of some 13,000 protests tallied by the Crowd Counting Consortium between January 2017 and March 2018, fewer than 200 involved any kind of civil disobedience. Millions of people have protested all around the country, but amid all that activity, there have been only about 3,000 arrests for nonviolent direct action.
The small number of direct actions that have taken place in the Trump era have been powerful ones: they include the repeated sit-ins by people with disabilities and other medically vulnerable people that helped defeat GOP attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and bold actions by undocumented immigrants and their allies to resist raids and deportations. It’s noteworthy, though, that only three protests over the course of Trump’s first year in office – two targeting healthcare legislation, and one responding to the acquittal of the police officer Jason Stockley for shooting an unarmed man in St Louis – could be characterized as mass direct actions, and arrest numbers at each hovered below 200, far smaller than many comparable actions of the past.
The mass mobilizations of the Vietnam anti-war era only came after many years of organizing; the movement started small and grew over time, employing many kinds of protest along the way, including direct action. The resistance to Trump launched with protest on a vast scale, but so far nearly all of it has been strictly legal in character. The question now, as this unthinkable presidency grows ever more normalized and Trump flirts with firing the special counsel Robert Mueller, is whether the huge numbers of people who have protested this administration will, if necessary, take stronger steps to safeguard democratic institutions and the rights of vulnerable communities, as the most significant social movements in our country’s history, from the civil rights movement to the Aids activist group Act Up, have done in the past.
More than 900 emergency protests are being planned all around the country if Trump should fire Robert Mueller or otherwise compromise the legal investigation into possible wrongdoing by his administration. The effort, backed by a sprawling coalition of national groups, represents a greater number of potential coordinated protest events than we have ever seen before.
The plan, though, is to respond to what would be a constitutional crisis with strictly legal rallies and protests: MoveOn, the longstanding progressive organization that is anchoring this effort, asks all event organizers to agree they will “act lawfully,” meaning they won’t engage in civil disobedience or other forms of nonviolent direct action. A MoveOn spokesperson, Nick Berning, cites concerns about “the safety and well-being of MoveOn members who might participate,” noting that the group doesn’t have the capacity to vet every single local action listed on their platform. “We see civil disobedience as an often essential part of successful social movements, but one that is not part of our organization’s core skill set or approach,” he explains.
With all due respect to MoveOn, which has done a great deal of important work in its 20 years of existence, that’s an awfully timid stance at a time of political peril. Plenty of groups have found ways to coordinate decentralized civil disobedience in the past using agreed-upon nonviolent action guidelines, and there’s no real reason beyond aversion to risk that the Mueller response actions couldn’t be organized in this way.
Fortunately, though, one of the hallmarks of the resistance to Trump has been its bottom-up character: nobody waited for permission or sanction from national groups to organize the first set of Women’s Marches or any major resistance initiatives since, and there are numerous places around the country where grassroots organizers are openly discussing stronger responses if the Mueller investigation should be sabotaged.
In the meantime, with students walking out of classes to protest gun violence and teachers in several states boldly going on strike, there are indications that things may be heating up at the grassroots. The Poor People’s Campaign is planning 40 days of direct action and civil disobedience around the country beginning 13 May “to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality.”
Over the past 15 months, a record number of Americans have taken to the streets to protest this grotesque and destructive administration. The resistance has been massive, persistent and ubiquitous, but with few exceptions, it’s been curiously reluctant to use the stronger tools in the toolbox of nonviolent action. We’ve used our voices to decry this national charade, but mostly we haven’t been using our bodies to disrupt it or shut it down. With millions of us in motion and the stakes so very high, the time may have come for that to change.