Taking protests for racial justice to the suburbs

Data collected over the last few years hints at new venues for protests in the United States:

woman holding a sign in protest

Photo by Life Matters on Pexels.com

The engagement of Brown and others also represents one of the most striking aspects of the current protests against police violence in the U.S., compared with previous ones. They’re everywhere, in suburbs and small towns as well as major cities. Count Love, a data-collecting effort launched in 2016 to document protest activity in the U.S., has cataloged more than 1,500 distinct racial justice events since George Floyd was killed on May 25, and the site’s founders, Tommy Leung and Nathan Perkins, expect to add many more, since they have an extensive backlog of local media and reports to review. Even in the wake of the 2017 Women’s March and widespread anti-gun actions in 2018, the physical scale of these Black Lives Matter protests is striking.

While it’s challenging to generalize, given the sheer number of events that have and continue to take place, conversations with eight protest organizers, as well as historians and researchers, suggest some commonalities amid the vibrant, multiracial, and predominantly peaceful demonstrations taking place outside of large cities. They’re often led by first-time organizers in their teens and 20s, often women, who have adapted the traditional models of urban-style political demonstrations to suburban sprawl or rural areas. And they’ve done so at incredible speeds by leveraging social media.

“One of the reasons we’re seeing these protests in suburban and exurban places is because organizers don’t need connections to movements or Black institutions or churches,” says Ashley Howard, a historian and professor at the University of Iowa working on a book about urban rebellions of the ’60s. “They already have networks in place through social media.”

These protests also reflect the demographic shifts and diversification of U.S. suburbs and exurbs in recent decades, a challenge to the stereotype of a monochromatic suburbia. While much has been said about how unexpected it may be for the current wave of protests to have moved beyond urban centers, many organizers and activists say the suburbs — where many residents may not believe there are issues of systemic racism — are exactly where these protests belong.

And Naperville, wealthy suburb home to recent racist events and protests in the last decade, gets a mention.

See my own recent thoughts on the spread of protests to wealthy suburbs. As noted above, the combination of more racially diverse suburbs, the high status of numerous suburbs, and political change in suburbs means suburban protests are more normal. Whether this translates into (1) changed suburban communities – reduced residential segregation? – and (2) changed state and national politics – led by suburban voters? – remains to be seen.

I’m glad this data is being collected and I would guess it has a lot of potential for academic research. As previous research has examined, how did these protests diffuse across the United States? What are the patterns in the communities that had protests?

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