- The level of activism that came after George Floyd’s death feels more impactful than ever.
- We have already seen encouraging police reforms in response to protesters’ demands.
- Protesters’ ability to enact change will depend on whether they can set up an infrastructure beyond the barricades.
- Dana R. Fisher is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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After four weeks of protests across the US and around the world, it is clear that the activism that was sparked by the killing of George Floyd is different. Although some worry that confrontational protest will lead to a public opinion backlash, the majority of Americans approve of the activism in the streets. One of the most important questions about the protests is whether the high general approval and sustained engagement by protesters will be enough to translate the current momentum into lasting social change in our country. Based on conversations with and data collected from protesters over the past few weeks, there is a good chance that lasting change may come from this moment.
How to create lasting change
As activists push for change across the country, we have already seen some heartening local police reforms in response to protesters’ demands.
At the federal level, the Trump Administration has not been totally silent, but last week’s executive order doesn’t call for any major changes. Given the split in Congress over reform proposals, there is a good chance the milquetoast executive order may be the only federal “response.” In other words, at the federal level, Republicans have largely stepped away from addressing systemic racial and social injustices.
Given the lack of meaningful progress at the national level, the most obvious lever for social change is through the 2020 elections. But can the movement in the streets make the shift to the ballot box?
In American Resistance, I trace the outrage in the streets from the first Women’s March in 2017 to political action around the 2018 election. My data from activists who participated in the largest protests during this two-year period show that activists did significantly more than march in the streets; they also marched back to their communities, organised, and voted.
Resisters marched into congressional districts and worked with Resistance Groups, individual candidate’s campaigns, and the Democratic Party to create a Blue Wave in the Congress that elected more women and more people of colour than ever before.
The electoral success of this movement provides a recent precedent for the energy around the George Floyd protests to be translated into electoral change.
From the barricades to the ballot box
In the past few weeks, I have collected data by surveying street protesters outraged by police violence against communities of colour. There is clear evidence that the people marching in the streets will march to their respective ballot boxes (or vote by mail) in November.
Across all locations, protesters report high levels of voting. At Friday’s Juneteenth events in Washington, DC, 71% of participants reported voting in an election in the past year. This voting rate stands much higher than 1) primary participation in the region this year, and 2) turnout across the region in the 2018 elections.
For the 15% of the crowd who reported being new to protest, the voting rate was less than half (33%). However, I observed voter registration efforts at every event and heard speeches connecting the upcoming elections to creating political opportunities to address racial injustices. A strong message of electoral change coupled with the means to effect that change via voter registration will likely encourage the non-voters in the crowds to get registered and vote in November.
There is no question whom protesters will be casting their ballots for in November. Every single person surveyed at events in Washington DC, New York City, and Los Angeles over the past month reported that they would be supporting Joe Biden in the election. In fact, not one respondent reported that they would vote for Donald Trump.
This result is particularly notable as the most recent Juneteenth protests had the highest proportion of people who identify as Right-leaning that I have encountered in the streets since the 2016 election. Six per cent of participants at the Juneteenth protests identified as “right-leaning” versus 4% at the March for Racial Justice in 2017 and the 2018 Women’s March.
Beyond the barricades
Winning elections requires much more than voting on November 3. Highly engaged activists rallying their social networks to turn out to vote will be crucial to Joe Biden’s success and it is clear that organisations play an important role in channeling the outrage and enthusiasm of the activism into streets into efforts to register and turnout voters.
The recent protests have emerged despite limited organizational infrastructure. Whether protesters can leverage this moment of heightened engagement and participation into meaningful political change may hinge on the abilities of organisations to develop the capacity to work in communities and lead activists beyond the barricades.
The electoral successes of the American Resistance provide a blueprint for how organisations can channel outrage. If this movement’s leaders learn from these successes, they are putting themselves on a path to meaningful social change.