A Portrait of Protest

black and white photo from the March for Science, 2017
photo courtesy of M. Heaney
black and white photo from the March for Science, 2017
photo courtesy of M. Heaney

According to Professor Michael T. Heaney (Organizational Studies, Political Science), the past two decades have been “an exceptional period for political protest in the United States, across the political spectrum.” Beginning with the 1999 protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization, through social movements related to immigration, police violence, economic inequality, reproductive rights, the Tea Party, and current Trump-era activism, Heaney argues that collectively, the past twenty years rival or surpass the 1960s, in terms of political protests.

Even amidst this backdrop of robust demonstration, he notes, the first year of the Trump presidency was a “remarkable time” for the use of protest as a political tactic. In his feature article,“Making Protest Great Again,” published in the Winter 2018 issue of Contexts, the American Sociological Society’s quarterly magazine, Heaney shares research findings from his study of Trump-era political protests and rallies.

As a scholar of social movements, Heaney sought to investigate who participates in such protests -- their backgrounds, political allegiances, and interests -- and how they differ across the political spectrum. With funding from IRWG (and others), Heaney deployed a team of researchers to conduct pen-and-paper surveys at ten major protests and rallies on Washington DC’s National Mall in 2017. In total, Heaney’s research team collected 2,380 responses at the ten different events. Approximately 20% of survey responses came from participants at conservative-leaning protest rallies including the March for Life, the pro-Trump “Mother of All Rallies,” and the Tea Party’s “Keep Your Promises” rally. Approximately 80% of the survey responses were collected at ideologically liberal-leaning events, including counter-inaugural protests, the Women’s March, March for Science, Tax March, People’s Climate March, and others. With this research, Heaney hopes to provoke further questions for organizers, citizens, journalists, and scholars.

To better understand the composition of protests, Heaney began with an assessment of basic demographics, including gender and race/ethnicity. His survey data show that women are significantly involved in recent protests, representing 63% of respondents at liberal events and 50% at conservative events. Heaney found no statistically significant difference in self-reported race or ethnicity among respondents, with 32% of respondents at liberal events, and 34% of respondents at conservative events identifying as “non-White.” This finding, while perhaps surprising to liberal-progressives who consider ethnic and racial minorities an important part of their political base, underscores what Heaney characterizes as the “reality that these types of protests are often overwhelmingly White affairs.”

Heaney’s survey also measured political partisanship, and previous political participation. He found that participants at liberal events “exhibited stronger partisanship than did those at conservative rallies.” Respondents, at the Tax March and the Women’s March, for example, were more likely to identify as Democrats, whereas at the Mother of All Rallies, respondents were less likely to identify as strongly Republican. Heaney concludes from the data that “liberal rallies on the National Mall during the Trump presidency have been much more closely attached to the Democratic Party than conservative rallies have been aligned with the Republican Party.” Regardless of party affiliation, the vast majority of protest participants were already engaged in traditional and institutional politics, such as taking part in activities to help a candidate or political party.

Lastly, Heaney explored the concept of intersectionality, in terms of protest participants’ attention to social issues that overlap racial, ethnic, gender, and class lines. In open-ended questions about why they participated in the protest, Heaney concluded that 15% of respondents at the Women’s March and 8% of respondents at the March for Racial Justice, reported concern with a social issue related to intersecting or diverse identities (such as immigration and racism).

Using systematic data collection, Heaney hopes to better understand the future implications for Trump-era protest movements. His article concludes with four questions: how will protest participation affect the 2018 midterm elections? Who is drawn to attend these protests and what (if any) issue will attract participants of differing political persuasions? Will emerging social movements have lasting power to institutionalize for long-term impact? And lastly, will the concept of intersectionality become a true organizing principle within emergent sites of activism and coalition building?

Professor Heaney presented some of his preliminary data at IRWG events in March 2017 and 2018. The full text of his article, “Making Protest Great Again” is available through SAGE Journals, at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1536504218766550.

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