100 Days of #Resistance and Still Counting: Innovating How We Study Protest

By Dana R. Fisher, Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland

Since the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the US, protests and demonstrations have become relatively commonplace around the United States:  hundreds of thousands marched in pussy hats on the day after the inauguration; thousands stood in airports to show support for an America that is open to immigrants; tens of thousands of people marched (some sporting brain hats) to support science; hundreds of thousands circled the White House to show concern for climate change and the ways the new Administration is quickly undoing all political progress the previous administration made; and the town hall meetings of members of Congress have been flooded with attendees who want their elected officials to represent their interests.  In other words, the election of Donald Trump has been a veritable shot in the arm to democracy in America.  People are no longer bowling alone, they are marching and yelling together.

Since the inauguration, I have fielded research teams to survey participants at the large-scale protest events taking place in Washington, DC.  So far, we have collected data at the Women’s March, the March for Science, and the People’s Climate March that coincided with Trump’s 100th day in office.  Like my previous work, which surveyed a random sample of participants at large-scale protest events around various issues over the past 17 years, the research team at these events has administered a short anonymous survey to learn who is participating, what motivates them to participate, how civically engaged they are, how connected they are to the respective march’s organizational coalitions, and what are their demographics.  Unlike my previous work, where we administered a two-sided one-page paper survey with clipboards and ballpoint pens, however, I recently decided to innovate the data collection process.

After manually entering the data from 528 double sided surveys collected at the Women’s March, we transitioned to fielding the survey on handheld tablets. The tablets make it possible to import the survey data as soon as the tablets are connected to Wifi.  As a result, the dataset is in and all closed-ended questions are analyzable immediately.  As we learned during the March 4 Science, tablets are not that much more sturdy than paper surveys in the pouring rain; I had to pull the research team early when the touch screens started freezing up.  If the tablets die before the data are uploaded, all of our data is lost.  At the People’s Climate March, which was hot and sunny, we found that sunscreen covered hands on touch screens slow down the input process (and make for a gross sticky screen).

There is much to be learned from the surveys of protest participants, and the protesting populations vary in many ways.  However, data collected so far has shown some heartening consistencies across these protests.  The resistance is drawing a lot of new people to the movement.  A third of the participants at the Women’s March reported never participating in a protest before, 30% were new at the March 4 Science, and 24% were new at the People’s Climate March.  At the same time, participants at these marches are reporting attending previous events in the resistance:  45% of the participants at the March 4 Science and 70% of participants of the People’s Climate March had participated in the Women’s March.  Although new people are coming into the movement, their engagement seems to be sustained, at least so far.

The overwhelming majority of these new protesters also reported no connections to the organizations that were partners of the events they attended (including 400+ groups for the Women’s March, 100+ for the March for Science, and 500+ for the People’s Climate March).  In other words, they were really new to the issue they were protesting.

The key questions for the resistance now are what happens next to all of these new activists who have become engaged in the last 100 days? Will they stay engaged? What will they do?  Will they come out to vote in the mid-term elections in 2018?

In terms of my research, there is no question that I will continue to field teams of researchers to study these large-scale events when they happen.  The jury is still out on the tablets.