family separation protest cleveland
Credit: Vince Reinhart/Flickr

Protests don’t work.” Or do they?

Friday, July 12 will see more than 670 “Lights for Liberty” vigils nationwide to protest the inhumane detention of migrant children and asylum seekers. They will change few policymakers’ minds. Speakers will be preaching to the choir. National media will barely pause the who-said-what cycle to notice. Yet the protests will matter.

Scholars like Zeynep Tufekci warn that in the internet age, the ease of summoning protests can outpace the organizational infrastructure needed to translate energy into impact. That can lead to weak results following seemingly sea-changing protests, as was the case with the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 or the takeover of Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013.

Yet something different has been happening in Trump-era America. The local grassroots groups that arose after the 2016 election have developed a strikingly effective infrastructural mix—including new local groups, reanimated Democratic Party structures, and passionate campaigns for previously ignored local and legislative offices—to create a dense, overlapping system with multiple on-ramps to electoral action.

Protests are part of the synergy. People who attend them are nine to ten times more likely than non-rallygoers to have engaged in hands-on electoral volunteering. But still three out of five rallygoers have not done so—yet. The connections and conversations that take place within protests pull new people in to do more.

In January 2017, Carolynn Johnson reached out to other scout troop moms in her north Pittsburgh suburb and ended up as “co-captain” of a bus chartered for the Washington, D.C. Women’s March. Buoyed by the march, the women of Bus One continued to meet. “We realized there was [a local] election coming up and most people weren’t even aware,” she says. They pulled in neighbors, filled empty slots on the local Democratic committee, and built a team of fifty super-volunteers.

Bethany Blackburn was one of the women they reached out to. She had taken her daughters to the Women’s March as well, and came back, she says, “pretty fired up” and “ready to be engaged in more tangible way than just phone calls.” When a friend asked her to run for town council, “the election part did seem scary. But Bus One was there to support anyone who wanted to step up.” Ten months and several thousand door-knocks later, Johnson, Blackburn, and a fellow Democrat had won three of the five council seats, taking control of a body that had been all-Republican as long as any of them remember.

The lesson: when topically-responsive protests and local organizing overlap, the energy and connections that protests spark don’t dissipate. They flip seats.

The initial Indivisible Guide, a handbook published by former democratic congressional staffers after the 2016 election, was heavy on protest targets and light on local elections. The word “candidate” did not appear once. Yet, within weeks of coming together to plan confrontational town halls, members of Indivisible-inspired groups had pulled each other into electoral politics full force, marshalling volunteers to lead ballot initiatives and challenge incumbents up and down the ballot.

Where was this activism most heavily concentrated? Not at America’s extremes. Using the number of groups posted to the Indivisible “Find your local group” portal as a rough proxy reveals a striking spread. (According to our research, about one third of posted groups are actually active on the ground.) The 130 districts where Hillary Clinton did best had a median of eight groups listed per district as of January 2019. The 130 most pro-Trump districts had seven. The middle 175 congressional districts, however, had a median of eleven, with the peak precisely in the most narrowly contested  districts. Opposition to Trump, in other words, had crowdsourced a local protest movement that was strongest in exactly those places where its electoral impact would matter most.

Much of the work the new grassroots groups have undertaken—door knocking, postcards to voters, house party fundraisers, electing members to local Democratic committees—does not generate nationwide data. Protests, however, do, thanks to the Crowd Counting Consortium tool created by political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Jeremy Pressman. The project collects user-submitted data on protests, including locations, dates, themes, and attendance, which Chenoweth and Pressman verify through news reports, social media event pages, and more. They have counted more than 25,000 events nationwide since Donald Trump’s inauguration

This kind of mobilization both reflects and accelerates political shifts. From 2014 to 2018, Iowa’s third congressional district—a “sparse suburban” Obama-Trump district—was represented by David Young, a Republican with an “A” rating from the NRA. Yet the district ranked in the 97th percentile for Parkland solidarity events last year, with at least twenty-three gun reform marches, rallies, and student walkouts within its boundaries. November saw the district flipped by Cindy Axne, a Democrat with an NRA “F” rating. Donations from afar weren’t the driver: Axne got less than $900 from gun-reform groups. But the breadth of pro-reform protests across the district in spring 2018 accurately indexed real boots on the ground on her side.

How do local protests like these translate into electoral impact, if the ad hoc coalitions convening them are not built to carry forward—or have stumbled in their efforts to, as with the Women’s March national leadership? Sustained activity by local groups is the key. Chapters of issue-specific organizations like Everytown for Gun Safety or Moms Demand Action are part of this, but what is crucially new since 2016 are the synergies between protests and the new generalist grassroots, with their relentless electoral focus.

For example, when national organizations including MoveOn and United We Dream recently called for rallies to protest inhumane detention of migrants along the border, the result was 185 actions nationwide. They were executed not by chapters or employees of those national organizations—in most places, there aren’t any—but by grassroots groups specific to each locale.

In Pennsylvania, the #closethecamps theme and outreach materials were incorporated into the weekly Tuesdays with Toomey protests at the GOP senator’s offices in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Allentown. These Tuesday midday gatherings have been underway since January 2017, coordinated by a handful of local activists in each city who touch base to set themes and communicate them to attendees through email lists and Facebook groups.

July 2’s focus on the urgent issue of child detention drew crowds four to six times larger than usual, with more than 100 attending Tuesday With Toomey in each of Pittsburgh, Allentown, and Harrisburg, and more than 200 in Philadelphia. Attendees heard reports from the border from local faith leaders and immigrants’ rights activists and were urged to contact elected officials. But they also learned about other initiatives that need their time too, from an independent DA challenger in Pittsburgh to upcoming council races.

These same dynamics will be on display this week. It has taken less than three weeks for some 670 “Lights for Liberty” vigils, covering more than 300 congressional districts, to be planned for July 12. Battleground states that voted narrowly for Trump in 2016 are well represented, with seventeen separate vigils scheduled in Wisconsin, twenty-six in Michigan, and twenty-four in Pennsylvania. (North Carolina is not always considered a battleground state, but with twenty-three separate vigils planned it sure looks like one.) Meanwhile, the substantial number in states like Iowa and Nebraska speak to the breadth of progressive organizing underway in rural states whose politics might seem firmly under GOP control.

What national protest numbers offer is critical evidence about America’s changing local political landscapes. Outrage doesn’t coalesce into action on its own. But contrary to right-wing fantasies, today’s synchronized protests don’t reflect some top-down, George Soros-funded machine. Rather, the breadth of action reflects the wide presence of the communication networks and local civic infrastructure that post-November 2016 grassroots democracy groups have created.

Last year, writing for the Washington Monthly, Andrew Levison described the “conservative ideological cocoon” left in small town America by the Democratic Party’s long decade of retreat, feeding a “spiral of silence” that “makes support for the Republican Party seem not just dominant but unanimous.” So it matters that thirty-five people came together on two days’ notice to protest in the rain on a recent Sunday in 2,000-person Mercer, the seat of a western Pennsylvania county that Trump won decisively. A local Indivisible leader led them in chants: “Is this who we are?” Two hours away, in a town of 9,000 in a Trump +40 county, the Warren chapter of Indivisible convened a flash protest with homemade signs along the courthouse lawn: “Children are dying in Trump’s cages: HONK if you’re mad”;  “Compassion Not Separation”; “Stop the Abuse at the Border.” Standing up and being seen matters even more in a town where everybody knows your name.

If the past is any guide, this week’s protests will have some national pundits chiding protestors for being too radical and others dismissing them as not radical enough, while a third set warn that protestors’ ideological range means they’re not a “real movement” at all. Each response says more about the politics of the author than the politics underway. From Alabama to Arkansas to Iowa, there’s likely a vigil against immigrant detention within driving distance of you, and the conversations far from the microphone will be as important as the speeches on stage.

Lara Putnam and Gabriel Perez-Putnam

Lara Putnam is history professor at the University of Pittsburgh. She is active in grassroots democracy groups in southwest Pennsylvania. Gabriel Perez-Putnam does data analysis for anti-trust litigation. He has degrees in economics and engineering.