Publications SPI *Working Paper

Who Protests, What Do They Protest, and Why?


We examine individuals’ decisions to attend protests during the summer of 2020. Our analysis examines two simultaneous movements: Black Lives Matter along with protests calling for less stringent public health measures to combat the COVID-19 (e.g., for swifter reopening of businesses). Our analysis is made possible by a unique staggered panel data set that is representative of the U.S., which was initially constructed to study COVID-19 and contains a host of sociodemographic, health, and economic variables. A wave of data collected in the summer of 2020 includes explicit variables on protest attendance, political views, and support for different movements. We link this data set to several others to explore factors that could influence attendance decisions, such as local histories of police violence and time-varying infection rates. We find that protest participants are a diverse set of individuals who are representative of the U.S. population—even more so than are voters on some demographic dimensions. We also provide evidence suggesting that protesting appears to be rational, i.e., a deliberate and intentional choice to be civically engaged that is responsive to costs and issue salience; one that, for some individuals, functions as an alternative to voting. Finally, we provide novel evidence of overlap: attending a Black Lives Matter protest increases the likelihood of attending a protest calling for fewer public health restrictions. Together, our findings challenge claims by partisan pundits that protests are driven by extremists with fringe views or that the 2020 movements were diametrically opposed along partisan identity lines. The novelty of our findings suggests that protest is a form of civic engagement that can draw attention to societal preferences broadly held by a kind of silent majority, one whose views might otherwise remain obscured by dominant narratives insisting we are hopelessly polarized.


Chenoweth, E., Hamilton, B., Lee, H., Papageorge, N., Roll, S., & Zahn, M. (April, 2022). Who Protests, What Do They Protest, and Why? National Bureau of Economic Research. DOI: 10.3386/w29987