There was a slight decline in demonstrations reported in the United States (US) last week. Largely peaceful demonstrations associated with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement continued across the country, although violent incidents were reported in some cities. In Portland, Oregon, controversy surrounding the deployment of federal agents has led to several lawsuits against the federal government. Disagreements over the mandatory wearing of masks amid the coronavirus pandemic have also prompted a political standoff in Georgia between the governor and the mayor of Atlanta, as well as dozens of demonstrations around the country.
For the eighth consecutive week, demonstrations associated with the BLM movement continued in the US, with demonstrators denouncing police violence and racial injustice. The number of BLM demonstration events, however, decreased by over 15% compared to the week prior (from 172 to 140), constituting just over 35% of the overall number of demonstration events in the country (relative to over 41% the week prior, and 77% four weeks prior). Although more than 90% of demonstrations remained peaceful last week, violence was reported in several cities, including in Portland, Oregon and Chicago, Illinois.
In Portland, where demonstrations have been taking place on a daily basis since the death of George Floyd at the end of May, violence once more escalated last week. Demonstrations in Portland have ranged from thousands of protesters affiliated with the BLM movement marching peacefully, to some rioters — not necessarily involved with the BLM movement — engaging in arson, vandalism, and looting, often at night near police and federal buildings (CNN, 20 July 2020). Last week, some demonstrations turned violent, as demonstrators lit fires, threw objects at law enforcement, and smashed the windows of a police squad car and buildings. Law enforcement, including federal agents, fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.
President Donald Trump, who has characterized the events in Portland as the actions of “anarchists and agitators” (BBC, 20 July 2020), signed an executive order on 26 June to protect monuments, memorials, and statues, allowing federal agents to be deployed without the permission of individual US states (BBC, 21 July 2020). This runs counter to the traditional Republican platform, which tends to prioritize states’ rights. Following this order, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the creation of the Protecting American Communities Task Force (PACT), comprised of federal agents from various agencies, including US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which has contributed three paramilitary-style units to the task force (Reuters, 21 July 2020); the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); the Transportation Security Administration (TSA); and the United States Coast Guard (USCG) (New York Times, 17 July 2020).
Since early July, PACT officers have been deployed to Portland, as well as to Seattle and Washington, DC. On 11 July, it was reported that a US marshal in Portland shot a demonstrator in the head with an impact round, fracturing his skull and leaving him in critical condition (OBP, 21 July 2020). The victim was reportedly standing across the street from the Hatfield federal courthouse, holding a large speaker above his head (KGW, 18 July 2020). The incident has led to a criminal investigation by the US Attorney for western Oregon (Seattle Times, 20 July 2020). Controversy involving federal agents continued when videos circulated on social media showed federal officers in camouflage getting out of an unmarked van and arresting people off the streets without explanation. Some demonstrators claim that they were targeted by federal officers for simply wearing black clothing at the site of demonstrations (OPB, 16 July 2020). Acting DHS Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli has defended the use of unmarked cars as routine, arguing that federal officers wear the same uniforms every day and demonstrators know who they are (CBS, 20 July 2020). The actions of federal law enforcement in Portland have drawn widespread criticism over the escalation of an already volatile situation, with accusations raised against the Trump administration that it is seeking political gain from ongoing tensions (CNN, 21 July 2020).
While the federal government is facing several lawsuits, including one filed by the Oregon Department of Justice over civil rights violations (OBP, 21 July 2020) — and local, state, and federal leaders continue to demand federal agents be pulled out of the city — Trump has praised the officers sent to Oregon for doing a “fantastic job” in restoring order (Oregonian, 20 July 2020). He indicated on 20 June that federal law enforcement might be sent to other cities — including to New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, and Oakland, all controlled by what he called “liberal Democrats” who are afraid to act (New York Times, 20 July 2020). The DHS is reportedly already making plans to send about 150 federal agents to Chicago (Chicago Tribune, 20 July 2020).
These plans are in response to violence that broke out in Chicago last week during a demonstration organized by groups affiliated with the BLM movement and Native American groups. Demonstrators attempted to topple a statue of Christopher Columbus and engaged in physical confrontations with the police, which reportedly led to 18 officers being injured and a dozen arrests (Block Club Chicago, July 17, 2020). Native American groups have long argued that the expeditions of Columbus to the Americas led to colonialism and to the genocide of indigenous peoples, and, as such, his memory should not be celebrated. The death of George Floyd has sparked a nationwide outcry for the removal of monuments connected to slavery and colonialism (BBC, 11 June 2020), and demonstrators have toppled a number of statues across the country in recent weeks. (For more on how ACLED tracks such incidents, see the US Crisis Monitor FAQs.)
Finally, compared to the week prior, the number of demonstration events over issues related to the coronavirus pandemic almost tripled in the US, with over 100 demonstrations reported in 32 US states. Notably, there was an increase in the number of reported demonstrations against mandatory mask-wearing. Despite health experts emphasizing that face coverings are essential to reduce the spread of COVID-19, some people have been opposing mask orders. Many of them perceive the orders as government overreach and a violation of individual freedom. Half of all US states currently have imposed state-wide mask mandates (Forbes, 16 July 2020). The issue has become particularly polarizing as the wearing of masks has been highly politicized. For months, President Trump publicly downplayed the importance of face coverings, at one point sharing a tweet that mocked former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for wearing a mask. Biden has accused Trump of “fueling a cultural opposition” to wearing masks (CNN, 26 May 2020).
Relatedly, last week, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn restrictions imposed by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms that required the wearing of masks. Kemp had passed an executive order the day before, banning municipalities from issuing mandatory mask orders (Time, 18 July 2020). As of 22 July, more than 3.9 million people have contracted COVID-19 in the US, with more than 142,000 reported deaths (CNN, 22 July 2020). President Trump, who wore a mask for the first time in public when he visited Walter Reed Medical Center on 19 June (Politico, 12 July 2020), has acknowledged in the meantime that the situation is likely to “get worse before it gets better,” finally echoing what public health officials have been voicing for some time (BBC, 22 July 2020).
Data on political violence and demonstrations in America are made available through the US Crisis Monitor, a special project launched by ACLED and the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University. For more information about the project, click here.
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