The overall number of demonstration events decreased last week in the United States compared to the week prior, though the number of demonstrations associated with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement increased following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Right-wing groups and supporters of President Donald Trump continued to clash with BLM-affiliated demonstrators in several cities. In Kenosha, three demonstrators associated with BLM were shot, and two were killed. In Portland, Oregon, a member of Patriot Prayer, a far-right group (SPLC, 31 August 2020), was shot and killed during a counter-demonstration. Meanwhile, demonstrations related to the Trump administration’s handling of the United States Postal Service (USPS) decreased, while several coronavirus-related demonstrations were reported in California and Idaho.
Nearly half of all demonstrations last week were associated with the BLM movement. These demonstrations spiked following the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a police officer responding to a call about a domestic dispute. Blake was shot seven times in the back and left paralyzed from the waist down. During the demonstrations that followed in Kenosha, Wisconsin, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed two demonstrators and injured another. Rittenhouse was reportedly responding to a “call to action” issued by the Kenosha Guard — a self-styled militia group recently founded by a former local elected official (Guardian, 26 August 2020). Members of the Boogaloo Bois were also present (Chicago Sun Times, 31 August 2020). Rittenhouse was seen among the armed groups on the day of the incident, though both groups maintain that he is not a member. Police reportedly welcomed the suspect and other armed individuals present at the demonstration prior to the shooting (Journal Times, 26 August 2020), sharing water with them and announcing over a loudspeaker, “We appreciate you guys. We really do” (USA Today, 29 August 2020). Rittenhouse was not detained at the scene after the shooting, but was arrested the following day, despite telling a friend that he killed someone (CNN, 28 August 2020). He has since been charged with homicide (Washington Post, 27 August 2020). Nevertheless, President Trump has defended Rittenhouse, blaming “left-wing political violence” for the unrest, suggesting that he was acting in self defense (HuffPost, 31 August 2020), and ‘liking’ a tweet that offered help for Rittenhouse (New York Times, 30 August 2020).
The welcome and delayed arrest of Rittenhouse is another example of police tolerating and at times collaborating with armed right-wing groups and their affiliates in recent months (HuffPost, 28 August 2020). Since the killing of George Floyd, right-wing militias have taken a more visible role in demonstrations. Events are often organized online through websites like Facebook, where the Kenosha Guard initially announced their “call to action.” The company has claimed it is taking steps to purge pages of those “inciting violence,” including groups and movements such as Antifa and QAnon (Mashable, 19 August 2020). However, the company failed to take down the Kenosha Guard’s post prior to the shooting, even though it was flagged over 400 times (Buzzfeed News, 28 August 2020).
Similar to the previous week, a confrontation between pro-Trump, pro-police demonstrators and demonstrators associated with BLM was reported last week in Portland, Oregon — though in this case the confrontation was deadly. On 29 August, a caravan demonstration of about 600 vehicles — including members from right-wing groups Patriot Prayer, Three Percenters, and Proud Boys — staged a rally in support of President Trump. BLM supporters held a counter-demonstration in the city. Trump supporters shot paintballs and pepper spray from their vehicles while counter-demonstrators burned Trump flags and lobbed rocks and other projectiles at the moving vehicles (Washington Post, 30 August 2020). Videos from the incident also show that members of the caravan drove into a crowd of counter-demonstrators (Guardian, 30 August 2020). Amidst the series of clashes, a man was shot and killed; he was later identified as a member of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer. The shooter has yet to be identified. President Trump defended the use of paintball guns by his supporters, claiming that they were using the guns to defend themselves, and has fanned conspiracy theories about the ongoing demonstrations in Portland (New York Times, 30 August 2020). Elsewhere, in Iowa City, Iowa, a car intentionally backed into and hit several protesters associated with the BLM movement. No one was injured in the incident, which occurred after the driver and passenger of a car yelled “White Power” and got into an argument with the protesters (Daily Iowan, 29 August 2020).
While demonstrations associated with the BLM movement in other parts of the country remained largely peaceful, violent demonstrations were recorded in several states, including in California. On 26 August, in Oakland, demonstrators set fire to the Alameda Superior County Courthouse (San Francisco Chronicle, 26 August). The homes of the San Jose Mayor and Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Chief were targeted and vandalized throughout the week (East Bay Times, 29 August). In San Jose, demonstrators threw objects at and spray-painted the Mayor’s house, setting a fire outside of the house as well. In Porter Ranch, demonstrators trespassed, posted signs, and broke lamps at the LAPD Chief’s house.
In Tennessee, a new law was passed last week making camping on state property, including the Capitol grounds, a felony. Since 12 June, demonstrators have camped outside the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville, protesting against police brutality and racial inequality. Since the law opens up the possibility for felony charges to be brought against demonstrators associated with the BLM movement, and Tennessee is a state where convicted felons do not have the right to vote, civil rights groups have criticized the new law as racially motivated and a form of voter suppression (Washington Post, 22 August 2020).
Meanwhile, demonstrations calling for protection for USPS jobs and services continued last week, although the number of events decreased compared to the week prior. Demonstrations organized by several groups, including the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), were reported in more than 30 states. Over 80 million Americans are expecting to cast their vote by mail in the upcoming election due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic (New York Times, 14 August 2020. President Trump has made numerous claims of widespread fraud in the vote-by-mail process and his administration has undermined the capability of the USPS to process mail-in votes ahead of the election (Washington Post, 13 August 2020). Last week, several officials from US agencies reported that they had not seen any evidence of coordinated efforts to commit widespread fraud through the vote-by-mail process. They observed that, given the nature of the varied election systems across the country, such actions were “extraordinarily difficult” (KTLA5, 26 August 2020).
Finally, multiple coronavirus-related demonstrations took place in Idaho and California last week. In Idaho, armed demonstrators objecting to measures to limit the spread of coronavirus, including mandatory mask orders, disrupted a special session of the Idaho legislature for three days in a row. The demonstrators were led by anti-government activist Ammon Bundy who has been protesting against coronavirus-related restrictions for months (KTVB7, 29 March 2020). Bundy was arrested twice within a 24-hour period on counts of trespassing (Idaho Statesman, 26 August 2020). In 2016, Bundy led the high-profile occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon to protest the federal government’s treatment of a pair of local ranchers accused of committing arson on federal land (Washington Post, 3 January 2016). In California, health workers associated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) held protests in more than 10 counties, demanding more personal protective equipment (PPE), increased staffing, and better workplace conditions.
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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