Expert Commentary

At protests that draw counter-protesters, people on the left more likely to face arrest

In analyzing 64 U.S. protests from 2017 and 2018 where counter-protesters were present and arrests were made, York University sociologist Lesley Wood finds right-leaning protesters account for 8% of total arrests while left-leaning protesters account for 81% of arrests.

Dusk falls during the pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Tyler Merbler / Flickr / Creative Commons)

As hundreds of President Donald Trump’s supporters took over the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, journalists chronicled the striking differences in how law enforcement officials treated the insurrectionists compared with how they treated racial justice protesters who marched in dozens of cities last spring and summer after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd.

News photos and video clips demonstrate those differences.

On one hand, there are pro-Trump extremists overrunning and attacking law enforcement personnel at the U.S. Capitol. The violent insurrection suspended the constitutional process of counting electoral votes certifying president-elect Joe Biden’s November general election victory. Most people involved in the attack initially were allowed to walk away, despite the destruction of federal property and a Capitol Police officer injured so severely he later died. At least four other deaths are linked to the insurrection. Federal law enforcement agencies continue to investigate the event.

On the other hand, in June, police cleared peaceful protesters away from an area outside the White House using smoke canisters, pepper balls, batons and shields so Trump could pose for photos at a neighboring church damaged during protests the night before.

Understanding that law enforcement responses may differ based on who is protesting doesn’t only rely on being there, or absorbing visceral images — it’s quantifiable.

In analyzing 64 U.S. protests from 2017 and 2018 where counter-protesters were present and arrests were made, York University sociologist Lesley Wood finds right-leaning protesters account for 8% of total arrests while left-leaning protesters account for 81% of arrests. The ideology of the remaining arrestees — 38 of them at 14 events — couldn’t be identified from news reports.

“Events with counter‐protests are more likely to be violent, and present special challenges for the police,” Wood writes, tallying 12 events where 26 right-leaning protesters were arrested and 51 events where 279 left-leaning protesters were arrested. When protesters on the right were arrested, that comes out to 2.2 right-wing arrestees per event. When protesters on the left were arrested, it’s a rate of 5.5 left-wing arrestees per event. Some arrests of right- or left-wing protesters occurred at the same event.

By drawing from news reports, Wood notes it was sometimes not possible to log precise crowd sizes, though she tells Journalist’s Resource most of the events ranged between a few dozen to a few hundred protesters and counter-protesters.

One notable exception was a May 1, 2017 immigrants’ rights march in Los Angeles that drew tens of thousands of left-leaning protesters countered by several hundred right-wing protesters. A large event spurred by right-wing groups happened later that month in New Orleans, when individuals carrying Confederate flags marched against the removal of monuments glorifying the Confederate Army, attracting roughly 700 pro- and anti-monument protesters, according to news reports.

Left-wing events in 2017 and 2018 typically drew more people than right-wing events, which “helps to explain the pattern,” according to Wood.

“There’s this conversation saying there were 316 arrests of anti-racist protestors in June and 61 at the Capitol, but that’s not just about what people are doing,” Wood says, explaining that the number of arrests at a protest does not necessarily reflect how many people were breaking laws or committing violence.

“That’s about how police are responding,” she says. “If you are looking at arrest level as a representation of what people are doing, it’s going to be a false measure. Arrests for drug use are totally racialized. Arrests for all sorts of crimes are racialized. It’s not because people of color are doing more crimes. It’s because police are or aren’t enforcing.”

Wood defines ideologically left protests in 2017 and 2018 as those with pro-choice, pro-gun control or anti-racist themes. She defines ideologically right protests as those with pro-life, pro-free speech and anti-gun control themes. Counter-protesters are those who show up opposing the original protesters. Wood excluded protests where protesters or counter-protesters used civil disobedience intending to get arrested.

In one example Wood documents in the paper — “Policing Counter‐Protest,” published September 2020 in Sociology Compass — a right-wing organization held a “Freedom March Against Left Wing Violence” on Aug. 6, 2017 in Portland, Oregon. Roughly 150 right-wing protesters were there, countered by a similar number of left-wing protesters.

A few violent confrontations ensued.

Police arrested one right-wing individual and two left-wing individuals, according to Wood’s count.

Race, gender, goals and power

The authors of another analysis, from April 2012 in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, looked at roughly 16,000 U.S. protests from 1960 to 1995, finding that “events initiated by African Americans remain a positive and robust predictor of the use of force, as do protests that target the government.”

Wood points to four differences between the Jan. 6 siege and recent racial justice protests to explain why police responses differed:

  • The first is about race and gender. The “whiteness and maleness of the Trump supporters protected them from being seen as a dangerous threat by elites, including intelligence and police decision-makers, in contrast to racial justice protesters,” Wood explains.
  • The second difference is in how the movements are organized, with members of pro-Trump groups sometimes including past and current members of law enforcement agencies. Several off-duty police officers have been identified as attending pro-Trump demonstrations in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6. “Even as they confronted the police, this group held Blue Lives Matter flags, presenting themselves as ‘law and order,’” according to Wood. “This is, of course, very different to the racial justice protests,” which called for greater police accountability and reforms.
  • The third has to do with tactics and goals. Both movements have members that destroy property, but armed individuals are more visible during pro-Trump demonstrations, “making them that much more dangerous,” Wood explains. While racial justice protesters seek to end white supremacy, the pro-Trump supporters on Jan. 6 posed a direct threat to the functioning of the U.S. government, Wood notes.
  • The fourth difference is power: “Black Lives Matter is much more a movement of people excluded from power on a wide range of levels, especially race and their relationship to policing and people in power in the Trump administration,” Wood says. On Jan. 6, there were “a group of people who see themselves very much affiliated with the president. That’s significant and that’s important. It explains why things unfold the way they do.”

Journalists’ words matter

News organizations scrambling to cover the siege on the U.S. Capitol have characterized insurrectionists as a “mob” or even “terrorists” — language Wood advises against using.

The Associated Press, whose style JR follows, is using the words “insurrection” and “riot” to describe the events at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

“I’m concerned that there’s an emphasis on the exceptional nature of this, that this is terrorism, or this is something that’s never happened before,” Wood says. “When we start to do that, we stop being able to understand this as part of a larger pattern in history. We don’t have to go back that far. We have Michigan militias going into their Capitol building not that long ago.”

As Jerry Watson, assistant professor of social work at the University of Memphis, told JR in June following the police killing of Floyd: “There has always been a progression of events or a multitude of events that have been happening over a long period of time.” In other words, an incendiary event that draws news media attention often is simply the latest in a series of events that went largely undocumented or ignored.

“To talk about the tactics rather than the actual people is usually better,” Wood adds. “Did they smash windows? Yeah. Did they assault police? Yeah. Are they terrorists? Maybe. I think differentiating out the actor and the action will help us have a clearer analysis of what’s going on.”

About The Author