The NSPE is the first study to provide a national portrait of protest event characteristics. Given this feature, many previously unknown questions about protests can now be answered, including those related to size, demographic, and geographic distributions of protests as well as the frequency of particular causes, targets, and tactics at events.
Size is arguably the most important feature of protest events. Large protests make for "good news" and the number of participants is a key variable in the scholarship on protest. Yet until the NSPE, no nationally representative size statistics for protests were available. For the first time, then, we learn that the average event size for protests in the United States was 61 participants.
The median in the table below, however, shows that half of all protest events in the country had 15 or fewer people in attendance. Not until the 90 percentile does turnout exceed 100, and only 1% of all events featured 500 or more protesters. All in all, the majority of U.S. protests were strikingly small.
Number of Protesters at Events Falling on or Below the Specified Percentile
|Event Size||Probability of Participation|
Source: Sociological Methods and Research
The sex distribution of protest events slightly favored males. Whites far outnumbered other racial groups. For the latter, African Americans lead the way at nearly 20%. The largest age category represented at U.S. protest events was 30 to 60 year-olds.
Sidewalks and front of buildings were the two most likely places where U.S. protest events occurred. The least likely sites were inside buildings, designated free speech areas, and college/school campuses.
Forty-six percent of all protest events around the country featured a speaker. At those events, voices most frequently heard were from protest organizers, community members, religious leaders, and celebrities. Very few protests with a speech involved someone running for office.
We see that protest events across the land mobilized for a great many different causes. The most common ones focused on some aspect of the government, abortion, education, healthcare, or workers’ rights. On the other hand, U.S. protests were least likely to rally around causes related to foreign policy, death penalty, racial issues, religion, or globalization.
U.S. protests were most likely to target a branch of the domestic government. Also fairly high on the target list were a specific group of people, medical facility/organization, and business/corporation. The least likely targets were a foreign government/state, university/school, or research/scientific lab.
Carrying banners or signs, at 75%, was the clear favorite among tactics at U.S. protest events. Other common ones included distributing flyers or other materials, displaying pictures, praying, or chanting phrases. At the other end of the spectrum were disruptive actions, such as throwing objects, going on hunger strikes, or damaging property, as well as performances and cross-carrying processions.
Just over 40% of all U.S. protests featured counterdemonstrators-organized efforts to contest the main event. Police officers were in attendance at about a third of events across the country. Among protests with the presence of law enforcement, roughly a fifth involved arrests of protesters. Considering all events, the rate of these arrests falls to 7%.