Commentary  

Counting Crowds Consortium: Review of Right-Wing U.S. Protest Activity in 2022

CCC logged more than 5,700 right-wing events in 2022

In 2022, Crowd Counting Consortium recorded more than 5,700 right-wing protests, counter-protests, rallies, demonstrations, and direct actions across nearly 1,650 different U.S. cities and towns, where “right-wing” includes everything from Republican partisan rallies to demonstrations by alt-right and far-right extremists. This post summarizes a number of patterns and trends we gleaned from those events.

Overall, we saw little change in the scale, form, and themes of right-wing protest activity from 2021 to 2022, but that wide-angle view conceals significant increases in the past year in right-wing extremist activity centered on white supremacy and antipathy toward the queer community. Counts of protest events by issues raised also reveal the Christian nationalist character of right-wing activism in the U.S., the intensity of mobilization against public COVID mitigation measures, and the declining relevance of Donald Trump.

CCC makes and freely shares the data on which this analysis is based in hopes of supporting scholarship, journalism, and activism on these issues. For details on definitions and methods underlying these data, please see our coding guidelines. To access the data and documentation, please visit our GitHub repository. If you are a scholar, researcher, journalist, or activist who is interested in working with the data set and have questions about how to use it, please contact Jay Ulfelder at julfelder@hks.harvard.edu. This post is based on data recorded as of December 30, 2022, so future summaries for the same period may show slightly different values as we record new events or revise previous entries.

Counts

As noted at the start of this post, CCC logged more than 5,700 right-wing events in 2022. That’s a 23-percent increase over the roughly 4,700 we recorded in 2021.

  • While the number of events captured in our data set grew, we saw no clear shift in the scale of participation in those events. Information about crowd size was only available for about 1,500 of the 5,700 events we recorded in 2022, or 27 percent.
  • Across all events with reported crowd size or photo or video evidence of it, we saw a total of nearly 300,000 participants, give or take several tens of thousands. That’s down from nearly 400,000 in 2021, but we had information about crowd size for a larger number of events that year (about 2,200 of 4,700, or 47 percent).
  • The mean crowd size at events with data on that feature was 186, up a bit from 171 in 2021. The median crowd size was 24—the number we assign when reports say “dozens” and we lack additional information—which was down from 40 in 2021.

Many hundreds of the events for which we lack information about crowd size are flag waves, vigils, and other demonstrations that repeat weekly for long spells, or daily for some fixed period of time. Organizers typically post flyers for these events on their social media feeds or list them in their online calendars, but they generally aren’t covered by the press, and we rarely find after-the-fact images or videos of them in other sources that would allow us to estimate crowd size.

Arrests, injuries, and property damage were rare at right-wing protest events in 2022. We only saw arrests of right-wing participants at 52 events (1.0 percent); reported injuries of right-wing participants at 18 events (0.3 percent); and property damage by right-wing participants at 13 (0.2 percent). Those figures were all down from 2021, when we recorded arrests at 67 events (1.4 percent), injuries at 29 (0.6 percent), and property damage at 17 (0.4 percent). We did not observe any deaths of right-wing participants at right-wing protests in 2022, down from one rather prominent event in 2021.

Consistent with those trends, we also saw a decline in armed right-wing protests in 2022, where “armed” means that at least one participant visibly carried a firearm. Our count of those events fell from 103 (2.2 percent) in 2021 to 70 (1.2 percent) in 2022.

Themes

For decades, faith-based anti-abortion activism has served as the rhythm section of right-wing political mobilization in the United States, and that pattern held in 2022. As shown in the chart below, religion and reproductive rights were the two most common themes last year, each appearing in protester claims at more than 2,000 of the roughly 5,700 events we recorded, or over one-third. Patriotism was the third-most common theme, rounding out the trifecta that makes plain the Christian-nationalist character of much contemporary right-wing activism in the United States.

The next several bars in the chart might seem like a hodge-podge of disparate themes—civil rights, COVID, health care, and education—but in 2022 they represented a coherent cluster linked by opposition to public-health measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With slogans like “My body, my choice” and “Let them breathe” and often waving Gadsden flags, protesters railed against the “tyranny” of mask and vaccination mandates in schools and workplaces, including but not limited to hospitals, government contractors, and the military. In a small share of these events, protesters decried vaccines altogether or parroted theories about global conspiracies (Plandemic, The Great Reset) involving various nefarious elites or secret cabals (Bill Gates, George Soros, Anthony Fauci, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden).

Two of the next three most-common themes were the presidency and democracy, and a substantial share of those events are ones where speakers or protesters amplified Donald Trump’s baseless and destructive claims of fraud in the last presidential election. Some 20 of those events in 2022 featured Donald Trump himself, with an average audience of about 5,000. That count of Trump rallies was much higher than the eight we saw in 2021—including the so-called March to Save America near the U.S. Capitol on January 6th—but the average attendance was down sharply from more than 13,000 that year.

Racism also appears in the top 10, but not in a good way. Virtually all of the right-wing events associated with that theme in 2022 involved either opposition to anti-racism protests from the left (e.g., Black Lives Matter) or open assertions of white supremacy by alt-right and neo-Nazi groups like Patriot Front, White Lives Matter, and NSC-131.

LGBTQ+ rights landed just outside the top for similar reasons. As discussed in a previous blog post and shown again in the chart below, right-wing protests targeting pride events, support for LGBTQ+ students in schools, drag shows, and other queer spaces surged in 2022, especially in the second half of the year. In December 2022 alone, we recorded more than 40 anti-LGBTQ+ protests, four-fifths of them specifically targeting drag shows or drag story hours. Although these events still represented a relatively small share of right-wing protest activity overall, they were just one part of a much broader wave of reactionary vitriol directed at the queer community that has also included scores of proposed and passed state laws; dehumanizing and dangerous speech from right-wing infotainment celebrities and other conservative elites; targeted hate from prominent social media accounts; open or anonymous threats to terrorize public servants, performers, and small-business ownersbook-banning campaignsvandalismarson; and murder.

Rhetoric

We can also use a word cloud of terms from protesters’ claims to examine the content of right-wing protest activity in 2022. This past spring, CCC began using the ‘claims’ field in our data set to capture verbatim as many non-duplicate slogans and chants we see in photos and video and from, and prose about, each event as we can, along with coders’ summaries of protesters’ aims. The result is a rapidly-growing corpus of protest rhetoric that helps us represent what protests were about in participants’ own words.

The word cloud below summarizes data on nearly 2,400 words that appeared at least 10 times on right-wing protesters’ banners and placards or in their chants that we captured in 2022. There’s a lot to explore in that chart, but here are a few highlights.

  • Consistent with the bar chart we already saw of events by theme, several of the top terms here—”life”, “abortion”, “baby”—demonstrate the centrality of anti-abortion activism in right-wing protest activity. “God”, “Jesus” and “pray” also land toward the top of the distribution, underscoring the specifically religious character of much of the right’s anti-abortion activism.
  • The appearance of “white” in the top five terms demonstrates the prominence of white-nationalist and white-supremacist groups in right-wing protest activity in 2022. The single most common phrase here was “White lives matter”, but others such as “Make white babies”, “Protect white children”, and “Stop white genocide” also boosted the prevalence of this term.
  • A host of relatively prominent terms reflect the tenor of protests against public-health measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: “mandate”, “freedom”, “mask” and “unmask”, “COVID”, “vax” and “vaccine”, “breathe”, “tyranny”, and “comply”, to name a few.
  • “Trump” was more common than “Biden” in 2022, but “Brandon” was more common than both, reflecting both the decline in Trump’s prominence as a focal point of right-wing activism and the prominence of the “Let’s go, Brandon” slogan as an expression of conservative and reactionary disgust with Democrats. (See next chart for more on that.)
  • The appearance of homophobic and transphobic slurs and other malicious terms from protests targeting pride festivals, drag shows, and other queer spaces in the middle and lower tiers of words in the cloud illustrates the foregrounding of anti-LGBTQ+ claims in right-wing activism last year. Examples of this dangerous speech include: “groomer”, “grooming”, “sexualizing” (from phrases like “Stop sexualizing kids”), “pedo”, “pedophile”, and “pervert”.

We can also get a sense of the tone of right-wing protest activity in 2022 by counting the full verbatim phrases we captured. First, though, remember that we don’t record duplicate claims from single events—for example, even if we see many people at an event holding “I am the pro-life generation” signs, we only record that phrase once—and we can only record claims we see or hear in images and reporting from an event. So, these tallies should be understood as counts of the number of events at which each phrase was evident to us, rather than a fuller census of the occurrence of those phrases. What’s more, we only started recording verbatim claims in a consistent fashion in spring 2022, so phrases that appeared in the first few months of the year, when abortion and COVID mandates were central themes (see the next section), are likely to be underrepresented.

With those caveats in mind, here’s a chart of the 20 phrases we saw most often.

  • While all of the year’s major themes—abortion, COVID mandates, and structural racism—still bubble to the top, antipathy toward President Biden (“let’s go brandon”, “fuck joe biden”) also becomes clearer in this view as a common thread linking protests on a variety of themes.
  • The prevalence of Thin Blue Line flags reminds us of the right’s veneration of police, and the way that the George Floyd uprising of 2020 spurred a reactionary backlash that continues to shape right-wing activism more than two years later.
  • The appearance of “my body my choice” in the top 10 illustrates how right-wing protesters often co-opt language from liberal and left-wing human rights movements, perhaps to try to legitimize their claims to a broader audience. In this case, right-wing protesters have repurposed what’s probably the central phrase of activism around abortion access in recent decades for their own protests against COVID masking and vaccination mandates.
  • Finally, the appearance of the QAnon-linked hashtag #WeWillAllBeThere in the top 20 reminds us of that movement’s persistence as a force in right-wing mobilization beyond the Trump presidency (and beyond the U.S.).

Dynamics

In the aggregate, right-wing protest activity in 2022 presented a few temporal patterns. The chart below shows monthly counts of protest events nationwide. The two apparent spikes, in March and October, both result from periods of coordinated activity against abortion: the semi-annual 40 Days for Life vigils outside clinics across the country in the spring and fall, and, in October, the annual National Life Chain action, which, according to organizers, involved more than 600 events in the U.S. alone. The spring was also a time of relatively heavy activity against COVID mandates (including various efforts inspired by Canada’s so-called Freedom Convoy), and counts crept up again in the fall as midterm elections approached.

When we group events by political themes and extend our gaze back through 2020, we also see how right-wing activism in the U.S. over the past few years has tended to bandwagon around specific issues, then collectively swarm toward a new theme as mobilization around the old one peters out, or a new trigger occurs.

To see what I mean, take a look at the chart below.

  • In early 2020, protests against COVID mandates surged alongside the pandemic.
  • In late May 2020, right-wing activism abruptly shifted to issues of racism or policing in response to the George Floyd uprising and largely stayed there until Trump lost the presidential election, at which point the Stop the Steal movement became the right’s focal point for a few months.
  • After the failure of the January 6 insurrection, conservatives and reactionaries laid low for a few months before swarming back to COVID-related protests as schools reopened and vaccination mandates came down.
  • When that wave finally receded in early 2022, activists apparently followed the lead set by conservative infotainment leaders and state lawmakers in 2021 and shifted their energy to protests against various (often imagined or nefariously misrepresented) aspects of queer identity and sexuality.

Right-Wing Extremism

CCC also records the names of all organizations that reportedly participate in each protest event, and we can use that information to explore the ebb and flow of activism by specific groups over time. The chart at the bottom of this section shows annual counts of U.S. protest events involving one or more a handful of selected far-right groups over the past three years.

  • Of the selected groups, the Proud Boys—whose former national chairman, Enrique Tarrio, is on trial in early 2023 for charges related to his involvement in the J6 insurrection—remained the most active in 2022, with more than 150 appearances, but that count was down significantly from the 210 we saw in 2021.
  • Various state chapters of the white-supremacist group White Lives Matter were involved in nearly 110 events in 2022, up from just 25 in 2021. Almost all of these appearances were concentrated on the group’s monthly “days of action,” which typically involve demonstrations or banner drops at locations not announced in advance.
  • In New England, white-nationalist NSC-131 went from six events in 2021 to nearly 30 in 2022, including one outside a hospital in Boston. By contrast, the better-known Patriot Front held steady at just 15 appearances in 2022, many of them brief but flashy marches or demonstrations. One, a protest against a pride festival in Boise in June, ended in a mass arrest.
  • The surge in anti-trans and anti-queer rhetoric and activism from the right in 2021 and 2022 has also birthed a number of new organizations focused specifically on that theme. Two exemplars of that trend were the maliciously-named Gays Against Groomers, who organized or appeared at 24 events and blamed queer people for the mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs; and Protect Texas Kids, who appeared at 16 events, all in Texas and often alongside Proud Boys, armed militia members, and sometimes neo-Nazis. As we discussed in our September blog post on this topic and a recent Daily Kos piece described as well, these protests were regularly met with large, sometimes armed, often joyful, and often successful community defenses.

Protester/Counter-Protester Interactions

Last but not least, in cases where counter-protests occur, CCC records information about those actions as well. In the data set, a unique ID ('macroevent') links each counter-protest to its target(s), and that allows us to generate statistics summarizing the forms and consequences of those interactions.

CCC defines a counter-protest as an action that is organized, or occurs, in direct response to another action and usually (but not always) engages directly with that original action. See our coding guidelines for more details.

Of the more than 5,700 right-wing events we recorded in 2022, nearly 447 (8 percent) were counter-protests, and another 376 (7 percent) were counter-protested. In total, 822 of the right-wing events we recorded in 2022 were part of a set of protest/counter-protest interactions. In fractional terms, that’s about 14 percent, which is essentially unchanged from the 13 percent we saw in 2021.

Of the 845 protester/counter-protester interactions we recorded in 2022, at least one protester on at least one side visibly carried a firearm at 56 of them, or about 7 percent of the time—the same rate as 2021 (45 of 691, also 7 percent). Protesters were visibly armed on both sides in 12 of those 55 armed interactions in 2022, double the count of mutually armed interactions we saw in 2021 (6).

Injuries occurred on one of both sides of 49 of 845 protester/counter-protester interactions in 2022, or less than 6 percent of the time. That was down slightly from 48 of 691 (7 percent) interactions in 2021. In 2022, only 5 of those 49 cases with casualties involved injuries on both sides, compared with 18 of 48 in 2021.

In 2022, the incidence of injuries at armed protester/counter-protester interactions was about twice as high as it was at unarmed ones: 7 of 49, or 13 percent vs. 42 of 789, or 5 percent. What we can’t say from those summary statistics is which way the causal chain runs: does the presence of firearms increase the risk of violent confrontations between protesters and counter-protesters, or are protesters more likely to bring firearms to actions that present a higher risk of violence with or without the guns? Our data offer some ways to explore that question, but doing it properly would require a more complex analysis than we can undertake for this annual review, so we’ll aim to take it up in a future post or paper.

Finally, we can also report that assaults, fights, and other forms of physical scuffling which may or may not have caused injuries occurred at 106 of the 845 protester/counter-protester interactions we logged in 2022, or nearly 13 percent of the time. By comparison, we saw physical altercations at 99 of 689 protester/counter-protester interactions in 2021, or more than 14 percent of the time. In February, one person—60-year-old June Knightly—was killed and five others wounded when a right-wing counter-protester grabbed a gun from his home and shot into a group of volunteer traffic marshalls during a march for justice for Amir Locke in Portland, Oregon.

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