Note: Due to widespread nature of protests related to the killing of George Floyd, we only evaluated the 32 urban areas in the U.S. with populations of 1.5 million or more.
Protests are a regular feature of democratic society, but they can occasionally cross over from non-violent demonstrations into civil unrest. Even protests that are largely peaceful can still result in arrests, violence, police aggression, and property damage.
Our animated map above looks at the last two decades of civil unrest in the United States using lists compiled on Wikipedia.
Instances of civil unrest eventually leave the news cycle, and we rarely have the chance to examine the bigger picture or see where they fit within a nation-wide pattern.
From this map we can see that certain cities, such as St. Louis and Oakland, have been disproportionately impacted by civil unrest. As well, universities have also been hotspots for rioting, though often for much different reasons.
Looking back over two decades, we see that instances of civil unrest in the United States have fallen into roughly four categories:
- Economic and social injustice
- Sports and event related riots
- Politically motivated civil unrest
- Reaction to police actions
Let’s take a look at a prominent example in each of these categories, to get further context.
Examples of Civil Unrest, by Category
1. Economic and Social Justice
One of the most prominent examples in this category is the Occupy Wall Street movement. The protests began in September 2011 in Downtown Manhattan, and soon spread through cities throughout the world.
In 2016, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests grabbed headlines around the world as protesters faced off against armed soldiers and police with riot gear and military equipment. By the time camps were broken up the next year, hundreds of people had been arrested.
2. Sports and Event Related Riots
Between 2000 and 2010, the majority of incidents plotted on the map are related to sports and events. This includes major sporting events like the L.A. Lakers championship win in 2000, but also the University of Maryland riot of 2004, where rowdy post-game celebrations crossed over into arson and property damage.
A more recent example is the Philadelphia Eagles’ first-ever Super Bowl victory in 2018, where celebrations eventually got out of hand.
3. Politically Motivated Civil Unrest
The political divide has been growing in America for years now, but those differences more frequently resulted in confrontations and civil unrest in 2016. After the election of Donald Trump, for example, protests erupted in many cities, with riots breaking out in Portland, Oregon, and Oakland, California.
Of course, the “Bundy standoff” – an armed confrontation between supporters of cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and law enforcement over withheld grazing fees – showed that not all civil unrest takes place in America’s cities.
4. Reaction to Police Actions
Some of the biggest flashpoints seen in recent years have been in response to people who were killed by police.
In fact, more than half of the points on our map were a direct response to incidents in which a person – typically a black male – died at the hands of law enforcement officials. In previous years, the unrest that followed was typically confined to the cities where the death took place, but protests are now increasingly erupting in cities around the country.
The Situation Now
The death of George Floyd – the latest black male to be killed during an encounter with law enforcement – has had a ripple effect, spawning protests in cities around the United States and internationally.
As our map showing the history of civil unrest makes clear, excessive force from police against black citizens is nothing new. The data shows that black men have by far the highest risk of being killed in an encounter with law enforcement.
Until these systemic issues are addressed, history may not be repeat exactly, but the rhyme will sound very, very familiar.